Fostering independence at boarding schools

Posted on 10th Nov 2022 in Which School?, Boarding, Independent Schools

Sam Cooper, Head of Boarding at Gordon’s School, shares how he and his wife Daisy engender independence in a supportive environment.

Boarding schools have come a long way since the tales of cold showers, uncaring, strict staff and huge dormitories filled with rows of home-sick children. These days we peddle patience, guiding students as they navigate social interactions, mental health issues and meeting the high expectations of the school, all that while being away from home for the first time, starting in a new school and living with 30 other peers. For most, mixed Year 7 boarding works, providing a balanced, consistent constant, based on what guides us.

Nowadays, boarding is often described as ‘one big sleepover’ by students, who regard it as very much a ‘home from home’: secure, friendly places where children not only flourish academically, but also learn tolerance, resilience, discipline, independence - and make life-long friends in the process.

Evenings and weekends are packed with activities, both external and in house, and as well as large grounds and facilities, children can enjoy the company of perhaps hundreds of others every day and weekend. With the right culture, the older students become older sibling figures who guide the younger ones in the ways of boarding.

As Head of Boarding at Gordon’s and a joint Houseparent of Woolwich House, alongside my wife Daisy, the work of settling in our new charges begins months before they actually arrive. During in-person meetings or Zoom calls with overseas parents, we try and glean as much information as we can about their child so we can help them settle in as quickly as possible. We feel we know them before they arrive!

Communication with the parents helps build trust between us and we notice a sense of relief from them that not only will Gordon’s provide stability for their children but some of the military values on which the school is built, camaraderie and a sense of being the best one can be for something bigger than oneself, in the form of House identity and eventually living the school’s motto Semper Fidelis.

Parents can help their children by increasing independence, reducing their dependence on mobile phones and prompting them to carry out practical tasks and chores such as making their own bed.

The use of mobiles is limited throughout their year in our junior House and are removed from students for their first three weeks (although they are permitted to use the House phone to speak to their parents during this time). The vast majority of parents support this policy.

The reasoning behind their removal is to encourage friendships - it’s easy to sit in a corner with their phone if they’re feeling self-conscious but without one, they are making friends and learning how to gel with those in their House.

Phone usage is gradually increased but we find that often when these once much sought-after privileges arrive, they are ignored in favour of spending time playing with their friends!

Almost as soon as the new 11 year old boarders are dropped off, they are packing for a night’s camping. High wires, rock climbing and marshmallows around campsite fires help break down any barriers and start cementing friendships with others beyond their boarding House.

The Boarding House is run as an extension of our home – the kitchen door is always open and our children and dog running around. Saturday morning pancakes in our kitchen are a weekly treat! Students feel comfortable, safe and secure - it’s their term time home and our aim is to make them feel that way.

In the early stages the children are kept busy with many activities. If they’re playing rounders or ‘capture the flag’ then they won’t be feeling homesick! However, home sickness is always going to crop up and it usually happens at bedtime. Then they come downstairs and are on the sofa drinking hot chocolate and talking it through. They also support each other in their bunk beds really early on – that is how they develop those lasting friendship bonds.

Each new boarder is assigned a carefully selected buddy – a boarder from a year above them with a similar background, to guide them through their first year and on to their senior boarding houses.

We really push independence and organisation from the start and try and get them to realise that if they can get tidiness and organisation sorted this year, it will be easier in the long run and allow them to focus on their academics and sports.

They are all ready to go on to their senior houses at the end of the year here, looking forward to more independence and with the skills and maturity to deal with the next stage of their boarding journey. Then it’s our turn to release our fledglings and have another empty nest ready for the next year’s cohort. Exhausting? Yes. Fun? The best. Worth it? More than anything.

Sam and Daisy Cooper are both Houseparents of the Year 7 Boarding House at Gordan’s, Tes Boarding School of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 2023 edition of Which School? You can view the digital version of the guidebook here: