How do I become a housemistress or housemaster?

What is a housemistress and what do they do in school? Robin Hardman explains how these tough but rewarding roles work

Robin Hardman

house parent houseparent housemaster housemistress

Housemistress and housemaster roles are some of the most coveted positions in boarding schools.

They can offer generous remuneration, accommodation and unparalleled professional experience.

But it's worth noting that some say being a houseparent can be both the best and toughest job in education.

Michael Spens is a former housemaster at Radley College, and went on to take the post of headmaster of Caldicott Preparatory School and then Fettes College, now works for an educational consultancy that helps schools to recruit for senior roles.

He cautions that the role shouldn't be taken on without careful consideration. 

"It is potentially the most rewarding and fulfilling role that a boarding school can offer," he says. "Equally, when performed at its best, it is also unquestionably one of the most challenging and committing."

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Who are housemistresses and housemasters?

While a small number of boarding schools have dedicated pastoral teams who do not contribute to the academic curriculum as subject teachers, the vast majority of housemistresses and housemasters (known in some schools as houseparents) in the UK are members of teaching staff who are also responsible for running boarding houses.

Roughly 95 per cent of boarding schools in the UK are fee-paying independent schools, although in England there are 31 state boarding schools, where tuition is free of charge but parents, guardians or charitable bodies pay fees to cover boarding costs.

What responsibilities do houseparents have?

All housemistresses and housemasters will have hugely important pastoral responsibilities: they are in loco parentis for the children in their care. This brings significant statutory safeguarding implications, and they are likely to have wider responsibilities, too.

In addition to the day-to-day running of their boarding house, housemistresses and housemasters are responsible for managing staff teams that can include tutors, matrons and domestic staff.

Housemistresses and housemasters also typically serve as the first point of contact between the school and parents or guardians of pupils in their house. This will often mean frequent email, telephone and face-to-face communication, as well as event organisation and hosting.

In many schools, housemistresses and housemasters will also play an important role in the admissions process, interviewing prospective pupils and parents and helping to assess their suitability.

They will normally also be expected to teach an academic subject, albeit on a reduced timetable, and many schools will encourage (or even require) contributions to wider co-curricular life, including the running of clubs, societies, trips and sports teams.

The weight of these responsibilities should not be underestimated, says Leo Winkley, headmaster of Shrewsbury School.

"When we are recruiting housemistresses and housemasters, we look for people who want to spend their time with children 24/7," he says.

However, the rewards are considerable. 

"Housemistresses and housemasters have the privilege and opportunity to be guide and mentor during the turbulent years of adolescence," explains Spens. "Houseparents can exert a very significant influence on the development of the character traits and values of their charges."

How do I become a housemistress or housemaster?

In most instances, housemistress and housemaster positions tend to be open to both internal and external applications, and are, accordingly, among the most competitive posts in education.

Kait Weston, deputy head for pastoral at Millfield School, believes that each type of applicant brings advantages. 

"An internal candidate will already be familiar with the school’s day-to-day processes," she explains.

"However, there is a potential risk that they might not be as innovative as an external candidate, who may have previously witnessed novel approaches to manage a particular issue."

But, ultimately, regardless of your prior experience, schools will be more concerned with ensuring that you possess the necessary characteristics to carry out the role’s wide-ranging responsibilities.

"The best housemistress I have ever appointed had no experience of boarding," says Winkley. "However, she had been a designated safeguarding lead in a large state school and has exceptional listening skills, emotional intelligence and, above all, an effervescent sense of fun.’

Dan Clements, a housemaster at Wellington College, says communication is key. 

"If parents feel well communicated with, then they will have confidence that their kids are being well looked-after," he explains. 

"Whether casually chatting when they pick up or drop off their children, talking more formally at a parents’ evening or hosting a house event, it’s important to be prepared and to make the parents feel welcomed and that they have your undivided attention."

The task of looking after teenagers is inevitably challenging and unpredictable, so a sense of humour is a must.

Leaders will want to appoint a candidate who has a rapport with young people, as well as a high level of emotional resilience. "Triumphs and disasters come in equal measure and the ability to cope with that is paramount," says Spens.

It is also worth noting that while in the past schools often preferred to appoint candidates of the same sex as the pupils in their house, this is no longer always the case.

When is the right time to go for the job?

In order to amass an appropriate level of experience to carry out your duties as a housemistress or housemaster, it is likely that you will have been working in education for more than five years, and potentially for far longer.

The range and gravity of a houseparent’s responsibilities mean that you will need to have developed the necessary tools for juggling the varied demands of your job: for instance, although you will not primarily be appointed on the basis of your subject teaching, you should be a sufficiently experienced classroom practitioner to enable you to focus adequately on your pastoral role.

Schools will usually open applications to individuals and to couples who wish to run a boarding house together. If you and your partner would be interested in a joint role, you would not both necessarily need to possess the experience described above.

Clements recalls that before his appointment in 2017, he and his husband, Wellington’s head of maths, worried that their sexuality could be a barrier to a housemaster position.

"In the event, nothing could have been further from the truth," he says now. "We have been completely welcomed by the entire house community in a way which reflects both the great warmth of Wellington and underlying changes in attitude nationally."

How can I prepare for an application?

Assuming that you already possess the pastoral experience highlighted above, there a number of professional development courses that could strengthen your application.

The Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) runs frequent webinars and online training courses.

The BSA also offers Accredited Boarding Practitioner qualifications, and an MA in residential education in conjunction with the University of Buckingham, as well as a number of courses aimed at people already working as houseparents or in other boarding management roles.

Where could the role lead?

Schools will expect housemistresses and housemasters to remain in post for several years, and it is important to recognise that the position is far too demanding and consequential to be regarded as a simple stepping stone to greater things.

The breadth of experience that you will gain as a houseparent could make you a very attractive candidate for future promotions. In boarding schools, a high number of headmistresses and headmasters have previously been in charge of boarding houses, as have the majority of pastoral deputy and assistant heads.

Some schools also have head of boarding or senior houseparent positions that can act as a bridge between middle and senior management.

What should I look out for when applying?

If you are looking for an internal promotion, you should make your interest in a current or future position known to the relevant pastoral deputy or assistant head who is responsible for line managing housemasters and housemistresses.

It would also be useful to highlight your intention as part of your annual appraisal process, as you may be given an indication as to whether you would be considered an appropriate candidate.

If you are looking to move schools, set up a Tes job alert (because housemistress and housemaster positions are typically advertised without specifying subject disciplines, you will find more results if you leave your subject blank).

You should also consider the type of boarding environment that you would most like to work in. Some schools are full boarding, which usually means that all pupils are on site for several weeks at a time, while others will offer weekly and flexi boarding options.

The size and composition of boarding houses also vary significantly. Typically, most boarding houses are single-sex and tend to incorporate a variety of age groups, but many schools operate different systems.

Some may welcome speculative applications from candidates who would be interested in future houseparent positions, and there have been instances of teachers initially being appointed to non-pastoral roles on the understanding that they will be elevated to a housemistress or housemaster role when an appropriate vacancy arises.

Robin Hardman is a politics teacher in the independent sector and tweets from @MrRobinHardman

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Robin Hardman

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