How are schools supporting pupil wellbeing in boarding environments?

Heads of boarding and pastoral care in independent schools share their experiences and tips with John Dabell

Unsurprisingly, parents want to send their children to a boarding school with a gold standard in pastoral support where they will be cared for, where individuals matter, where each child is known and where children feel that they can talk to the teachers.

Schools that put pastoral care at the top of their agenda are inclusive communities that are committed to children’s mental health, wellbeing and broader personal development. They cultivate an environment and culture that supports the physical, social, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development of every student.

Quality pastoral care is fully integrated throughout the teaching, learning and assessment of a school and embedded in the school’s ethos, culture and DNA so that children’s needs and interests come first.

It focuses on the whole student (personal, social and academic) and actively involves the whole-school community in nurturing and supporting self-efficacy, healthy risk-taking, negotiation, reflection and empowerment. This involves building positive self-esteem, emotional intelligence, identity and goal-setting so that each individual can fulfil their own potential.

It is extremely important for schools to create an atmosphere in which young people can feel secure and achieve, especially as the success of a school’s pastoral care provision is linked to optimal learning and development outcomes.

DLD College’s Wellbeing Centre is at the heart of the college

What is pastoral care?

Pastoral care is a complex mix of proactive, preventative and reactive elements such as developing resilience, independence and teamwork as well as providing protection, comfort and encouragement.

It blends counselling, peer support and mentoring in a welfare network with activities, experiences and educational processes that fuel growth, build relationships and a sense of belonging.

But pastoral care can mean different things to different schools.

Here we share four views of pastoral care and how wellbeing is supported in a boarding setting.

Who’s who

Chris Forrest is a trainer at CPOMS

James Callow is deputy head (pastoral) and head of boarding at All Hallows Preparatory School

Clare Rowntree is head of boarding at Forres Sandle Manor

Tom Hadcroft is vice-principal (pastoral) and designated safeguarding lead at DLD College London

Q. What does pastoral care mean to you and your school/organisation?

Chris Forrest: To me, pastoral care means monitoring and helping with anything that may impact the physical or emotional health and development of a person. It focuses on how the seemingly smaller aspects of a person’s life come together like pieces of a jigsaw. Pastoral care involves recognising when a student may need help and putting an appropriate plan into action based on their needs.

James Callow: It is no secret that a happy child learns well and so at All Hallows we take a 360° approach to education. Our focus is truly child-centred in the belief that the different aspects of a child’s life are mutually reinforcing, and we simultaneously develop the whole child emotionally, creatively, intellectually, socially and spiritually.

At grassroots level, this means that whilst all staff are always looking out for all children, each child has a tutor and, if boarding, a houseparent they can talk to at any time. Supporting the tutors and houseparents are academic heads of section, a deputy head with a specific responsibility for pastoral care, as well as the team of residential staff which is the boarding family.

Our team of safeguarding staff are, of course, also on hand to lend an ear whenever required.

Staff regularly get together for ‘whole child’ meetings which involve discussing every aspect of a child’s life, sharing information and strategies to ensure we are supporting each and every child in the best possible way.

Time to chill out and time to catch up with family on the phone or by video call is essential to our boarders’ wellbeing

Clare Rowntree: At Forres Sandle Manor, we place pastoral care at the heart of everything we do.

We have a cohesive network of staff working together in partnership with parents. This goes all the way from our mentor and tutor system in the school day, to our house parents and matrons in the boarding house. We place a lot of focus on nurturing and the needs of the individual. We encourage the child’s mental, physical and social wellbeing and development.

In the boarding house, the key for us as staff is to know our children, almost better than they know themselves, and to try pre-empting situations that may unsettle them. What may be of great concern to one child may be of less importance to another and therefore understanding the individual needs of children in our care is of paramount importance.

Tom Hadcroft: If you draw on the definitions of the word ‘pastoral’ there is an essence throughout all of them of the role of a shepherd, guiding and caring for those under their responsibility. It is the key qualities of care and guidance that are the central components to great pastoral care in schools, the willingness of the provider to understand how each student functions and how to provide the best support to them.

Pastoral care can come in many different guises, with flamboyant and attention-grabbing headlines not always providing the best examples. Time and patience are key factors and a willingness to meet the student on their terms, whilst retaining high standards. There are many connections with the best coaches and the qualities they possess in drawing out a sense of strength from the individual and unlocking their potential.

