Since the first book in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was published in 1997, school house systems have been enjoying something of a renaissance. A quick internet search reveals that many schools adopted the system after teachers and students alike were inspired by scenes of Quidditch and Sorting Hats.
Yet, a house system should be more than just a gimmick. When my leadership team and I decided to introduce houses to our school, a large secondary comprehensive in Yorkshire, we were trying to tackle a particular problem: the sense of disengagement that students seemed to be feeling towards the school as an institution.
We thought that creating a “small school” feel could be the answer, and while we couldn’t physically reduce its size, we could split it into houses, each with a separate “base” building. By doing this, we were able to create the sense of community we were looking for.
So, how did we make it work?
Back in 2010, we had been bothered by some disruptive behaviour around the school, including graffiti and minor vandalism. We wanted to engage our most disaffected youngsters; to include them, rather than have them feel separate from the school.
After reading a great deal about house systems, I wondered if that could be our solution. Many multi-academy trust leaders, especially those charged with turning around failing schools, swear by the traditional approach embodied in a house system. And in 2008, even Ofsted recommended house systems as a contribution to improving students’ sense of belonging in schools under special measures.
However, the most influential thing that I read when we were planning to set up a house system at Huntington School was not written about house systems at all – it was about a project called the Small Schools Initiative, which is based on US research suggesting that many high schools are too large.
Research by the Gates Foundation found that if a school has more than 400 students, individuals find it difficult to identify with the institution. While the study also showed that size doesn’t matter as much as the quality of teaching, attempting to make our large school feel smaller still seemed worth a try to create a greater sense of community.
So, inspired by small-school thinking, we split our 1,500 students into four houses of 300 students each (the remaining 300 students were in the sixth form). We gave each house a colour and named them after famous Yorkshirepeople from history: Brontë (after authors Charlotte, Emily and Anne), Cook (after the explorer Captain James), Johnson (after pioneering aviator Amy) and Wilberforce (after the abolitionist William).
Then, we took three important steps to establish the system:
1. Creating house leadership teams
Our houses are managed by mini-leadership teams, made up of a house tutor leader, who proactively cultivates the pastoral side of the curriculum; a house progress leader, who tracks students’ overall progress and intervenes when necessary; and a non-teaching student-support leader, who takes an overview of attendance and behaviour. Each team works closely together and shares intelligence about students on a daily basis.
2. Allocating house buildings
Crucially, we assigned each house to a discrete physical area of the site, to make each one feel like a home that students always return to. This means that for the 25-minute registration period each morning, the leadership teams for each house are within 30 metres of every one of their students. This helps the leadership teams to get to know the pupils in their houses more easily. It also brings the benefits of a vertical tutoring system, without us having to introduce one. For example, if a Year 7 tutor needs the support of some Year 11 students during registration, the Year 11s are only a few feet away.
3. Embedding the identities
To further create distinct house identities, we allocated a colour to each house and painted the doors to all of the house form rooms. Over time, we bought new furniture, so that each house block now has chairs in the house colour. We also made it mandatory for students to wear striped ties in house colours.
We have made sure that the house identities permeate the whole school by adopting many of the elements of a traditional house system; we give house points, have house sports teams and hold house assemblies.
However, I believe that the most important ingredient, and what sets our system apart, has been the decision to locate the houses in different areas of the school.
So, has the house system solved the problems we set out to address? I can tell you that, since adopting it, results have improved, behaviour has improved and the overall feel of the school is better. And while I don’t have hard evidence to prove that this is down to splitting the school into houses, I certainly won’t be putting things back together again any time soon.
John Tomsett is head of Huntington School in York and a member of the Headteachers’ Roundtable