Not many boarding professionals get the opportunity to open boarding from scratch, let alone doing so in Central London. When the chance to do so popped up here at MPW London, in the heart of Kensington, right across the road from the Natural History Museum, I couldn’t resist the chance. But where to start?
In the understandable and necessary landscape of safeguarding, health and safety, and with new national minimum standards for boarding, there is a lot to consider. Taking the new NMS alone, one now must consider how we go about checking guardians, how boarders’ views on who they share with can be taken into account, and the issues surrounding accessing staff accommodation.
Firstly, one must consider the physical structures. Our brand new boarding house at Queens Gate House has the benefit of single, en-suite rooms (which the market now demands, I think, but which does mean we have to work harder to get students out for events and activities etc), with mini-fridges, air conditioning and even very useful hydraulic beds so there is always somewhere to store suitcases. Despite some of the usual initial teething problems which always come with a new build, the house has been set up with careful planning by our Accommodation Manager Kris and the team at MP, but of course the building itself doesn’t create the boarding community. It’s everything else which helps to build the right ethos.
Systems and Structures
Setting up boarding from scratch then, came at just the right time. Without the history or baggage of previous boarding ways, writing our staff and student handbooks for boarding was quite enjoyable. Starting afresh meant that we could tailor the rules, regulations, sanctions and rewards, leave arrangements, signing in and out rules, meal times, registration times, and everything in between to what would suit the college and our students.
Staffing Structures and Support
Then there’s staff – how will we staff the house, what kind of people do we need, and what are the priorities for staffing? For me the number one priority is always pastoral care, without exception. Given we have four studio flats for staff, we appointed four resident, non-teaching House Parents, whose sole job is boarder-focused, without the distraction of other responsibilities. This has worked very well with each House Parent being responsible for their own group of boarders, including checking guardian and contact details, liaising with a student’s Director of Studies (or tutor, as it would be in other schools or colleges), and all of whom live and work in the building.
In terms of working hours, we felt it important that boarding staff have clear time when they can be off and away; so all work 44 hours front line duty per week, with one sacrosanct weekday off and every third weekend. To keep the connection with college, we also have four house tutors from the existing teaching staff, who do one evening per week to support prep time and our younger boarders specifically. Integration between school and boarding has been crucial and we all already feel our boarders are well supported, but so are our staff. The other wonderful thing about opening from scratch has been building a sense of teamwork in the boarding staff: we had 10 days of training prior to opening which meant that we could ensure we were consistent by going through scenarios together, and that everyone was clear on our processes and procedures (which had been worked on with the College for five months prior to opening in January 2023).
REACH boarding software has been integral to the development of boarding at MPW. We use this for student signing in and out, as well as integrating pastoral notes, our dispensary, using a nifty communications tool which shows you when students have read a message (so nobody can claim they didn’t see it!). With so much to do on our doorstep we have been running at least a trip a week, to West End shows or the Albert Hall, to Central London, the London Dungeon, jazz gigs and various other trips galore. REACH has helped us to get signups for trips which aren’t ‘compulsory fun’ and to track who is going on which trips and when. I’m not on commission, but it has helped up a lot.
Opportunities in Boarding and Cultural Celebrations
Opening boarding in the biggest city in the UK comes with many opportunities, of course, but also has its challenges. Our induction process has been integral to this, including a walking tour of the local area, induction talks on safety in London and common issues such as pickpocketing, traffic and lockdown procedures, and this has reassured staff, students and parents alike, to ensure we are keeping our boarders safe – which is of course every school/college’s number one priority. The attractions of London bring a wide variety of nationalities, which enables us to have a really diverse boarding house where we can celebrate cultural occasions like Chinese New Year and Nowruz, amongst various other occasions. We are a fairly liberal environment with no uniform and where staff are on first name terms with students, and this has also been appreciated in the early weeks of our new boarding environment.
Questions to ask!
My experience of opening boarding from scratch has been most enjoyable. If ever you find yourself with the opportunity to do so, or even if you are an existing boarding school, the following questions may help:
- What is the ethos of the school, and how will your boarding ethos dovetail with and complement that of the school? Start with this.
- What rules, procedures and processes will work for your boarders (and staff!)?
- How will boarders be supported pastorally, emotionally, medically and academically while living and working with you?
- What staffing model will work well for both your boarders and, crucially, for your staff?
- Which boarding software or systems do you need to ensure boarders’ safety and to make sure records are accurate and complete?
- What trips, activities, and other opportunities can you make available to your boarders?
- How will you keep track of boarders’ feedback and how will this be built into your development planning for boarding?
- How will you celebrate diversity in your boarding community?
I have found the process of going through these questions, identifying the priorities and considering how boarders and staff are well supported a really enjoyable process; taking the time to do so has, I think, eased the process of opening boarding considerably. The planning and preparation process we have gone through has certainly helped students to be happier from day one, whilst starting to build a real sense of community and mutual support here at MPW London.
John J. Taylor, MA(Hons), PGCE(S), FRSA, FTIOB
Vice Principal (Boarding) at MPW LondonCategories: Blog