Boarding schools can benefit girls by building resilience

Can boarding schools play a role in developing mental toughness? Marina Gardiner Legge, Headteacher at Heathfield in Ascot, shares her thoughts…

I wasn’t at all surprised to read that independent schools scored more highly in a recent survey measuring mental toughness. Often categorised as ‘grit’ or resilience, mental toughness is hard to define but teachers know when a child has it. It is about sticking at things, trying your best, overcoming obstacles and not being daunted by challenges or afraid of failure.

The research, carried out under the direction of Professor Peter Clough of Manchester Metropolitan University, defined mental toughness as the ‘mindset that every person adopts in everything they do’ and measured the four key components identified as confidence, control, commitment and challenge. This test gave an overall score of 4.26 to independent schools, higher than a figure of 3.94 recorded across state schools. 

It may be that young people have more chances to flex their muscles in independent schools and have a wide range of opportunities to develop resilience, perseverance, leadership, and the ability to think on their feet. 

I appreciate that these features are not unique to boarding schools – however, I believe that the boarding element is equally as important. Boarding schools offer the opportunity to take part in an array of extracurricular activities, from lunchtime recitals to team sport. The action-packed day not only develops physical toughness but also strong independence and time-management skills, where each girl organises her own activities, instilling important self-confidence. 

‘Young people need to step out of their comfort zone and relish the challenge of living and working in a rapidly changing world.’

Staff in boarding schools see children for 24 hours a day and character development is part of their remit. What happens outside the classroom is as important as what happens in lessons. Here the girls are cared for by people who want them to achieve, all within a safe environment. Our girls know that they will be supported if things do go wrong and understand that failure is acceptable – any problem is just a mole hill on the mountain slope of success! 

Living and working together teaches empathy, respect and independence. A boarding environment creates more interactions with a wider group of peers and adults therefore pupils are constantly building skills in tolerance and negotiation. Living away from home allows girls to step out of their comfort zone and to cultivate the mental toughness required at university or when entering the workplace.

Outstanding pastoral care and a well-structured, age-appropriate programme of extracurricular activities bring out the best in students. This is particularly important for girls entering their formative teenage years who typically start secondary school with a mental toughness score of 4.4 that falls to 3.59 as they enter Year 9. As pupils move up a class, mental toughness rises again – up to 4.45 when they reach Year 13 – highlighting the significant drop in line with hormonal changes. 

As girls enter the middle years of school their role models shift from their parents to their social circle, making small steps to becoming more resilient even more important. Whether this is through reading in assembly or taking part in a drama performance, these daily activities combined with a proactive pastoral care programme all help build an authentic character. 

Young people need to step out of their comfort zone and relish the challenge of living and working in a rapidly changing world. In the words of American psychologist Susan Jeffers, they need to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. 


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