At the end of the summer term the time came again to head round to leavers’ events at many of our schools. To me, these occasions are often poignant: seeing pupils leave one stage of their development to move onto another brings a unique mix of excitement and a few tears. Probably more so in preparatory boarding, as we see how much they’ve changed over the years. These schools have a special role in that, besides their academic learning, pupils are taught life skills as well – and in a today’s boarding schools, this includes their relationship with food. Boarding schools have moved on a long way from the antiquated Tom Brown stereotype people so often imagine, and within this modernised system, we caterers play a vital part. Boarding schools have become exciting, fun places to live, and we need to be part of this change.
The 21st century has seen a new emphasis on pastoral care at boarding schools, and ensuring pupils’ wellbeing. Food plays a vital role in this. The meals which pupils would usually receive in a home environment are therefore our primary concern from a pastoral perspective, so at breakfast and dinner we strive to maintain a relaxed, informal environment. This allows us to foster a sense of being at home, as though amongst family. This is helped by themed events on traditional holidays, giving boarders food to look forward to at the weekends, when being away from home might be especially tough. Little things like this tend to go a long way in maintaining the ‘home from home’ atmosphere.
Our catering teams don’t just provide dinner, but also a welcoming and friendly face which can keep an eye out for any child that seems troubled
We also play a role in pupils’ education on a more general level. When younger children are sent to boarding school, we often help teach them about table manners, nutrition and health, and food waste to name but a few. These are skills which develop in the age range of prep school boarders, and so we run a number of exciting events and programmes to ensure these messages come across – teaching pupils about food in ways they find fun and exciting as well as informative.
I also think it’s incredibly important that our employees try to fit into the school’s community. In providing a child’s evening meal, we play a role which is as much emotional as it is nutritional. Our teams are encouraged to develop a friendly relationship with the pupils, and we make them aware that young children at boarding schools are especially vulnerable – our catering teams don’t just provide dinner, but also a welcoming and friendly face which can keep an eye out for any child that seems troubled. Caterers interact with pupils outside the formal teaching environment, and so pastoral care here is important – our setting is where emotional problems are likely to surface. This approach helps our schools combat potential unhappiness, and to create a safe, enjoyable environment for pupils.
As their caterer, it is important that our service reflects well on schools, and that we keep pace with the developments there – a challenge I believe we have met consistently. I was reassured in this conviction again at some school-leaving events: pupils were wishing fond farewells to our catering teams, and many were mentioned in the speeches given. One father even told me he planned to recommend us to his son’s new headmaster at his next school! Whilst personal recommendation is a great way of getting new business, it also demonstrated how appreciative boarding school communities are of the work we do. Clearly our mix of homeliness and innovation goes a long way in creating a modern and enjoyable eating environment in schools.
Sue Parfett is Managing Partner of The Brookwood Partnership, the specialist independent schools caterer and part of CH&Co Group.