Boarding makes the difference: a girls-only perspective
– Rhiannon Wilkinson, Headmistress of Wycombe Abbey
Many people may still think of boarding schools as intimidating places with harsh regimes and cold showers but the reality of modern boarding could not be more different. Today, boarding schools offer an unrivalled lifestyle and a ready-made community enabling young people to feel supported, explore their talents and develop deep friendships.
We all know that humans are social beings. We need to feel connected to other people in order to feel happy and secure and to lead a flourishing life. Communities play a crucial part in allowing a person to give and receive support and interact positively with others. Girls in particular, we know, thrive when they are emotionally connected to others.
Boarding naturally and deeply develops pupils’ social skills. Community living teaches a great deal about tolerance, being sensitive to other people’s needs, and the importance of compromise. At my own school pupils care deeply for one another and there is no evidence of the ruthless competition which can sometimes be seen among youngsters at similarly high achieving day schools. We know that girls can be very competitive, comparing their achievements to others and wanting to outdo each other and to be ‘perfect’. Being in a boarding environment really does help with this as pupils live and work so closely together that they genuinely want to help and support one another. Girls form lifelong friendships at boarding school. Having lived in close proximity with each other for many years, sharing one another’s highs and lows, deep personal connections are inevitably made. Most girls who leave my own school retain friends for life.
House ‘mothers’ and ‘daughters’
The girls are also in positions where they are looking out for younger girls – in my own school every girl is a ‘house mother’ and is responsible for helping her ‘daughter’ to settle in and find her feet. Houses often have their family trees on display, showing the connections between girls in the house such as who is the ‘house great grandmother’ of a younger girl. Girls are proud of these connections and are quick to tell you who is their ‘mother’. We also have senior girls responsible for small year groups of girls in house and in school generally. These leaders receive training and know when to flag up an issue to an adult. Pupils have a lot of people looking out for them and taking an interest in their wellbeing.
A girls-only environment also offers some relief from the highly sexualised world in which teenage girls live today. Girls’ schools like ours offer a liberating environment where girls can remain girls for longer and become comfortable with their own identities and aspirations without feeling the pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. We focus on girl-centred education, which enables us to implement educational strategies to suit girls of all interests and talents. Such an appropriately focused education produces confident young women who go on to do marvellous things with their lives and are more than ready to hold their own in the outside world. Medicine, Engineering and Law are among the most popular university courses chosen by leavers. At Wycombe Abbey usually a third of the Upper Sixth year group will receive Oxbridge offers.
Of course, a single-sex education does not mean a single-sex life and socialising with boys is also very important. At Wycombe Abbey there are frequent socials with local boys’ schools including Eton, Radley, Harrow and the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe. They meet for dinner, dancing, a joint management conference, interview exchanges, and academic forums. They therefore get to know a particularly varied group of boys and very wide friendships groups are widened.
Today’s pastoral care in boarding schools is second to none. Pastoral staff are well trained specialists and for many of the staff their key role is to oversee and monitor a pupil’s wellbeing and champion her interests to ensure she is happy and progressing well. They are usually in close contact with parents and they work in partnership with them. Inspectors frequently extol the high standards of pastoral care they find in boarding schools. Pastoral care is truly at the heart of modern boarding schools.
Preparing girls for adult life
Boarding schools are joyfully busy places and young people engage in many different and varied activities in a day. The phenomenal day-long co-curricular life of my own school, and many boarding schools, ensures that there are opportunities in sport, drama, music, art as well as many societies (led by pupils themselves) and other enrichment activities. The sheer choice available far exceeds that which is possible in life outside of a boarding environment. Pupils learn early in life how to transition between the pursuits they enjoy and to take a holistic approach to their learning, to manage a lifestyle where different aspects of their life overlap. Girls at my own school are experts at finding the gaps in their daily schedules and filling them with the things they love such as a street dance practice, film-making, running a society, or even having a ‘spa afternoon’ at the weekend. This is all invaluable preparation for managing a busy and rewarding life as an adult.
Girls can accomplish much more at a boarding school than they would if they were commuting to school or to after-school or weekend activities when so much time is lost in travelling. In a world where families and parents are much busier working longer hours, it is not always easy to provide children with the opportunities and support they need. Boarding schools stand out and can do this as they offer 24/7 wrap-around care. Boarding offers a breadth and depth of education in its truest sense which is simply not possible in day schools. Boarding really does make the difference.
Rhiannon Wilkinson was appointed Headmistress of Wycombe Abbey in 2013. She read History at Oxford and has also completed an MEd in Educational Leadership and Management at Manchester University. She has worked in the maintained, international and independent sectors. Prior to Wycombe Abbey, she was Principal of Harrogate Ladies’ College. Rhiannon is married to Donald Wilkinson, also a Headmaster.