HOUSE-PARENTS: Caring for other people's children in term time is rewarding
Mark and Nicki Cooper have what is possibly the biggest family in Shropshire. In addition to their own two children they are house-parents to 60 teenagers, boarders at the Thomas Adams school in the county.
"They live with us for 36 weeks of the year, possibly for five years; we know them almost as well as their parents do," says Nicki.
And this isn't an independent school. Thomas Adams is a rural comprehensive, based in the small town of Wem, and one of the 30-odd state boarding schools that Tony Blair would like to see expand and take more students.
Expansion in Wem would be difficult; the house is already full, with a waiting list of parents. Thomas Adams founded the school in the 17th century and the building currently used by the boarders is the original grammar school. Four hundred years ago it wasn't practical for children to go home every night, and many schools were boarding schools. The parents of today's boarders pay fees of pound;6,900 a year, which cover the boarding element only.
All the students go to Thomas Adams, where the A-C pass rate at GCSE is a healthy 75 per cent. The main school building is a couple of hundred yards away. Every morning the boarders walk to school and join more than 1,000 other students for lessons. Every evening they return to the family atmosphere of the boarding house.
"It appeals to professional parents who like the idea of a stable education for their children," says Nicki. "Some stay with us during the week and go home at the weekend. We also have students whose parents are in the Forces, and some overseas students as well."
Nicki and Mark are both teachers at the school. Five years ago they applied to become house-parents as a couple, marrying a few months later. Mark still teaches full-time at the school, where he is head of PE. Nicki, also a PE teacher, took the opportunity to move up to head of boarding when the job became available 12 months ago.
It's a big responsibility. "We must know where they are at all times," she says. "Depending on their age they have different privileges; they are allowed out to different places at different times. The one word we use all the time is 'trust'. We have a rigorous sign out and in system and they quickly get into the routine."
The Coopers work in much the same way as other parents. They go to parents'
evenings, deal with the odd misdemeanours, get called out of bed at 2 in the morning. But there are some exceptions; they don't have to cook 60 breakfasts or make 60 beds.
"Sometimes a new student wants to know who is going to make their bed, and the answer is 'You are'," says Mark.
Nicki was a head of year at Thomas Adams before applying for the boarding job, and she sees what she does now as an extension of that pastoral role.
"We run a prefect system. Within Adams House we have three houses, and the prefects lead by example," she says.
"We involve them in a lot of the decision-making: we recently changed the homework rules and the prefects wrote the new rules with us."
The couple are careful to ensure that boarders are treated no differently than any other Thomas Adams student. "But they do look after each other,"
Sometimes other teachers will raise minor matters with Mark because they know he is a house-parent. "We might ask them 'Would you normally raise this issue with a parent?' We try and stand back sometimes. If its a genuine problem, fine, but we wouldn't get involved if a student had forgotten a book for a lesson," says Nicki.
The downsides are obvious. They are on duty seven days a week in term time, they can never really switch off. But they both think that the advantages heavily outweigh any disadvantages.
Nicki is on the leadership scale and Mark is paid an additional honorarium for his work as a house-parent. They live rent free in what used to be the headteacher's house, with domestic bills covered by the school. They've developed a network of contacts all over the world, as boarders keep in touch and families extend invitations to stay.
Above all, the relationships have been massively rewarding. "It's the most fulfilling job I've ever done," says Nicki.
More details on state boarding and jobs in the sector from the Sate Boarding Schools Association: www.sbsa.org.uk