It’s the personal touch
For the enlightened independent school, lock-down and the virtual summer term it brought with it, highlighted the power of an existing, all-embracing pastoral offering.
If you fall into the category of currently choosing an independent school here are a few new factors worth bearing in mind when you come to drawing up your ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ check list. With many independent schools’ virtual summer terms just drawing to a close, academic and support teams across the UK are busy responding to a re-evaluation of pre-existing priorities and concerns. We spoke to one independent day/boarding school nestling in 60 acres of campus in the heart of Wiltshire. Warminster School facilitates a thriving boarding and day community. Boarders come from as far as Bermuda but also from just around the corner, dependent on busy family lives or simply a love of school. The day pupil catchment area draws from Marlborough and Andover to the East and from Wells to the West.
During ‘lock-down’ how did the personal elements that underpin an already strong pastoral system contribute to a successful ‘virtual’ academic curriculum?
Like many other schools, the staff at Warminster School took a deep breath at the end of March and threw all their energies into ensuring that their pupils’ virtual academic programme would be as strong and as diverse as possible. What emerged as the weeks passed, is that underlying the positive receipt of this new way of learning was the power of their rich pastoral system. Each dependent on the other. We Zoomed with Headmaster, Matt Williams, to explain why. “There was considerable anxiety surrounding the perceived willingness of pupils to respond to a screen and an isolated daily school life. What has become quickly apparent is that our strong tutoring system, so deeply entrenched in our community, has played a key role in really energising our pupils and supporting them to still feel a part of a living school – even if physically we aren’t able to be together.”
So, let’s unpick this on-trend phrase ‘pastoral offering’ and what does this look like in terms of the academic structure of any school day?
There are of course the more obvious elements. Number one would be to ensure that a school places their tutorial system at the very heart of a pupil’s day to day experience. How easy is it for pupils to access their tutors and how is ‘tutor time’ incorporated into the daily timetable? At Warminster during lock-down tutor time was integral to the on-line syllabus with 3 tutor times every week reflecting the needs of all their pupils with flexibility over timings to accommodate varying time zones around the world. Their focus was reassurance, encouragement and ultimately maintaining those close bonds and relationships that have been so carefully nurtured. Close knit communities don’t just ‘happen’ – they rely on a structure that facilitates and openly encourages dialogue and a sense that, right across the board, from pupils to senior management, domestic staff to House parents, someone cares. Headmaster Matt Williams describes this succinctly as ‘taking care of the care-takers’.
This leads neatly onto a second significant element. How pupils themselves share responsibility for the caring. Or in educational speak; pupil-to-pupil mentoring. At Warminster, their highly successful pupil mentoring scheme came into its own during lock-down. Matt Williams recalls, “Our on-line timetable highlighted to us the immense power of pupil-to-pupil support during such a challenging time. If we hadn’t previously had such an effective system in place, I doubt very much that it’s something that could have been ‘added on’ at such a frenetic time. It delivered an invaluable additional support network; we see our pupil mentoring scheme as providing essential emotional scaffolding and it helped ensure that all our young pupils were heard and ‘seen’ by our community over such a crucial period.
If choices have to be made from a distance (or your sofa), what might be the effect of virtual school tours over physical ones?
Initial reactions might be that the state of the art swimming pool and recording studio (or the swanky campus attractions many independent schools feel obliged to compete over) become even more important. In reality, feedback is telling schools that here is an opportunity to listen and hear from a myriad of people from within a school community as well as a tour of a campus via the wonders of a drone.
As Warminster has discovered, it is the human experience of a school campus that prospective families are keen to discover. Matt Williams again, “We have been finding that it’s the ‘soft’ side of our educational offer that comes across so strongly through our numerous school films and photographic library. Of course, the spaces are important but it’s how they are used and not simply what they are used for. Not knowing when we might face a similar global challenge in the future, I believe parents need to know how their child might be cared for at such a time. Without putting too fine a point on it, a state-of-the-art swimming pool won’t play a part in this but an authentic community, which at the drop of a hat is able to draw together to support and nurture from a distance is what will.”
Worthy of a mention too is Warminster’s own impressive library of films – you don’t need a Netflix subscription and they are guaranteed to appeal to all ages. Amongst our lock-down favourites is their virtual choir performance of Da Doo Ron Ron (https://vimeo.com/425615078). Not only is it toe tappingly brilliant but it tangibly illustrates the love and warmth experienced within their community over these past months. This is pastoral care at its very best.
If lock-down revealed anything about the independent school sector it is that it’s less about the buildings and so much more about the people. Make sure you adjust your check-list accordingly. For more information on Warminster School go to www.warminsterschool.org.uk.
Warminster School, Tel 01985 210160 warminsterschool.org.uk