Housemastering in the 21st century

Peter Middleton reflects on the evolution of Housemastering and its future challenges

The year in which I was appointed Housemaster of Rigg’s Hall- one of eleven boarding houses at Shrewsbury School- coincided with the 150th anniversary of the House’s founding. Twelve esteemed men had been Housemasters before me, including the legendary figure of Billy Haydon, who had been a Housemaster for a grand total of 32 years, during which time he’d married twice and sired ten children, one of whom became the (second) wife of Haydon’s successor Jimmy Street.  

My wife seemed rather alarmed to hear about Haydon- she had no intentions of raising ten children (though, with Shrewsbury moving towards full co-education, we have dutifully produced three daughters), nor did she sign up for 32 years in House, and I can’t imagine she was that reassured to hear that it seemed something of a tradition for the Housemaster to have more than one wife!

Of course, Housemastering has changed considerably over the years, and our experience as House parents would no doubt be unrecognisable to Haydon, Street et al. Our residence continues to be referred to as the ‘Private Side’, though that has become something of a misnomer with our adjoining accommodation, in essence, largely public.  The door that connects our hall with the boarding house is always open, our drawing room and dining room are routinely used for birthday celebrations, music practice or evening prep, and our own children are often to be found with ‘the big boys’.  This open-door policy is typical in boarding houses around the country and far removed from the days in which the Housemaster would rarely be seen, largely leaving his Sixth Form Monitors to run the house, only stepping in if there was a particularly serious issue to deal with. 

We are not alone amongst the Housemaster body in having a young family, and indeed, whilst Shrewsbury has a broad range of experience and ages in this group, like many schools, there has been a trend towards making appointments based on aptitude and demonstrable ability rather than merely seniority.  We no longer operate the traditional ‘tap on the shoulder’ from the Headmaster; I myself benefited from a more transparent appointment process brought in by Mark Turner when he invited applicants for the Rigg’s Hall position in 2010. 

When I first started, I was warned of the ‘tyranny of emails’, with one colleague likening it to the block-based puzzle game Tetris- allow the emails to pile up and it will quickly be ‘game over’. Approximately 80-100 emails swell the inbox each day; the telephone in my study, by contrast, is relatively silent, a dust-gathering relic of a bygone era.  In the past fortnight I have discussed a pupil’s progress with his parents in Boston over Skype and held a meeting with a boy’s mother here in Shrewsbury whilst the father (who was abroad working in Moscow) chipped in to the discussion via FaceTime. Perhaps even email’s days are numbered.

Today’s boarding parents tend to want to be more involved in their child’s education (quite rightly, too) and appreciate feeling ‘in touch’ via reports of house activities on the school website, news bulletins, blogs, end of term letters and Twitter feeds.  Long gone are the days of boarders being bundled into trains at the start of September by parents who they would next see in the depths of winter. Housemasters remain in loco parentis though the literal definition of ‘in the place of a parent’ is perhaps not entirely accurate any more.  Whilst we are charged with the responsibility of their care and welfare during term time, in truth it is a far more collaborative nurturing process these days. 

As with most elements of education, Housemastering has by necessity needed to adapt and evolve and in a fast-moving world is likely to continue needing to do so.  Nevertheless, the essence of the job remains the same; above all else, every Housemaster and Housemistress seeks to nurture, encourage and understand each and every one of their boarders.  The role is (and always has been) both a privilege and a responsibility; there is in my mind no more rewarding job.  Fours years down, twenty-eight to go…

Peter is Housemaster of Rigg’s Hall house at Shrewsbury School.


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