A bespoke approach to caring for boarders and a focus on positive activities to encourage conversation was never more important than during the Covid pandemic, says Nicola Donson, Assistant Head Boarding and Pastoral at Burgess Hill Girls

At Burgess Hill Girls, where we have 52 boarders, we have always been really proud of how we create a homely, comfortable and safe environment for the girls. Even so, the pandemic – with all the attendant anxiety and stress it brought to pupils – meant we had to revise our strategy to respond to this unique set of boarding circumstances. 

Great pastoral care has always been right at the top of the list for any parent looking at a boarding school for their child, but after the pandemic hit and live teaching stopped many international boarders could not get home. There had never been a greater need for excellent pupil support at boarding schools. We knew that Covid was not going away anytime fast, and that the pandemic would not be short-lived. The repercussions for many of our girls were that they would not be seeing their families for long stretches of time. The situation was frightening enough for children around the world anyway, but imagine not being able to have a hug from mum or dad because they were thousands of miles away?  

We decided to address as many of these anxieties as we could and put together a wellbeing programme for boarders, with sessions on a variety of helpful themes. These included explaining exactly who was there to look after them and listen to their concerns – not just teachers but school counsellors, form tutors, the school nurse, independent listeners who are not employees of the school – even our school dog Jasper. 

“Our Story Club became a chance for pupils to tell stories from home and share what life is like where they live with their families”

Another session looked at how this situation was an opportunity to learn to take responsibility for yourself when living away from home. For instance, there were loads of opportunities to cook and make the type of dish you would make with your family. Regular activities laid on in the past now became more specifically wellbeing focused. We talked a lot about mental health and how important it is to share worries and concerns with others. This was particularly helpful, I believe, for students who come from cultures where mental health is not as openly discussed as it is here in the UK. 

Burgess Hill Girls on boarder support in extraordinary times
At Burgess Hill Girls, there was extra focus on activities where girls could chat about their feelings while doing another activity, says Nicola Donson

Our Story Club, which pre-pandemic was used to help boarders with their English, now became an opportunity for pupils to tell stories from home and share what life is like where they live with their families. This built a community feel, with everyone learning about each other’s lives back home. With crafting club and baking club becoming very popular during this time, the ways in which girls could chat about their feelings while doing an activity also increased. 

When school life resumed, we audited our wellbeing programme to assess its effectiveness. We did this by asking pupils to fill out questionnaires agreeing or disagreeing with statements describing how happy, comfortable and confident they felt. The results students gave were really positive and reassuring. But what mattered most to us was the impact on our young people, captured in responses such as this one: “During lockdown, everything changed. Things became more difficult and seemed hard to achieve, especially lessons,” recalls Year 11’s Yashi Chen.

“We started remote learning in the boarding house and in the beginning I thought it was going to be all chaos and difficult to achieve, but the boarding staff made a lot of effort to support us as much as they could,” adds Yashi. “During the weekends, they arranged lots of activities to make sure we were not bored but also had time to relax and hang around with friends. We had opportunities to order Chinese food together and enjoy it together as a big family. In the end, lockdown didn’t seem to be so bad, and everyone had a lot of fun.” 

Burgess Hill Girls burgesshillgirls.com

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