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PSHE? SMSC? The acronyms of a priceless education


– Delyth Lynch, former Deputy Head (Pastoral and Wellbeing) of Wellington College

When I was 17, I spent three weeks of my summer holiday planning and delivering a holiday to a group of children who had severe learning difficulties from a school in Cheshire. They travelled annually to my boarding school in North Wales where they experienced their first ever holiday without their parents. It is one of the strongest memories I have of my school career; in today’s terms this is SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) education ‘in action’ – the idea that school is far more than learning the curriculum. SMSC is, quite simply, the term used to embrace this broader dimension – not just through Religious Education (RE), PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) education, wellbeing lessons or even through planned projects like the experience I mention above. No, these vitally important elements of life and growth infuse themselves across everyday life in boarding schools and, for many years, our schools have been promoting themselves on the basis of providing a holistic education for their pupils; a philosophy of education based on the premise that each individual will find identity, meaning and purpose in life as they develop their intellectual, emotional, social, physical, creative and spiritual potentials.

Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspection reports always include detail of the schools’ commitment to SMSC, but what does SMSC actually mean? As there is no requirement for independent schools to have a separate SMSC policy, what should you be looking for when searching for a school that genuinely provides a holistic education?

Holistic education

Boarding schools devote a lot of time and resources to activities outside of the classroom in order to develop character, resilience and skills which will equip pupils for their adult world. You will not find a prescribed checklist of what a school will be providing under the SMSC or holistic education umbrella. It is about how a school:

  • enables pupils to develop self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence
  • enables them to distinguish between right and wrong
  • encourages them to accept responsibility for their behaviour and to show initiative
  • shows them how they can contribute positively to the lives of others
  • encourages respect and tolerance of different cultures.

Analysing each component in more detail, the spiritual element of SMSC requires that schools allow pupils to be reflective about their own beliefs – religious or otherwise – and allow this to inform their perspective on life and their respect for others people’s faiths and values. Spirituality is one of the eight aptitudes that Wellington College promotes among the pupil body; yes, we have weekly chapel services and assembly where faith is explored, but for some it is equally important to recognise that their spiritual moment might come on the hockey pitch when they score that winning goal in a cup game or in the orchestra when performing a piece of beautiful music. At Wellington we encourage pupils to stand still sometimes and appreciate the awe and beauty around them and we find that this encourages them to be imaginative and creative in their learning.

I believe a level of a pupils’ spiritual development is reflected by their curiosity, so look for schools where the pupils are inquisitive about the world around them and where they are nurtured to demonstrate a captivation about knowledge – not just for the sake of examinations, but because it is interesting and inspiring.

There is no better environment than a boarding school to develop a young person’s moral compass. Living in close proximity with others where they have to share their space (often with others who they might not ordinarily choose to be friends with) means that they develop their social intelligence through understanding the consequences of their behaviour and action. Schools which encourage approaches such as restorative justice and mediation when dealing with matters of discipline enable the understanding of others to flourish and, in turn, levels of respect to grow. Young people in boarding schools quickly learn to appreciate the viewpoint of others, to listen and to value them. Schools that get it just right don’t have a long list of rules; the pupils get it right because they simply want to.

 Service to others

Service to others is a long tradition in boarding schools. We are no longer talking Tom Browns School Days where this ideology might have, at best, meant polishing a prefect’s shoes. A boarding school which excels at service allows ample opportunity for the young people to participate in the local community, volunteering across a wide range of projects from working with children in primary schools, charity shops or raising money for local or distant projects such as an allotment schemes or sponsoring a school in Africa. Teamwork and cooperation are developed, as well as a heightened sense of well-being from knowing that you are helping others. Well-being lessons at Wellington focus on the idea that helping others improves an individuals’ positive emotions and we hope to engender a sense of intrinsic motivation to do this naturally and not because it ‘might look good on their CV’. Likewise, if a school allows its pupils to interact and socialise with individuals from different backgrounds – religious, ethnic or socio-economic – they are giving them the opportunity to understand that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and all should be listened to; a vital skill if those young people are to go forward and contribute positively to their own communities in later life.

Finally, the cultural aspect. This is not just about providing opportunities for pupils to paint a picture or learn a musical instrument, it is much more how a school develops a pupil’s understanding and appreciation of their own heritage and the heritage of others. Society as a whole is a diverse place and our young people are helped to recognise this through opportunities to participate in cultural experiences, for example, celebrating Chinese New Year, Yom Kippur or Thanksgiving, or contributing to a mock general election so that they develop an understanding of a democratic parliamentary system.

Schools where pupils develop their cultural side provide ample opportunities for their young people not only to participate in artistic, music and sporting activities but also to watch and appreciate others taking part. Drama productions, concerts, live debates, opportunities to go on the school history of art trip all provide occasions for individuals to enrich their lives and develop interests which may remain with them for the rest of their lives.

SMSC is done well when you cannot tell it is even happening. There is a synergy between the ethos of the school and the opportunities it provides; personal development is imbued within every lesson, every activity and within the boarding house. It is a school where:

  • pupils say they are listened to and everyone is known as an individual
  • pupils are happy and comfortable working together in groups, showing tolerance and respect for each other
  • every pupil feels they belong
  • pupils are trusted
  • young adults leave having gained skills in positive interdependence, equal participation, individual accountability and social interaction.

