The case for continuity
– Mark Turnbull, Headmaster of Giggleswick School
An ability to adapt to change is something we all recognise as an important skill in the modern workplace. In an age when technology allows ‘trends’ the briefest of lives before extinguishing them, and where almost all teenagers seem to be in near constant contact with peers beyond their immediate presence, it has been argued that the connectivity of modern culture and its constant flux makes young adults practised at coping with change.
Service parents are well aware of the importance of being able to adapt to change. I have marvelled at the tales of service mums who tell of the number of moves they have had to accommodate. They are adept at packing up homes and friendships and moving them significant distances to start again. They live in a world where change is expected and where people are highly skilled at adapting to it; a world from which today's school children can learn much.
But before we go too far down this road, we can all also recognise that children learn best when they are happy, and a crucial ingredient in happiness is stability and the assurance it provides. Learning to cope with change needs to be done sensitively and, although the majority of children will have to change school at some point, repeated changes of school can sometimes hinder academic and skills progress and the formation of the deep supportive relationships that we all value.
What’s important to children
Headmasters spend a good deal of time seeing prospective parents with their children and they will all make a point of trying to ensure everyone can see the visit from the child's perspective. While children will acknowledge the importance of success in exams, the reality for them when entering a school is the much more immediate concern about the day-to-day. How to manage workloads, when to practise, what are the routines, who gets into teams, what about food or friendships; these are all far more important to them and their short-term happiness. If we can limit the disruption to these foundations of school life, we can then create the opportunity to focus much more upon learning and achievement.
I have to confess that despite having boarded at school myself, and having been a passionate advocate of the benefits of boarding throughout my teaching career, I was surprised to find myself reluctant to send my own children to board. I just wanted them with me where I could see them grow and develop and we could share the love of family life. And then we moved, and one of our children decided he wanted to stay where he was and take up a boarding place at his school. What a revelation it was to me to see how my own child thrived in a boarding environment. Not only was he the one member of the family who didn't have to deal with the emotional and administrative challenges of joining a new school (don't underestimate the latter), he also loved the boarding experience. There are many arguments that create a good case for modern boarding but the two which are the most convincing to me are the opportunity to get so much more out of the school day, both academically and co-circularly, and the social benefits. Being among like-minded teenagers face-to-face, rather than at home interfacing, creates much happier children.
Then there are the benefits to parents. Whatever the trials of military life, whatever the dangers and the challenges it presents, it is reassuring to know that at the end of the phone or on email, will be boarding staff who really know your child. They know them because they have spent time with them. They will have seen them learn, play and interact and they will see and feel, in some ways better than parents, how the child is responding.
Pastoral care is often illustrated through a triangle with parents, houseparent and child at each corner. The axes are the relationships along which communication occurs. If all sides are openly talking, you will have effective and caring support for the child. Ask yourself how much more likely it is for this to occur if you know and trust the houseparent as a result of building relationship over time. There is a strong case for continuity in pastoral care.
Equally strong arguments exist for ensuring a child stays with teaching staff and coaches that know them well. We are all becoming more conscious of different styles of learning and how our own children respond in particular ways to distinctive approaches. Good teachers will quickly recognise how your child responds and will learn to adapt their approach in order to ensure that they meet the needs of the child. Of course, it is necessary for your child to be taught by different teachers as they move through a school and sometimes it is also desirable for your child to have a new teacher, but the knowledge of how your child learns can still be more effectively passed on within a school to ensure that they achieve the best possible outcome.
So if your child has to move schools there can be some great benefits that can arise, provided they are given the right level of support to navigate the change. However if this starts to happen too much they may well say that they want to stay in a particular place and it is at this point that the benefits of boarding really start to shine through.
Look at boarding schools that really are boarding and not just day schools with a few boarders. In these you will find dedicated staff who understand the importance of contributing to a community that values each individual and who have the time to properly get to know the children. Such knowledge and care will be just as reassuring to you, the parent on the end of an email, as it will be to your child having a fantastic time boarding.
Mark Turnbull became Headmaster of Giggleswick in 2014. Educated at Marlborough College, he read geography at the University of Liverpool and holds a Masters degree from the University of London. Having begun a career in banking, his first teaching post was at Sevenoaks School where he taught the IB and held a number of posts including Housemaster and Head of Boarding. He was deputy Head of Eastbourne College for six years before returning to his native Yorkshire.