So you think you’d like to work in boarding?

Posted: 26th May 2022

Key Considerations for Working in a Boarding School Happily Ever After.

First published in 2014 by Hilary Moriarty, Updated 2022, by Mark Robinson BSA Senior Consultant

  1. Be clear about why you want to do it.

It is not good enough to want to work in boarding because a boarding school has even longer holidays than most state schools. There’s a reason for that: a lot of them teach on Saturday morning and hold serious sports sessions on Saturday afternoon. Those days add to the calendar and bring a boarding school in with a longer, albeit compressed, teaching year.

It is not good enough to want to be a member of the boarding staff because they get free/nearly free accommodation, and you can therefore move into school accommodation and make a fortune from letting out your own family home. Very often the accommodation is – quite rightly – bang up against the students’ accommodation, and you may find noise filters through in both directions, which might be embarrassing.

Sometimes, particularly in older schools, the accommodation can only be reached by passing through student accommodation – usually not bedroom corridors, but living and social rooms are not uncommon en-route from imposing front door to snug staff flat on the second floor. If this is the  case, you may have constant problems with friends and relatives who would like to come and see you or stay during term time. Big worry for the safeguarding of children and the school’s certainty that no one on site – even old university mates of yours – will pose a threat to the safety of the children for whom they are responsible.

Worst of all with school accommodation, which may be great enough when you can open the door and tell your young charges to keep the noise down when it gets a bit late on a Saturday, is the impact on you in your own fair home if the school lets out its boarding premises for the holidays, and the staff who come with the new occupants are not half as sensitive as you are and really do not mind if there is an element of running riot. I have known boarding staff depart for the whole holiday because of a summer letting – you may need a bolt-hole.

Good reasons to want to do it:

  • You really like children
  • You relish the chance of more involvement with pastoral care than would be needed in a day school where, whatever their problems, they all go home at 3.30
  • You have an interest in, and wish to develop your skills in, counselling and pastoral support of children
  • You wish to extend your range of experience so that your hand is stronger for future applications, which can then include senior positions in schools with boarding .
  • You are interested in headship – a successful spell in boarding will add an extra dimension to your CV
  1. Find the right place to do it

Boarding schools are probably even more individual than day schools, and we know how many and varied they can be. There are large schools with small boarding operations, and boarding schools with no day pupils at all. There are single sex and co-ed, and prep schools and senior schools, and the configuration of boarding is likely to differ also. Mostly, boarders are divided into ‘Houses’ which means a single building shared by pupils of all ages, with the senior pupils having lots of opportunities for leadership and mentoring of younger pupils, and ideally, keeping a watchful eye on younger pupils almost on behalf of the staff.

It’s a system which once produced the vicious system of fagging and other bullying practices, now stamped out by the National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools. In its modern incarnation, it really does give opportunities for a close family feel within the house, and for youngsters to feel an identity within the bigger reality of their whole school, and senior pupils can experience leadership roles responsibly.

In other schools, students are stratified by year – less common these days, and if the school you are interested in would expect you to deal with one Year 9 after another for several years, you might find that a bit wearing. At least a mixed age house gives you small numbers of each year.

A further division can occur for sixth formers, increasingly housed in separate accommodation, often in single study bedrooms, often nowadays with en suite facilities. Numbers of boarders rise in sixth forms, and schools are responding to this growth. How independent such students are, and therefore how easy or how ‘hands -on’ your job might be could vary widely. Head of Sixth Form Boarding can sometimes be viewed as a doddle – the kids are grown up, they are less likely to be home sick. What could possibly go wrong- you could be watching boxed sets all evening! But there are more likely to be incidents of sex, drugs and rock and roll in these years – and in a way, that’s the up-side. More worrying, and more difficult to spot or to manage well, is the possibility of depression or serious mental ill health in two years which combine increased academic pressure with problems of identity and social standing, in an electronic world of infinite possibility and infinite risk.

And layered over all of the above is the probability that your boarding school will have both boys and girls: how is co-ed boarding organised, how does the school support your job with its policies and practices, and even with its bricks and mortar, and with the level of staff it has available at any one time?

