Mopping up teen tears isn't matron's problem now

27th January 2012 at 00:00
A diploma will train boarding school staff in pastoral care

The pressures of modern life, hormones and anxiety can combine to create a toxic cocktail of emotions in teenagers. And at the country's boarding schools it is school staff, not parents, who have the tricky job of picking up the pieces. Traditionally, pastoral care was the domain of the house matron, but now moves are afoot to change this completely: new training is being brought in to professionalise staff.

Acting in loco parentis for as many as 50 children in the intense atmosphere of a boarding house can be extremely challenging. And boarding schools set up hundreds of years ago must now adapt to the modern world. Children are facing more academic pressures and, heads' leaders say, are more likely to experiment with alcohol at an early age or to be prematurely sexualised.

Indeed, there have been a number of scandals in recent years. In 2005, for example, a 16-year-old pupil at a top independent, Oundle School in Northamptonshire, fell from a first-floor window after drinking and was left paralysed. As a result of such incidents, parents have increasingly high expectations of boarding school pastoral staff.

It is hoped that a new diploma, developed by the Boarding Schools' Association (BSA), will leave staff better equipped to defuse any tricky situations. The course was piloted last year and the work of its first 18 students is now being assessed. The students completed three projects: an "audit" of pastoral care at their school, an oral presentation on their findings and a 6,000-word action plan.

Theresa Homewood, pastoral deputy head at Sevenoaks School in Kent, said the course would help boarding school staff adapt to a "rapidly changing world".

"They still have to manage the traditional problems, such as induction and homesickness, but there are many more issues now as well, such as cyber-bulling," said Ms Homewood, who taught students on the BSA's pilot course. "Pastoral staff have to be more aware of legislation. More children have divorced parents and they have to know which parent they should consult and who they should involve.

"Nowadays, parents are much more likely to be involved in school life. Because of modern communications, they hear about problems such as friendship issues from their child. Then they might phone the school and it's the first teachers have heard about the situation."

Designed for senior boarding staff, the BSA course is now being made available to all schools.

"Problems like behaviour often get passed upwards to those who will complete this course, as they have a leadership role," said Alex Thomson, the BSA's director of training. "It's not easy - how do you deal with an 18-year-old who wants to push boundaries and routines because they want to be more independent?

"The aim is to improve the boarding school sector. The research our students will complete is unique; nobody else is looking into these issues."

Diploma students learn how to manage tension - this includes how to appraise colleagues and review their performance, as well as how to deal with angry children.

To help them to do this, they learn about child development and what causes teenagers to behave in certain ways. They also learn to tackle common issues such as cyber-bullying and how to teach children about sex, relationships and healthy living.

"This kind of work is critical when you are looking after 50 or 60 children who are living in a school," Mr Thomson said. "It's much more difficult to deal with at boarding school than in the family home."

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