Sam and Daisy Cooper, Houseparents at Gordon’s School (TES Boarding School of the Year), describe ways in which they help first-time prep boarders settle in and thrive

Boarding schools have come a long way since those tales of cold showers and huge dormitories. Dedicated staff now guide students as they navigate social interactions, mental-health issues and meeting the high expectations of school, all the while being away from home for the first time, starting in a new school and living with 30 other peers.

Today’s students often describe boarding as ‘one big sleepover’, a ‘home from home’. Secure and friendly, it is where they not only flourish academically, but learn tolerance, resilience, discipline and independence – and make lifelong friends. Free time is packed with activities. With the benefit of large grounds and facilities, they can enjoy the company of hundreds of others – with older students becoming sibling figures.

At Gordon’s – recently named TES Boarding School of the Year – Year 7 boarders are accommodated in Woolwich House, with us as Houseparents. Settling in new charges begins months before students’ arrival. During in-person meetings or Zoom calls, we glean as much information as we can about each child so they can be helped to settle in quickly. For their part, parents are urged to prepare their children before they arrive by increasing their independence, reducing their dependence on mobiles and encouraging them in practical tasks and chores such as making their own bed.

Keeping children active and ensuring a homely atmosphere smooths the path to settling in to boarding life

Mobile phones are limited in the junior house and removed from students for their first three weeks (although children may use the house phone to phone home during this time), an action supported by the vast majority of our parents. The reasoning behind their removal is to encourage friendships. It’s easy for children 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 often once these much sought-after privileges arrive, they are ignored in favour of spending time playing with friends.

“During in-person meetings or Zoom calls, we glean as much information as we can about each child so they can be helped to settle in quickly at Gordon’s”

In the early stages, the children are kept busy. If they’re playing rounders or ‘capture the flag’ then they’re building relationships through play and are less likely to dwell on home.  However, homesickness is always going to crop up – usually at bedtime. Then they come downstairs and are soon on the sofa talking it through with a warm drink. They also support each other in their bunk beds – that is how they develop those lasting friendship bonds.

Each new boarder is assigned a buddy from a year above, to guide them through their first year and on to their senior boarding houses. Independence and organisation are encouraged from the start – if they can get that sorted in their first year, it will be easier in the long run and allows them to focus on their academics and sports. Similarly, if they are active rather than passive – be it looking for ‘lost items’ or keeping their dormitories tidy – they are solving problems for themselves and are in control. This, in turn, gives them confidence.

A bell wakes them up for the first half of their first term, but after that they are given an alarm clock and become responsible for waking themselves up. They are all ready for their senior houses at the end of the year, looking forward to more independence and with the skills and maturity to deal with the next stage of their boarding journey.

Gordon’s School

Further reading: MPW London on supporting international boarders