Boarding can be a wonderful experience, producing independent young people, ready to go out into the world – but the prospect can be daunting, so who better to ask for advice about it than matron? (sorry, house parent)
Battle Abbey – Sara Walkley, Matron
I have been a matron at Battle Abbey since 1995. My mother was a matron here and she loved the environment and her work, so when a position became available I applied.
A matron needs a good mix of kindness, empathy, patience and understanding – and being able to provide a compassionate ear is as important as any one quality. A reasonable level of diplomacy and tact is also very useful. You also need to be able to maintain discipline in the boarding house so it’s essential to be able to switch on a more authoritarian side when necessary.
I’m on the evening rota so after a handover with day staff I go to supper and supervise boarders’ prep time. I’ll spend some dedicated time chatting to pupils on my mentor list or who may need help. I’ll start supervising younger pupil’s bedtimes, then turn lights out in dormitories at the relevant times.
To get a child emotionally ready for boarding we advise parents to talk about it in a positive way in the run up to their child’s departure. Explain to the child that there may be rough days, but there will always be people on hand to help. It’s important to encourage a child to be open about their feelings about going away from home.
The main issue will always be homesickness and we work hard over the boarding induction process and the first few weeks to try to limit any isolation boarding pupils might be feeling and make sure the separate nationalities socialize together.
Matrons need to spend time with new boarders, offer reassurance, encourage them to make friends and team them with a boarding buddy if necessary. We also assist with team building and boarding social activities.
In the many years I’ve been at Battle Abbey there’s only been a couple of children who haven’t settled. Most former students we talk to have great memories of their boarding life at Battle Abbey School. Young people who board at school learn how to live in a large community with different individuals and cultures. It’s the global village in microcosm! They learn how to be independent and amass an array of life skills that stand them in great stead for university and adult life in general.
Prokop Spanel, a termly boarder, Year 10
I was eleven years old when I came to Battle Abbey. I’m from the Czech Republic and it was a tough adjustment at first, coming from a different background and entering a new culture.
I thought adjusting to another culture and language would be a challenge, especially at such a young age, but everyone was welcoming and helpful through my journey of settling in.
The time it takes to settle in is definitely something a child should be aware of before coming to a boarding school.
There are several things that I like and enjoy about boarding but one that stands out for me is the way it improves my organisation by structuring the day better.
I feel this is a crucial part of growing up for anyone who wants to be successful at school. At home it’s very difficult for me to achieve the same level of organisation and structure.
I also like the fact that I meet people from different backgrounds and I learn things I would never learn, speak to people I wouldn’t otherwise speak to and get out of my comfort zone. There are certain people that I’m glad I met and if it wasn’t for boarding, I don’t think I would’ve done.
Everything has its advantages and disadvantages, but I feel boarding has made me a better person by making me deal with these things, as I think it is an important part of becoming independent and growing up.
Battle Abbey School, Battle, East Sussex
01424 772385 battleabbeyschool.com
Frewen College – Boarding team: Sarah Medcraft (Head of Boarding) Hannah Lewis and Ben Swinson
Being a houseparent is a way of life rather than just a job. It’s being a ‘mum away from Mum’ and creating a caring community which nurtures, encourages and provides boundaries for students of different ages, from different cultures and with different needs and expectations.
Each day there is a basic routine which involves making sure the boarders get to school on time, prepared for the day ahead. Later we have an evening meal, followed by homework club and then we run a choice of activities such as cricket, baking, rounders, crafts, volleyball, music and gym. Outside of that, anything can happen! House parents need lots of patience, a sense of humour, warmth and kindness. It’s important to be a good role model and to encourage children to find the best in themselves.
Boarding is a big change and helping your child in advance to develop some independent life skills, such as being able to change their sheets and load a dishwasher can help prepare them for boarding.
If they have never slept away from home arrange sleepovers with friends or family. Talk about any worries and reassure them that they will have support. If possible, meet with boarding staff before they come so a child gains a sense of collaboration around their wellbeing.
First time boarding can be daunting and feeling lost and unsure what to do can add to being unsettled. Allocating a house buddy helps as they’ve almost certainly experienced the same feelings. Keeping them busy and having fun helps, as well as clear routines.
Our boarding team will talk with the student and their family to enquire how things are going. Most students settle in, although some take longer than others. It’s important to let them give it a fair go and avoid rushing into decisions.
Boarders develop a real sense of independence and team spirit. They get a well-rounded holistic education and experience personal growth. They make friends for life and great memories.
We love what we do and hearing from students years later who remember things you did to support them makes even the most challenging days worth while.
A Frewen full-time boarder
I was 14 years old when I started boarding. It took a month or two to settle in and sometimes I did get homesick. It was good that I had an instant connection with my roommate and the supportive boarding staff really helped too. There is a really nice atmosphere and it’s is a relatively small boarding house so that helped.
It feels homely – a real home away from home. There is routine with an element of freedom to make some choices, and my own space and time. There is a good variety of weekend activities. I like the respect between staff and peers and the sense of community.
Frewen College, Northiam, East Sussex
01797 252494 frewencollege.co.uk
Dulwich Prep Cranbrook – Kate Montgomery, Senior Housemistress
A matron is a ‘Super Mum’, being a mum to the boarders in her charge, organising and preparing all the things a mum does, but on a much larger scale.
You wake the boarders at 7am with a smile (and occasionally a song!) and carry on until after all the boarders are in bed.
I came to the career after studying Child Care & Management, then I joined a prep school from there.