At DLD College London, pastoral care is a priority for all staff, from the cleaner to the principal. Any member of staff who has contact with the students is responsible for their wellbeing. We are training all staff in the Mental Health First Aid qualification in order to improve a sense of involvement and this year have embarked on developing staff as coaches using the Graydin model.

We are embedding a coaching culture to empower the students and provide mechanisms to endeavour for the best possible pastoral care, providing the best possible conditions for the young people to thrive and allowing them to take ownership.

All Hallows balances organised activity and downtime for relaxtion

Q. What practical steps are you taking to support pupil wellbeing in boarding?

CF: Boarding schools take several effective measures to support the wellbeing of students that often start with their own staff. Diligent recruitment and training for existing staff work well in forming good pastoral practices. Aside from assuring those are in place and being communicated smoothly, effective boarding environments from a pastoral perspective are ones that give pupils chances to speak.

Children in a boarding setting have less of the incidental opportunity to speak with the adult world than the normative experience of a child living full time at home, which may mean they have less chance to speak about those things which concern them. Boarding environments that catch smaller pastoral concerns before they turn into larger, more serious issues, give these chances.

JC: In the boarding community, finding the right balance between organised activity and downtime for relaxation and fun in the company of friends is key. Prep school life is filled with a myriad of opportunities and the days are jam-packed with lessons inside and outside the classroom, extra-curricular activities and prep. For those boarding, the days can be full-on from the time they get up to the time they go to bed, with no daily commute to school to take some time out.

Time to chill out and time to catch up with family on the phone or by video call is essential to our boarders’ wellbeing. An important component contributing to wellbeing is the ability to be resilient and this is something we aim to engender in our children both in the classroom and all other areas of school life. 

By this we mean a willingness to seek alternative ways of doing things when one comes up against an obstacle and persist when it might be easier to give up.

It is also important to have a sense of humour and recognise that everyone stumbles, but what matters is learning to deal positively with any feedback.

Happiness and wellbeing truly lie at the heart of every decision we make and as a result, our children are secure in the knowledge that it is OK to be themselves and to take risks. It is a formula which is proving extremely successful with children regularly achieving above and beyond expectations.

Effective boarding environments from a pastoral perspective are ones that give pupils chances to speak

CR: It goes without saying that we provide a ‘home from home’ but it is being there for the boarders, to celebrate their successes as well as helping them through the difficult moments too that makes the difference. We are a family at FSM with the majority of staff working in the boarding house either during the week or at weekends. This means that, along with our house parents, matrons and Graduate Support Assistants (GSAs) who all live on site, there are always lots of staff in the house and there’s always someone to talk to.

It’s lovely having the GSAs who offer a younger perspective for the young boarders to listen to and look up to. We have pupils from military families, and as such run FSM’s Supporting Active Service (SAS) group. This provides additional support for children when one or more parent is deployed on active service and takes the form of weekly sessions, sharing thoughts and feelings with other boarders in the same situation. We also explore different coping mechanisms to help the time pass a little quicker. 

Our range of activities during the week, ‘Wicked Wednesdays’ and ‘Free Time Fridays’, as well as the weekend programme provides a range of physical, mental and creative activities to fully nurture each child’s interests and to allow them to explore activities they may not have previously considered. We give our boarders time and space to play, to be children and to develop friendships with others, many of which, experience tells us, will last a lifetime. 

TH: Boarding allows students to discover their strengths and weaknesses in a secure and supportive atmosphere. For many, it may be the first time that they have lived away from home and the change can be difficult, though through routines, supportive structures and connections they discover the inner confidence to thrive.

Wellbeing is a central component to DLD College London, with the Wellbeing Centre at the heart of the college, and we believe that by using proactive measures students can work on areas of need before they reach crisis point.

We use tools such as AS Tracking, in conjunction with expertise from our head of wellbeing, college counsellor, life coach and student liaison officer to target students and provide action plans to support them. Through the huddle houseparents and boarding staff, there are a number of pastoral leads to action the supportive measures and ensure that the boarding environment creates the launchpad to ready the students for the next stage in their lives.

Boarding can provide the right environment to work through the obstacles that may be impairing progress and ensure the students grasp the opportunities available to them.

All Hallows is located in Somerset

Home from home

While looking after boarding pupils’ wellbeing can seem an overwhelming job, a lot of the practical steps are small, but effective. The freedom to speak. The chance to video-call family. It can make a big impact and could help to reduce the number of mental health issues found in young people.

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