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Golden years

Editor Stephanie Broad got an insight into the world of boarding at BSA's Deputies and Heads of Boarding conference

Posted by Stephanie Broad | February 03, 2016 | Events

The Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) celebrates its Golden Jubilee this year, having first met at Keble College, Oxford in 1965. The theme of 2016’s conference was ‘Good, Better, Best’, celebrating what works well in the boarding world and offering inspiration and best practice for the future – all in the wonderful setting of the Grand Hotel, Brighton. 

Robin Fletcher opened the conference by evaluating the current landscape of boarding schools. In a changing education sector, Robin says “we can speak up for our sector,” highlighting the constant effort of schools to work against stereotypes and political ideology. He referenced a recent EastEnders storyline in which boarding schools are portrayed in an unflattering way, which sends a clear message: we need to keep boarding in the news, but in a positive way.

The huge amount of support that BSA offers its members is a clear indicator of how far boarding has come in its 50 years of operation. The jubilee year sees an abundance of events and initiatives to celebrate the excellent work boarding schools do today: including awards, competitions and the inaugural National Boarding Week. There’s an ever-growing professional development provision, too – Robin announces that BSA are exploring a Masters in Boarding. 

Tony Little, BSA’s Honorary President for the year, says in their Golden Jubilee magazine: “For all Mr Wilson’s 1960s rhetoric about the ‘white heat’ of change there was little evidence of that in boarding schools then.

“Spartan fixtures and fittings, large dormitories, inadequate heating, poor food and pastoral care in the hands of prefects were common attributes.

“Fast forward 50 years and what a difference: comfortable rooms, central heating, abundant food and wraparound 24/7 pastoral care from boarding professionals. And that doesn’t even consider the access today’s boarders have to first-class facilities and broad co-curricular programmes.”

There’s an app for that

First on the agenda is Michael Carr-Gregg from Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, on how technology can be used to enhance the wellbeing of boarders. An experienced psychologist, Michael reminded delegates of mental health research that shows 10 per cent of boarders aged five to 16 have a diagnosable mental health issue. The number of UK young people suffering has doubled since 2000, Michael says, while NHS services are cut – so what can boarding schools do in terms of pastoral care? 

As Anthony Seldon said, children learn better when happy and calm. Technology presents a huge opportunity for schools, especially when there are now more mobile phones in the world than people. Michael recognised the potential of using apps to monitor and improve pupils’ wellbeing, providing real-time assessment and treatment. He demonstrates apps such as Smiling Mind, a mindfulness programme developed by psychologists in Australia and available for free on the App Store. 

Apps can help with sleep, diet, exercise, mindfulness and more, allowing schools to create a strategy for wellbeing in its boarders. “What about boarders that suffer from anxiety? Is there an app for that? You bet,” says Michael. 

L-R: Michael Carr-Gregg, Rhiannon Wilkinson and Andy Salmon, who presented the Thinkalink website for helping students with spelling by making links

Character building

Character development is an important tool to allow students to flourish at school and beyond. But with so much learning theory out there, how can teachers identify the strengths they want to develop in their students? Andrew Wood, Head of Science at Steyning Grammar School (SGS) says some schools use a traffic light approach to progress measurement, but literacy and numeracy issues as well as other special educational needs can present a barrier to this model of progress. As a result, SGS changed their success criteria based on eight character strengths inspired by the work of Dr Angela Duckworth and other academics.

The eight characteristics are:

  • Curiosity
  • Zest
  • Gratitude
  • Grit
  • Growth mindset
  • Self control with learning
  • Understanding others
  • Self control with others

Using this model, pupils are evaluated on the eight characteristics at the beginning and end of each academic year, and the school measures how these strengths correlate with their exam performance. The approach is underpinned by a wealth of research and Andrew is keen for more schools to take this broader view of pupil progress.

Leading the way

A highlight of the day was Rhiannon Wilkinson’s insight into becoming a leading headteacher. As head of Wycombe Abbey School with a experience in the UK and abroad, Rhiannon had some top advice for deputies looking to make the move into headship. Firstly, leadership means guiding, persuading and taking someone somewhere, so the school’s vision must reflect your own values, said Rhiannon. To be a great headteacher, one needs coherent values, a sense of direction, passion and knowledge, and a personal authority. Her top tip? Don’t say “In my last school…”

Potential headteachers should have a good working knowledge of the essentials of running the school – including curriculum, HR and law, the buildings, fundraising and health and safety to name a few. But the human qualities are just as important – Rhiannon advised delegates to offer lots of kindess, humility and thanks, but not to expect anything in return. A thankless task? Not so, she says: no-one can run a school alone and headship should be an enjoyable team effort. But don’t forget, despite getting along with and supporting colleagues, don’t forget you’re in charge: “You hire and fire and the buck stops with you.”

Learning from each other 

As if that wasn’t enough expert advice to take away from the conference, we were lucky to observe a breakout session with Tania Davidson, Director of Boarding at The Wellington Academy. Wellington’s boarding house opened in 2009 with nine students, and now capacity is 100. Their Ofsted report has gone from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good with outstanding pastoral care’ in a year, and Tania credits their ‘Golden Nugget’ initiative with its success. 

Once a term, Wellington’s boarding staff visit another school and bring back one observation or idea that can be used to improve their own houses. This collaborative approach to sharing best practice is called the Golden Nugget and delegates soon paired off to discuss their own ‘nuggets’ as well as what they would like to learn from others. 

After a day of learning and sharing ideas, I came away truly inspired by the dedication of boarding school staff. Here’s to the next 50 years. 

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