All aboard

Independent Education Today editor Dave Higgitt interviews Alistair Hallows, head of boarding at Taunton School

Alistair holds down no less than three jobs, a not untypical situation at Taunton. He has job-shared the role of housemaster of a girls’ boarding house with his wife for the last 13 years and reckons this occupies most of his “emotional energy”.

AH: It’s a girls’ house, so my wife and I are house parents. We’re the only one with the house parent model. We’ve got 56 in our house and it requires wraparound care. It’s mostly sixth form, with probably 20 juniors up to year 11. I think recruitment at the sixth-form age is easier. The challenge is the year 9 recruitment, and that’s something that the school has definitely looked at, to try to avoid a mushroom-shaped population. Our recruitment is being focused further down.

The Taunton School International Middle School, for example, has been set up to encourage international recruitment at a younger age. And then there’s the age-old relationship with prep schools and recruitment in the UK markets as well. There’s also the expat market too, which has, I think, gone reasonably well in the last few years – so there’s some stronger links there. And the word of mouth that comes from that. Hopefully you get a good broad balance within your population. So the boarding community itself is quite diverse – we’ve got 19 different nationalities in our house at the moment. We try to get diversity, and we try to avoid large groups of similar tongue speakers so that we can actually develop that community in a much more holistic manner, which generally works.

IET: Tell me about your role as head of boarding 

AH: It involves a lot of coordination. There are five boarding houses, and we meet weekly to discuss matters of the day. A major focus is compliance – I’ve always got half an eye on the national minimum standards for boarding. And preparation of the houses for inspection – we’ve got an inspection coming probably in 12 months’ time from the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

We were inspected two years ago and came out with a very good bill of health then, and I think we’re in a pretty good position, but a lot of that is ongoing. It’s not just about what the boarding staff are doing – it’s about the standard of food and safety of the grounds and procedures of recruitment and all of those things. That’s an interesting job, and you get an insight into lots of areas.

IET: You’ve been head of boarding for five years. What has changed?

AH: Expectations. For example, the food at the school’s always been good, but we’ve now instituted more food to the boarding houses, a better range of fruit and cereals. There’s a much better weekend activity programme – so we’ve now got a calendered programme of events. It used to be much more informal and erratic.

IET: How do you deal with a homesick 13-year-old?

AH: Mentoring and buddying to start with. New boarders will be given a mentor when they come into the boarding house – somebody that’s been there who will help and listen. And we’ve always got an experienced year 9 tutor, if we’re looking at that particular year group, who’s quite well accustomed to dealing with matters of homesickness and similar.

We’ve started an induction programme for our new international students which has been very successful. It give them time before term to come in, look around, meet some people, go ten pin bowling, walk on the hills, make a picnic and do all sorts of things, as well as learn about the ethos of the school. Good communication with the parents is also important – email, phone, letter – with assessments really just to introduce the tutor and get that dialogue going right from the first day. The experienced tutor is happy to say to a parent, “Don’t worry, it’s perfectly natural, it’s just part of the boarder’s life cycle.”

Pastoral care can extend to a daily tutor meeting, and sometimes it’s not a tutor, it’s a prefect or a buddy who’s just saying, “Hey. Are things OK?” One of the strengths of the boarding system is that accessibility – that there’s somebody there who’s going to pick up those problems pretty quickly.

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