The modern matron

2nd May 2014 at 01:00
It's an old-fashioned job title, but with parents demanding greater pastoral care for their children, the role has been brought firmly into the 21st century. Irena Barker investigates

` The older boys call me `M'," says boarding school matron Corinne Roy, as she explains her rapport with the students in her charge.

"It's quite sweet," she adds, laughing. "But I tell them: `That's not very nice, she died in the last Bond film.' "

Despite being nicknamed after a deceased MI6 spymaster, Roy sees her role at the elite Epsom College in Surrey as more of a motherly one. Accompanying boys with rugby injuries to hospital, toasting cheese buns for them after sports matches and sharing out their birthday cakes is all in a day's work. She looks aghast at the students' tuck boxes crammed with crisps and noodles and pushes them to eat more healthily.

Roy is one of 12 women appointed this year as the first house matrons at Epsom since the 1970s. She previously worked at the college as a housekeeper.

By bringing back the role - traditionally occupied by ample-bosomed spinsters with firm but reassuring manners - the school hopes to bring a new layer of pastoral care to both boarding and day students. The move is part of a wider trend for reintroducing matrons throughout the UK's boarding school sector. But what is driving this phenomenon?

The recent reporting of historic sex abuse cases at Britain's top private schools is a factor; institutions are now keener than ever to show that pastoral care is as important as good exam results. An increasing reliance on overseas students is also forcing schools to impress parents who might not have the same faith in the system as their native counterparts.

Indeed, schools are keen to trumpet their matrons. At the prestigious Oundle School in Northamptonshire, for example, matrons are described as providing "first-hand care and attention for those aches and pains". The website for Marlborough House prep school in Cranbrook, Kent, meanwhile, tells parents: "Older pupils look out for younger ones and everyone knows that matron will make them feel better, whether the problem is a grazed knee or hurt feelings."

And the role is becoming more professionalised - a devotion to children is no longer enough. The Boarding Schools' Association annual conference for school nurses and matrons now attracts 180 delegates. Every year 55 training events are held around the country; a big increase from just 20 six years ago.

Soft skills

Schools, it seems, are responding to parents' desire to see their children cared for as well as academically challenged. Roy says: "I'm a surrogate mum, really. My philosophy is, yes, this is a boarding school, but it's their home until the holidays for full boarders.

"The boys in here are absolutely lovely, really nice lads. I think of them as my own. There's an awful lot of respect. They are not thinking, `There goes the hoovering lady.' ".

In fact, staff say the blow of a stern telling-off from the housemaster can be softened by a gentle chat with matron. An overseas student with parents in Kuala Lumpur has somebody other than the academic staff to tell them they have performed well in the school play. The problems of ripped trousers, a dearth of socks and forgotten set squares three minutes before an exam are all resolved by these mother figures.

Jay Piggot, Epsom College's new headteacher, was inspired to resurrect the role after his seven years as a housemaster at Eton College, with its famous system of "dames" - the school's rather grand title for the matron post.

"It was clear that the housemasters and housemistresses were busy people, they contributed across the whole of the curriculum," he tells TES. "But because they were all coaching games and involved in the co-curriculum it meant that back at the house there was a need for a figure such as a matron to offer that sense of stability."

Piggot describes the relationship between housemaster and Eton dame as "crucial". "After your wife, the woman you get to know best is your dame," he says. "You have 55 different talents, personalities and interests [in the house]. It's a wonderful responsibility, but quite challenging."

He stresses that a key benefit is the feminine presence provided by matrons, which is especially important in testosterone-filled boys' houses. The matrons also assist in creating links with parents, Piggot adds. "A lot of mums can worry about minor things and matrons can pick up that level of detail and can forge a relationship through that contact. Our response time is so much sharper. Parents contact matron directly."

A friendly face

At Epsom, where just under 20 per cent of the student body consists of pupils from overseas, 55 per cent of students board. But day pupils still belong to a day house with the support of a matron.

The new system has been well received by housemasters and housemistresses at the school, who work long hours and who each have responsibility for about 65 young people almost around the clock.

Ian Holiday, housemaster to 59 boys aged 13 to 18, says: "Because [the matron] is here all day, boys can go straight to her when they see the need, they don't have to wait for me to stop teaching. They can go with their issue right then and there. They discuss all sorts of issues with the matron. Some things are perhaps better discussed with a lady than a man."

The matrons even accompanied the students on a paintballing trip at the start of last term - an important bonding experience for all, he says.

Kirsty Tod, a history teacher and housemistress at an Epsom girls' house, describes herself as the "bad cop" while the matron has a "soft-touch approach".

"She can watch out for things," Tod says. "If she notices somebody not going in for lunch, she'll tell me about it. We have to watch out for anorexia, or if people aren't going to lunch for social reasons."

Janette Wallis, senior editor of The Good Schools Guide, believes the return of the matron fits in with modern trends.

"Parents expect more of just about everything now, and pastoral care is one of those areas where overseas parents have higher expectations," she explains. "It's certainly the case with boarding facilities and rooms. This would fit with that."

Wallis surveyed the parents of pupils at top boarding schools on various aspects of the experience, such as food. She found that overseas parents were far more likely to be concerned.

"It's not the British stiff upper lip as such, but UK parents expect their children to be relatively robust at school. If the food's not amazing they tend to take it in their stride."

Excellence in pastoral care has really become "a selling point", she adds. "In some, especially girls' schools, they sell themselves with the idea that nothing is too much trouble."

Alex Thomson, director of training at the Boarding Schools' Association, says that courses for matrons cover such diverse topics as adolescent mental health, dealing with anaphylactic shock, self-harm and eating disorders.

"Some of the behaviours of teenagers are as they have always been - the fact that they take risks, for example," he explains. "But matrons now need to learn about modern developments such as the effects of the internet and social media, alcohol and drugs."

Matrons are evolving against this backdrop, Thomson says, although each school uses them in different ways. "Typically, matrons were seen as running the domestic side, but a number of schools have seen [that] the matron is an opportunity to add an incredibly valuable adult into the mix. They've gone from being a sort of domestic goddess to very much a part of the pastoral teams."

It is clear that schools, parents and students appreciate the importance of the post. Silvana Ispani, one of Epsom's new matrons, sums up the dedication of the women in these roles.

She bakes her charges traditional Italian crostata tarts in her mother's kitchen, to make up for nagging them to pick up after themselves and make their beds. "I just feel you've got to give something back," she says. "You can buy them from a supermarket but it's not the same."

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