  1. Find the right place to do it – Part 2

Schools are micro-climates. Never mind the boarding for a minute, what about the school? Will it suit you and your interests and your style of teaching, if teaching is to be part of your role in the school? Is it selective and if it is, would you want to teach its very brightest students, and how demanding would that be? Marking serious, lengthy work until midnight may not be so easy when you are on boarding duty. If it’s non-selective, would you miss the highest fliers? Or are you happy to make great results possible for a mixed range of students academically?

How does the school value sport or the arts? Can you participate in school productions? Or will they  expect all house staff to be great sportsmen because sport is what really matters, and you’ll be supervising badminton, basketball, volleyball and swimming as well as hockey with the Thirds?

It’s never been easier to check out a school’s record – ISI and Ofsted reports for education and boarding are publicly available. But check out the league tables also – and do it over a couple of years – is the school rising or not? Is it doing well at A level but not GCSE? Does it do IB? And how well up on that are you?

Do not forget that the UK currently has around 37 state boarding schools – and rising. In these, parents pay for boarding, but education is free because it is a state school. A major difference will be that class sizes are likely to be much the same as in any state school, and therefore larger than those in independent schools. Of the state boarding schools, approximately 25% are grammar schools, and therefore selective on entry, the rest are comprehensive and many of both are now academies. They too can be very different from each other – there are about 4 schools with large numbers of boarders (up to 600 in Wymondham College) but most are schools of reasonable size – about 1,000 pupils – with small boarding houses for perhaps 60 – 120 pupils.

  1. Become qualified

The National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools have set in stone the right of anyone working in boarding to a proper induction upon arrival, and to continuous professional development thereafter. If you have had no training before applying, ask if it’s possible before appointment, and if not, as soon as possible thereafter.

BSA provides an on-line course to cover the most basic information someone new to boarding should absorb. Thereafter, it offers a wide range of day seminars a year on various topics of interest to boarding staff, from working better with international students to how best to deal with cyber bullying, from homesickness to bereavement. But if you are serious about working in boarding, you should be asking your school to finance you through the BSA’s Certificate in Boarding Education. It takes two years, each involving 4 days of attendance at study days and a 3 – 4,000 word piece of work reflecting upon or recounting research into a topic of interest to the students in their particular boarding circumstances. This is the gold standard for training, increasingly demanded by schools making senior appointments in boarding staff. And if you have the Certificate and experience, and you seek a more senior post, the BSA Diploma in Leading Boarding, with strict entry requirements, is the next step.

  1. Consider training as a counsellor

If you are really interested in boarding, you are probably interested in pastoral care already, and therefore in counselling. It is a skill which is invaluable in the boarding house, where small changes in behaviour may signal problems to come, but someone has to be alert to them, to notice, to be proactive and to know how to help.

All schools will have access to a counsellor these days, though their mechanisms for getting a pupil to a counsellor may differ. And boarding schools are required to have available to students an ‘independent listener’, known to the pupils and with numbers or contact details prominently displayed. So the intention to make it easy for a student in some kind of trouble to reach help, possibly without going to members of staff he or she might know, is clearly there. But a member of boarding staff who does have the trained skills of a counsellor or training through the BSA, is likely to be more confident, more observant, more proactive and quite simply more useful to individual students and to the whole boarding community. If you do not have any training, talk your school’s CPD organiser to see what’s possible. Working in boarding is no longer a job for a well-meaning amateur, but all the skills of an academic degree may be of little use when you are faced with a weeping child, reluctant to talk. Brisk and business like should still be in your armoury, but better awareness of the whole science of well-being would help.

  1. Become familiar with the NMS

The National Minimum Standards are worth knowing. There are now only 20 – down from the original incarnation in 2002 of 52 standards broken down further into 294 bullet points, each one a pointer to excellence in boarding. The new 20 (updated in 2022)  are far less prescriptive, and give schools considerable room for manoeuvre, but that only increases the responsibility schools have to ensure they do not fall below these standards, whatever financial or other incentive there may be to cut

corners or reduce the high standards pupils, parents, the government and the press now expect of boarding schools.

An independent boarding school will be inspected for both education and boarding. If all is well, a school can expect an education inspection on a regular basis. Remember that the annual publication of results gives the whole world a rough idea of how any school is faring academically. But boarding is a closed world, with no annual results to report. Therefore the government has decreed – partly in response to requests from children themselves – that boarding will be inspected every 3 years. In independent schools, it is called an interim inspection and the inspectors will make a statement about each of the 20 standards – yes or no, pass or fail. It is obviously hugely important to pass – for the pupils now and for the school’s reputation going forward. It is worth your while to know these standards. It would be very impressive at interview, it would make you a more useful member of staff, and it puts you in the front line to make sure in your boarding operation, all is well.

