Behind the scenes at Harrow School: the boarding house uncovered

Independent School Parent, Spring 2015, the boarding house system at Harrow School enriches the boys’ educational experience and builds lifelong friendships, writes Alastair Land, Deputy Head Master at HMC member school Harrow.

Boarding houses are the beating hearts of boarding schools. At Harrow, we have 12 such “hearts” on the Hill, each of which has a unique character, as well as gardens and facilities that set them apart. Approximately 70 boys live in each of the school’s Houses, along with a residential house master, assistant house master and matron. There are no dormitories: a boy shares his room with a boy of the same age for the first year or two, and thereafter has a room to himself. It is very much his own place where he keeps his belongings, puts up his pictures and gets some hard-earned sleep.

What does a boarding house do?

Ostensibly, a boarding house’s primary function is to provide a place for pupils to rest, to relax, to do their prep, to wash and to socialise. Ask any Harrovian, however, and he will tell you (perhaps in more words) that his House fundamentally enriches his educational experience, while a Harrow parent will say that the House system enables the highest level of pastoral care. Under the house master’s leadership, and with the support of numerous other pastoral specialists, the House underpins a boy’s personal andacademic development, so that he is prepared to enjoy life and be of good influence after school.

The sense in which a boy identifies with his House at Harrow is at least as strong as his identification with the school. Over five years, he will think of himself more as a member of Bradbys, say, or of Druries, than in the context of his school year group, his classes, his teams or extra-curricular activities.

Alongside others in his House, he will compete in every realm, whatever his level of ability. With his House, he will celebrate and commiserate, and do hum-drum things as well, like eating meals, doing laundry and homework. At the end of terms and on Speech Day, grand house occasions will punctuate his school career and become lingering milestones in his memory.

Learning to grow up

The House is also where the adolescent boy comes to terms with what it means to be an independent adult. Through an incremental system of duties, he will learn about contributing to society on an equal basis and experience genuine responsibility through shepherding new Shells (first year pupils), being head of a corridor, captain of a House team and ultimately a House monitor (prefect).

He will address the age-old themes of relationships, group dynamics, regulation and disappointment, as well as contemporary issues such as social media and global living. These are not merely survived by muddling through but tackled head-on in the House through structured and well-resourced health education and tutorship. All of this extends far beyond those aspects that we might anticipate.

In such an environment, the community becomes very tightly bonded and lifelong associations are wrought. It is simplistic to assume constant harmony but, given the profound relationships that exist, all work together when they are strained, and become stronger. The durability of these friendships is warmly evidenced when former members of a House gather 20, 30 and 40 years on to relive their experiences.

It is clear that a boarding house is the lynch pin of a young person’s development at boarding school and especially so if you are considering full (rather than weekly or flexi) boarding. So, how to go about choosing a house, if each heart seems to have a slightly different beat? After many years in the business, our advice at Harrow is: “leave it to us”.

Making boarding houses family environments
While we appreciate the diversity of our Houses, we ensure that each has a good mix of boys, so that none is, say, particularly sporty or musical. House masters also adopt a consistent standard in the way they run their House. Those parents that do express a preference tend to have old Harrovian connections that link to a particular House. In circumstances where you are encouraged to choose, parents may wish to adopt an analytic approach: is the house academic, cultural or sporting? Are its routines efficient? What are its facilities like?

Such considerations are valid but perhaps more akin to selecting a hotel than a place for your child to develop into an adult. So while retaining these benchmarks, also tune into how a House makes you feel: do we as a family get on with the house parent? Do we want our child to spend time in the company of the people we encountered on the tour?

If you do miss out on your first choice, then trust the school and accept the House offered. If you believe in the school’s purpose, its Houses will reflect that; so you should get to know the House team right away and support them thoroughly. A happy experience is sure to follow.

Read the full article © Independent School Parent