At the end of the summer term, Becky and Jon Holmes, Hatherop Castle School’s new boarding parents, strolled down to the park with the boarders, taking an opportunity to spend time with some of their new charges ahead of the holidays.
‘It was the evening of sports day,’ Becky remembers. ‘We had planned to do something more exciting, but everyone was exhausted. So instead we took some beanbags and Nerf guns and just had some down time, relaxing, chatting, listening, asking them how they had got on in their races. It was lovely.’
This decision to do what was best for the children, rather than something designed to impress, provides a reassuring insight into Hatherop’s newest arrivals; and reveals a parental shrewdness that bodes well for the children in their care.
Until now, boarding at Hatherop has been relatively low key, a combination of some domestic boarders, some international and a whole flock of flexi-boarders. But that is set to change. Already, two of the boarding dormitories have been entirely renovated along with the common room, and there is more to come as the Holmes start on a programme to build a substantial boarding house at the castle.
‘We are going to make sure that it’s better to be a boarder,’ says Jon. ‘We want the day children to know they are missing out – that boarders have more fun!’
First impressions of Becky and Jon are of brisk competence balanced by great warmth and a clear sense of fun. They come to Hatherop with a solid 18 years of experience as boarding house parents, and with children of their own, they also bring a parental perspective to the role.
As they set out their vision for boarding, they somehow strike the right balance between authority and informality, between homework done and an unscheduled game of corridor cricket. There is a reassuring confidence that comes from long experience and a strong belief in the benefits of boarding. ‘We have seen what boarding gives to a child,’ explains Jon, ‘There are opportunities for growth, independence, self-discipline. And happiness,’ he adds.
For anyone unsure of what being a boarding parent entails, it shares a great deal with being a regular parent. They are there to protect and nurture, to set clear boundaries – the first rule is ‘Treat everyone with respect’ – to encourage or pull into line. They make sure beds are made, teeth are brushed, and everyone is playing nicely! They are responsible for every boarder’s physical, personal and social well-being, and generally have to be all things to all children, with an added sprinkle of Mary Poppins magic. Sound familiar?
‘It’s all about the child,’ says Becky simply. ‘We’ll be on the touchline, watching them play a match, and catching up with them afterwards. We’ll be there to say, “Don’t forget that thing you had to do,” or ‘’How did the test go”. We celebrate their successes and commiserate when things don’t go to plan. It’s all the stuff we do with our own children.’
Living on site brings academic advantages too. Homework is carefully managed, and it’s a great deal easier to grab a teacher to get help on a tricky maths problem. Jon and Becky’s close relationship with the teaching staff also makes quick intervention easy if a child is struggling in a particular subject. And they will facilitate extra hockey or piano practice too.
Anyone who has had to step in as peacekeeper between warring siblings will appreciate the skill required to create social cohesion in such a varied and disparate group. Jon and Becky are well practised in building a strong community of friends and boarding siblings. It involves easing social interaction, facilitating friendships, and stepping in when things get a bit too rowdy – although rowdy also has its place – or where there’s any chance a child is being socially buffeted or left out. It means being available and providing a sympathetic ear if anyone is worried or upset, and giving an extra dose of encouragement when necessary. And while there are formal structures in place designed to support the children, it is as important to provide a time and space where children can approach their house parents informally too.
The children, however, are only one half of the equation. Jon and Becky understand that their responsibilities extend to parents too. Families choose boarding for a range of reasons. They may be dipping a toe ahead of senior boarding; they may be moving around within the armed forces, and want to give their children a permanent base; they may want to help their children develop independence; or they may simply be taking advantage of the flexible boarding options. Whatever the reason, they need to feel utterly confident their children are in good hands.
‘For lots of parents, this is their first experience of boarding too,’ says Jon, ‘and they are bound to have questions and concerns. They are putting us in charge of the most precious thing in the whole world to them, and we’re really conscious that they have placed all their trust in us. So if something is important to them, then it is important to us.’ Key to the relationship with parents is an open and honest approach and clear lines of communication. If you haven’t heard from Jon or Becky, then you can be confident that you don’t need to worry.
With a strong focus and lots of enthusiasm, then, the new boarding parents are rolling up their sleeves and cracking on with the job in hand. They are already building vital relationships with staff, children and parents, and it is testament to the strength of the relationships they forge that Becky and Jon recently attended the wedding of a past pupil.
Doubtless they will be delighted to share their enthusiasm for their work with you, mapping out what they believe boarding should be. And if you are also up for a game of corridor cricket, then so much the better.
Find out more about boarding at Hatherop Castle School.