How school can save you from teenage traumas

The Telegraph, 11/04/15, issues around food, exercise, body image and internet use make the pastoral care of students a priority – not to mention a minefield. Eleanor Doughty reports. HMC member schools Bedales, Benenden, Oakham and Oundle feature.

Teenage life can be hard work. Not just for the teens themselves, battling through a modern marathon of Snapchat, decoupled AS-levels and the continuous presence of Kim Kardashian on their televisions, but for parents too. Whether children attend day or boarding schools, the pastoral system is of the utmost importance.

But before teenagers become teenagers, there is a lot that can be done to tackle issues with food. At Bedales School in Hampshire, prevention goes a long way to creating a cure.

So committed is the school to the cause that in May it will host a conference on pastoral care at boarding schools. At Bedales pre-prep, “children are taught to pick food from across the food groups, and why this is good for them”, explains Louise Wilson, the deputy head.

Further up the school, meals are sociable, with staff and pupils regularly eating together. “During the week, house staff invite students for 'at homes’ at their own houses,” Wilson says. “Healthy eating is important. We don’t avoid talking about food and older students mentor younger ones.”

It goes without saying that healthy eating should be on the menu at all schools, and various initiatives over the years have tried to combat this. At Knightsbridge School in Chelsea, the Edible School Garden Project is under way, providing a garden space for pupils to grow their own vegetables to eat.

The children enjoy growing vegetables, picking herbs and learning about where food comes from and it has been hugely popular with both pupils and parents alike.

A decade on from Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, founders of the “Naturally Fast Food” chain Leon, co-authored the Independent School Food Plan. This picks up Oliver’s turkey twizzlers baton and runs with it, with support from the Department for Education.

The plan includes initiatives such as a checklist for head teachers, working up a guide to the steps that every school can take to improve the quality and take-up of its lunches. They want to encourage teachers to eat in the dining hall alongside pupils, as in many independent schools, and ban packed lunches.

But teenage eating habits and issues surrounding self-esteem cannot be solved with gardening or the instant dismissal of packed lunches. While education, education, education may be the key for younger children, schools also have to assess what happens when they do find pupils struggling with the difficulties of teenage life.

One way of managing food issues before they have had time to develop is collaboration – not just with pupils, but with parents too. At boarding schools, where staff are in loco parentis, mums and dads must put their trust in the pastoral care system.

“As a parent you have the right to be emotional,” Nigel Lashbrook, head teacher of Oakham School, in Rutland, says. “In a boarding school you have staff who have the benefit of experience, along with the professionalism, to really be able to support and nurture the child, alongside the parent. They can, when most needed, give an objective opinion.”

At Benenden, Kent, sporting participation is still compulsory in the upper years, but girls have the opportunity to choose from gym-based activities as well as lacrosse, hockey, netball and athletics.

While girls might be the focus of much attention when it comes to eating disorders and self-esteem issues, boys also suffer in similar ways. “Many of the issues for boys are the same as those faced by girls,” Wilson says. “Like girls, boys have to deal with the great expectations placed on them by what they experience on the internet.”

At Bedales, the approach is the same for the boys as for girls: “We respond to difficulties as they emerge.”

While not all schools sing from the same hymn sheet as Bedales, where teachers go by their first names and pupils don’t wear uniform, its approach is universally appreciated.

“[Schools should] have an open, non-judgmental culture of mutual respect and care between all members of the community so that students feel supported and cared for at school,” Wilson adds. “This means an emphasis on strong and trusting student-student and student-teacher relationships.”

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