As Jean Piaget wrote: ‘The principal goal of education is to create people who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.’ Our boarding schools aim to bring out all the capabilities and sensitivities of pupils, allowing them to live purposefully, creatively and morally in today’s complex world. This is indeed a priceless education.


Delyth Lynch was Deputy Head (Pastoral and Wellbeing) at Wellington College, Berkshire. On her return from maternity leave she took up the post of Biology teacher. Passionate about the holistic education of the child, Delyth has been jointly responsible for introducing mindfulness into Wellington College and is a trained .B (a mindfulness in schools programme) teacher. She has also successfully set up pastoral parental masterclasses (winning the Times Educational Supplement Boarding Initiative of the Year in 2015) and has been responsible for advising the Government on mental health and counselling structures within UK schools. Delyth is also a course tutor for the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) and a Governor at Holme Grange Prep School in Berkshire. She speaks regularly on the topic of mental health provision in education and particularly the interface between the school and the health centre. Delyth has previously worked at Kingswood School, Bath and Bromsgrove School, Worcestershire.


Boarding at an independant school
School Address Phone Type PR Weblink
Dean Close SchoolShelburne Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. GL51 6HE01242 258044Bo(7-18), D, M, 13-18 
Wycliffe CollegeStonehouse, Gloucestershire. GL10 2JQ01453 822432Bo, D, M, 2-18 
Rookwood SchoolWeyhill Road, Andover, Hampshire. SP10 3AL01264 325900Bo(8-16), D, M, 3-16 
St Lawrence CollegeCollege Road, Ramsgate, Kent. CT11 7AE01843 572931Bo(3-18), D(3-18), M(3-18), 3-18 
Kingham Hill SchoolKingham, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. OX7 6TH01608 658999Bo, D, M, 11-18 
Erskine Stewart\'s Melville SchoolsQueensferry Road, Edinburgh, Scotland. EH4 3EZ0131 311 1000Bo(10-18), D(3-18), B(3-18), G(3-18), M(3-12), 3-18 
Wellington SchoolWellington, Somerset. TA21 8NT01823 668803Bo, D, M, 11-18 
Holbrook, Ipswich, Suffolk. IP9 2RX01473 326136 Bo, D, M, 11-18
St Davids CollegeLlandudno, Conwy. LL30 1RD01492 875974Bo, D, M, 9-19 
Windermere SchoolWindermere, Cumbria. LA23 1NW01539 446164Bo, D, M, 3-18 
King's College TauntonSouth Road, Taunton, Somerset. TA1 3LA01823 328204Bo, D, M, 13-18 
Queen\'s CollegeTrull Road, Taunton, Somerset TA1 4QS01823 340830Bo(7-18), D, M, 0-18 
Denstone, Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. ST14 5HN01889 590484Bo, D, M, 11-18
Stonar SchoolCottles Park, Atworth, Wiltshire. SN12 8NT01225 701741Bo(9-18), D(2-18), M(2-18), 2-18 
Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum, Dorset. DT11 8LL01747 812122Bo, D, M, 2½-18
Bucknell, Shropshire SY7 0BG01547 530303Bo(9-18), D(4-18), M(4-18), 4-18
Warminster SchoolChurch Street, Warminster, Wiltshire BA12 8PG01985 210100Bo, D, M, 3-18 
Moyles Court SchoolMoyles Court, Ringwood, Hampshire. BH24 3NF01425 472856Bo, D, M, 2-16 
Pangbourne Reading RG8 8LA+44 (0)118 9767 416Bo, D, M, 11-18
Hailey Lane, Hertford, Hertfordshire. SG13 7NU+44 (0) 1992 706353Bo, D, M, 11-18
Green Lane, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG2 9JP +44(0)1423 566358Bo(8-18), D, M, 3-18
Rossall SchoolBroadway, Fleetwood. FY7 8JW01253 774201Bo(7-18), D, M, 2-18 
Penn Road, Wolverhampton. WV3 0EG01902 341230Bo(11-18), D(4-18), M(4-18), 4-18
Blundell's SchoolBlundell's Road, Tiverton EX16 4DN01884 252543Bo(11-18), D(2-18), M(2-18), 2-18 
Shiplake CollegeHenley-on-Thames, RG9 4BW0118 940 2455Bo(11-18), D, B(11-18), G(16-18), 11-18 
Taunton SchoolStaplegrove Road, Taunton, Somerset TA2 6AD01823 703703Bo(7-18), D(0-18), M(0-18), 0-18 
Cheltenham Road, Burford, Oxfordshire OX18 4PL 01993 823303Bo, D, M, 11-18
High Street, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire WS15 3BW01283 840232Bo 8-18, D, B, 3-18
The Settlement, Ockbrook, Derby, DE72 3RJ01332 673532Bo(11-18), D(2-18), M(2-18), 2-18
The Old Palace, Palace Green, Ely, Cambridgeshire. CB7 4EW01353 660707Bo(8-18), 1-18
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