MPW London Vice Principal (Boarding) John J Taylor on why we we need to understand the needs of international boarders in order to deliver the right pastoral support

At the start of every academic year, teachers spend time going through their class lists for the coming year identifying boarders with SEND or medical needs, but I wonder how many teachers also mark international boarders on their class lists? While we should not be treating them as significantly different from their classmates, international boarders do have significantly different needs from day pupils, so teachers should know who in their class is boarding. Boarders are, by their very nature, living away from home, sometimes for the first time, sometimes thousands of miles from family. Homesickness is real and, indeed, so is culture shock, but it isn’t just these aspects of boarding which we need to be aware of in order to support boarders.

M P W Lond
MPW London students – John J Taylor says there must be understanding of international boarders’ situation and encouragement to access the right pastoral support

Many boarders come from other cultures, so UK boarding schools should not expect them to suddenly ‘become British’ on arrival – pop them in a uniform, feed them a roast every Sunday, and they’ll fit right in, right? In fact, different cultures have different customs, ways of being and thinking – also different concepts of shame – and it is important we spend time understanding this. Some boarders have poor mental health. This may be for several reasons, but often the source of the issue involves family – parental pressure or the inherent need a young person feels to ‘prove themself’ or make the family proud. In many cases, there will be real barriers when it comes to accessing available support. Boarders often don’t wish to engage with school support services, preferring online and mother tongue counselling. Usually, they will then pay inordinate rates for insufficient remote support, typically without telling their school. Post-pandemic, it is more crucial than ever that we encourage boarders to access appropriate support within and outside the protective environment of their school.

“Post-pandemic, it is more crucial than ever that we encourage boarders to access appropriate support within and outside the protective environment of their school”

Normalising support is of paramount importance. Signposting boarders to the counsellor, independent person, house staff, medical centre, and external agencies through as many methods as possible – boarders’ meetings, noticeboards, online systems, and so on – can help them to begin to consider accessing support where they feel they need to do so. It is never useful to attempt to convince a boarder to access support – much better to coach them in the direction of making their own decision to take that critical first step.

I find the ‘Care / Understand / Help’ model of pastoral care helpful in such cases. I have no doubt that boarding staff care deeply about their young people, and they’re very able to identify issues and to signpost boarders towards support. However, it is worth focusing on the ‘Understand’ part of the process. Spending time with boarders to talk about their home cultures and identify underlying issues ultimately helps the young people find appropriate support. Not all people in crisis need professional counselling, and it is too easy to simply refer the problem on.

Boarding staff are not mental health professionals, nor should they be expected to be. However, when they spend a little more time listening to and understanding a boarding student, not only will the young person gain more, but these moments of truth often become the most important and rewarding moments for anyone lucky enough to be working in boarding.

MPW London

Further reading: Burgess Hill Girls on boarder support in tough times