A matron needs to have stamina, so you can just keep going and work outside the normal nine to five. You need patience, and lots of it, laughter and an ear to listen to concerns. When boarders think they are getting up to mischief, you might as well be wearing a T shirt saying “been there, seen that before” on it…
Parents of new boarders should prepare their kids by always talking about boarding in a positive way, never saying “well if you don’t like it, you can come home”. Help them learn practical tasks, such as how to change a bed, clean their shoes, pack an overnight bag and make lists of things to do.
Then make packing for boarding fun. Choose a day to shop together for boarding essentials, such bedding, towels, toiletries, underwear, pyjamas, casual clothes and stationery and get the child to help with name taping all items.
For many kids who are starting, a problem is not knowing where to be at the right time. Schools can be a large place and it’s so easy to get lost when it appears that everyone else knows where to go and what to do. Matrons can be in the background gently reminding a boarder each day what they are doing and where to go. Each boarding house has its own noise and smell, something to adjust to… but it all comes with time.
All children will get there in the end, some just take longer to settle than others. My best example is a boy who cried every morning while his parents were living aboard, but when he returned after Christmas he just stopped crying. By then I had another new boy and he started crying every morning… so I asked the first boy to look after him and, after a week of chatting as to how things would improve, I had two very happy boarders who both went on to Tonbridge as full boarders. I still see them and we joke about it now.
What kids get from boarding is amazing experience in managing oneself. You can always spot the boarder on a residential trip, they are neat, organised, know to get up, get dressed, shower, make their bed etc. There is an air about a child who can cope and manage day-to-day life without a parent standing by. Parents have such busy lives now, so it is helpful if a child can deal with simple day-to-day concerns.
Boarders are encouraged to help during mealtimes in the dining room, wash up the items they use in the boarding house and to keep their dorms tidy.
Above all they learn to think about others and be part of a wider boarding family. This helps hugely with their confidence and the way they interact with other people for the rest of their lives.
Freddie, a termly boarder in Year 7
I started in Year 4, when I was 8. I gradually built up my boarding experience from one night per week, to two nights and so on, over a course of a year, so it only took me a short while to settle and did not miss my parents too much.
My parents emailed me often so I felt in touch with my family. I also loved receiving letters – when you are boarding it’s very exciting to receive post, and sometimes the letters contained treats!
The matrons were brilliant when I started and really helped me feel at home. I feel I can ask the matrons anything. They are always jolly.
I love the nice cosy dorms, the huge variety of food and all the activities we do each night. I loved learning to knit. I also enjoy looking after and helping the younger boarders who are just starting out.
There is a wonderful boarding community in the school. There are lots of games in the house to play with friends on winter evenings, a pool table, table football table and table tennis.
I am going to be a full boarder at my senior school and feel my boarding at Dulwich will stand me in good stead.
Dulwich Prep Cranbrook, Kent
01580 712179 dulwichprepcranbrook.org
Daniel and Gemma Aukett, House Parents
As house parents, primarily, we perform two roles – pastoral and academic support. In a pastoral sense, we look after every aspect of a student’s wellbeing when they are in our care. This can be as wide ranging as helping them find their socks in laundry, to assisting them with settling into life as a boarder, or helping them deal with peer relationship issues.
From an academic perspective our role is to support them when they are not in lessons, liaising with teachers to understand where students might need extra support and whether through extra revision sessions, or in-house support to improve their time management.
To help children to settle into boarding quickly, parents should visit the boarding environment before arriving. The more familiar they become with their surroundings the better they will be able to adapt, so attend any orientation days that the school may offer.
Understandably, students often suffer with homesickness in the first few weeks of boarding. One thing that worked really well in the boarding house at the beginning of the year was reading to the Year 7 dormitory at bed time. They really enjoyed hearing the amazing stories of Roald Dahl and it helped take their minds off any concerns and settle in to their new lives.
David and Angela Mathews, House Parents
We look after 90 girls in a residential and day boarding house. We are also teachers and parents of our own two young children, plus a tortoise and cats. Running a school boarding house is very much a family affair as our children love being with the girls.
Girls start boarding either weekly or termly from the age of 11 and are immersed in fun events to occupy them and keep homesickness to a minimum.
They are all assigned a ‘buddy’ who acts as a mentor to help and support them while they get used to being away from home.
While the hours are long, the thrill of seeing the girls succeed both academically and in inter-house activities is very rewarding. Watching the girls develop and grow to be lovely young ladies is a real highlight.
Noah Sempala-Ntege, 17A full-time boarder
I’m about to start my sixth year boarding at Gordon’s. I arrived aged 11, the first of four siblings to attend the school. My dad is in the Army so had the potential to move around so I boarded from Year 7.
It was quite hard at first, getting used to being away from home but my house parents did lots of bonding things which made it easier. They put on lots of weekend activities. On Saturday evenings we have treats – a movie night with cheesy bread!
My house parents were always there when I needed them. When in Year 9, my Dad went to Iraq, it was really nice having my house parents. I could openly speak to them about it and they would reassure me.
We boarders have such a close bond. When you are boarding you have to learn how everyone reacts differently to situations and to respect people and socialise. I would send my own children to boarding school because it helps you develop as a person. At Gordon’s they urge you to be the best you can and give you all the opportunities to be the best you can.
Gordon’s School, Woking, Surrey
01276 858084 gordons.school
Matron Sara Walkley with boarder Prokop Spanel
Head of Boarding Sarah Medcraft, with boarders
Matrons preparing the dorms and a knitting lesson
Preparing the dorms Dulwich
Windsor House Parents
Windsor House Parents
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