Responsibility versus maturity – when to introduce more freedom to prep school boarders

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by Paddy Moss, Headmaster of Dean Close Preparatory School
Responsibility-versus-maturity

Every parent hopes their child will grow up to be a success – a happy and fulfilled adult who makes considered choices and who appreciates the value of being of service to others. Many schools promise to provide the opportunities to achieve this, particularly through boarding provision. Boarding is no longer popular simply as a necessity for travelling or busy parents – it is a lifestyle choice for parents who recognise and value the benefits of it.

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There are many values to be gained and lessons learnt from being educated away from home – teamwork through living with others, taking care of one’s own physical and emotional needs with support from staff, taking responsibility for self-organisation both of academic and co-curricular activities. These are all qualities a child can develop at a nurturing boarding school. 

Offering an age-appropriate level of independence is of great value. So how do schools manage to give enough freedom for those who are mature enough, while holding on a little more tightly to those who are not quite ready to take their next steps? The key is for houseparents and house tutors to really know each individual pupil very well and to work with parents through understanding their different parenting styles. Equally important is monitoring the choices each child makes as they navigate their school journey, being there to celebrate their successes and offering compassion and guidance when they make mistakes.

‘House rules’

A clear set of ‘house rules’ act as an invaluable safety net. These can give more freedom for older boarders, that younger boarders can aspire to, and a clear understanding that these levels of freedom are earned, based on the houseparents’ judgement. Again, knowing the individual child is important in order to offer the appropriate concessions. Giving responsibility to a young person can have immense benefits for all involved and can offer opportunities to learn and develop new skills. 

The first question to consider when giving responsibility is: ‘Are they ready?’ Professionals who work in boarding schools are very experienced in knowing when to allow their charges to draw close and when to loosen up. 

While supervision levels are never relaxed, as a boarder gains greater maturity, so expectations of appropriate behaviour and responsibility increase. Examples of increased freedoms in a school such as Dean Close can be found in downtime and during more routine school time. For example, in the run-up to examinations, dedicated staff sit with younger boarders guiding them through their revision homework, while older prep school pupils are expected to have created their own revision timetable and to prepare independently for the challenges of the exam hall.

Opportunities and consequences

During the lovely long summer evenings, older pupils at Dean Close enjoy playing traditional wide games in the woodland area where they can run off their pent-up energy, but they are fully aware of the consequences if they stray too far from their team or return to the boarding house past curfew. These opportunities to be close to ‘home’ but at the same time out of sight, provide invaluable lessons – creating their own fun, being aware of the time and looking out for others.

Boarding schools fortunate to be located in, or in close walking distance of, a town can also allow their pupils some supervised freedom off site. While it might be suitable to allow older prep school pupils to do their Christmas shopping in town in small groups, an annual treat they all look forward to, younger pupils can also visit their favourite haunts but remain under the watchful gaze of a gap year student.

Just as parents expect more involvement of children in helping with the household chores, so boarders benefit from taking responsibility for organising their boarding house. Rotas for keeping the games room tidy or helping matron with the nightly toasted sandwiches are opportunities for children to serve and they gain great satisfaction from this.

While away from home, children have to make choices and decisions uncoached by parents, the consequences of which should always be seen as a learning experience. Whether it is a good choice that leads to a positive result or a less considered one which should never be repeated, a child learns through this process. They understand they have the ability and freedom to take responsibility and build up resilience if a situation does not go their way, taking their first steps to becoming well-rounded and happy individuals. The road can be more rocky for some than others, but a good school will always recognise the value of the journey.

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