  1. Become knowledgeable about your boarders

The likelihood is that any boarding community will have a number of international students. The magic word for many schools in their recruiting is ‘diversity’ and they actively seek pupils from different countries around the world so that their boarding houses do not become wholly populated by children from one country, and by definition one culture.

Ask for clear information about the boarding house you will be joining – where do most of the boarders come from? If they are Spanish, how long do they stay, and does that mean a constant churn of new Spanish pupils starting English from scratch? The largest numbers of boarders currently come from countries like China and Hong Kong so it is probable that the largest single nationality represented in the boarding house, after the British students, will be from these countries.

Learning English is of course one of their prime reasons to come to a UK boarding school, but it is useful and even courteous for any member of staff to equip themselves with the basics of a language in order to help children settle in to their new school. There will be cultural differences also which are probably more easily learned that the language itself, and certainly more easily researched. For instance, a Confucian education respects scholarship in the form of learning and being able to repeat that which was known before – reading and learning, whereas in the western system, more credit is given to individual and creative thought, going beyond what is already written, discussion and debate leading to inspiration – if we are lucky. Hence the different views of the copying out of what is already written, in the east this may be seen as scholarship; in the west, it is frowned on as plagiarism.

A second major difference is the eastern preference for silence, as opposed to the western approval of talk, and the capacity to do it well – compare how many great western leaders are renowned for their rhetoric and capacity to talk, as opposed to eastern leaders who may be better known for what they did rather than what they said. Get acquainted with at least some of the background to your students. Many things may be explained, fewer mistakes may be made.

  1. Master time management

This may be another target area of training, though, as with counselling, for some people it comes naturally. Just know before you start that working in boarding will expand your working day exponentially and you will need to be on top of it all the time. Be very clear with the Head about your time commitment to academic teaching – the school’s norm may be, say 25 periods out of a 40

period teaching week. For your first year, ask if that can be less – down perhaps to 20 periods. The Head may say no, but it is worth asking. Do not apply for a job in boarding and believe yourself to be, or tell the Head you are, superhuman. It will do neither you nor your students nor the school itself any favours if you crack up before the end of term, and there can be some dark days in late November,

when the end is almost in sight but not quite.

Keep a diary – I know, that’s another task in a life probably busier than you have ever been – but it’s worth it, to remind you later of the high points and to help you predict the lows the next time around. There will be peaks and troughs in the year – of busy-ness, and panic – watch out for report writing and school productions, often coming at the same time of year, and your reports do not get

more accurate for being done past midnight, and your temper does not improve for the reports bouncing back to you with the Head wondering why he employed you at all because you obviously cannot spell.

  1. Get fit and stay fit!

However you manage it, whatever it takes, your health comes first. It’s a bit like the advice in a plane – attach your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others. You need to stay fit before any other advice, here or elsewhere, can be acted upon. You are no good to yourself, your family, your students, your boarders or the school if you are off sick. So run, or walk, or play tennis or football, or get a multi-trainer and use it, or go to the school’s fabulous gym, or see the school counsellor if the emotional stress of the job is getting to you – whatever you need to do, just do it. Get it into your schedule, and just do it. And if you suspect you are crumbling because of the combined forces of all the many things you must do, you care about, you are having nightmares about – then talk to a senior member of staff before you reach crisis point. Do not suffer in silence. It won’t get better and it may get worse. Your school has a responsibility for your welfare, and they will want to help.

  1. Get to know your boarders, notice what they do, praise as much as possible That’s it, really. An old teacher when asked by a new one, ‘What one piece of advice can you give me that will help me throughout my career? Replied with ‘Make sure every child that comes to see you, walks away a little bit happier than when they arrived’.

Do these things, and you should not go far wrong, and you will probably enjoy every moment.

Categories: Blog

Mark Robinson

BSA Senior Consultant / Group Membership Director Africa

Mark has a Product Design Degree from Brunel University and a PGCE. His first post in independent education was as Assistant Master at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham where he held several positions including Assistant Housemaster to a junior boy’s boarding...

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