Helping sensitive boys

“Whether it’s fulfilling one’s promise on the sports field, or coping with a first term of boarding, being emotionally robust really helps.”

In this guest blog, psychologist and author Dr Rob Pluke gives advice to parents and teachers on how to help sensitive children rise to the challenges life throws at them.

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Having a sensitive temperament is not a diagnosis

Same factory, different products

It is now widely recognized that emotional well-being and resilience are of significant benefit to a young person. But as most parents of two or more children know, we don’t enter the world with equal levels of emotionality. Instead, whilst one child seems to cruise through life’s challenges, his sibling is often overly cautious, too easily upset, and disconcertingly low on confidence. So for parents it really can be a case of ‘same factory, but very different products’!

Much of this difference may be due to temperament, by which I mean a child’s inborn personality. And it’s worth bearing in mind that roughly 20% of infants are born with emotionally sensitive temperaments. This is not a diagnosis – there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive. But when we appreciate the realities of temperament, we are more likely to understand that one can’t adopt a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to dealing with children and teens.

Pause-to-check

Experts such as Elaine Aron and Jerome Kagan agree that sensitive children tend to be uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. For Aron, sensitive people have an in-built ‘pause-to-check’ mechanism, which perhaps explains why they don’t like surprises, or change, and are perhaps too quick to say ‘no’ to life’s opportunities. Teachers and coaches working with such youngsters would do well to understand that this ‘no’ need not be the teen’s final word, and that compassionate encouragement can go a long way towards helping sensitive boys to take up challenges they might otherwise have avoided.

Because sensitive teens can become moody or emotionally overwhelmed, adults who want to offer support need to be comfortable with negative emotions. But as John Gottman points out, we all carry unconscious rules about emotions, based on our own experiences as children. So take a moment to recall what happened when you were upset as a child. To whom did you turn and how were your emotions received? Were your upsets dismissed or even criticized, or were they treated with concern and respect?  Helping someone who is emotional can be demanding, but if we know our own default settings, then I think we can be less reactive and more available to the young person in need.

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Rob Pluke’s book contains more detailed information on this topic

Two challenges

If I had to pick the two most common challenges for mentors and parents of sensitive teens, these would be:

  • How to cope with anxiety
  • Whether and when to push

Of course neither of these issues is by any means straightforward and this brief post can only highlight a few pointers that I think would be most usable and effective. More detailed information can be found in my book ‘Parenting the sensitive child’.

Coping with anxiety 

As regards the first challenge, I think that it can be tremendously helpful for anxious teens if they are simply offered a forum to talk. Within this forum, I would have three stepping stones in mind.

Step One: Just let the person talk about his worries. Make an effort to understand the issue from his vantage point. This builds trust, and the person feels understood. This is not to be underestimated! It’s almost not worth proceeding without this basis.

Step Two: Help the youngster to calm down. ‘Just’ talking helps a lot here anyway, but really stressed youngsters may benefit from taking a walk outside, or from being allowed a bit of a time out in a quieter corner of the campus. Once calm, people are better able to think, which means you can go on to the next stage.

Step Three: Help the young person resolve how to go forward with wisdom. We can’t always offer comprehensive solutions to a young person’s problems, but oftentimes simply focusing on the day ahead, filled with doable tasks and goals, serves as an excellent intermediate step.

I want young people to know that anxiety, although often highly aversive, is always only a part of who we are. Emotions may get big, but they need not define us. On the other hand, if a sensitive teen believes that he can only do life when he’s not anxious, then he is more than likely to be stuck.

To push or not to push?

As to the second challenge, Shoo! I think we have to accept that knowing when to push a young person past his comfort zone will always be debatable. If I push him, will he thrive or will he sink? Will he thank me or hate me? Surely this dilemma is best addressed within the three-step process outlined above. That said, I would think that without some buy in from the teen, one couldn’t go much beyond a single ‘push’ without resentment creeping in. Said differently, it’s very hard to help a young person meet a challenge if he has no intrinsic motivation.

But this is where trust and understanding are invaluable. If young people see that we understand, and that we are for them, then I have seen that they are able to reach beyond the murk of their emotions, and take hold of an outstretched hand.


Rob PlukeDr Rob Pluke is a psychologist in private practice. Over the years Rob has lectured part-time at UKZN and acted as supervisor on the Psychology Masters programme. Rob presents workshops and talks to parents and schools and earlier this year he presented a paper on his doctoral study at the 3rd Emotional Intelligence African Summit. He has also written several articles for parenting magazines. Rob has worked extensively with children and adolescents and is the author of the book, ‘Parenting the Sensitive Child’.

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I said ‘Prefect’, not ‘perfect’

I picked up John Cleese’s autobiography, ‘So Anyway’ the other day. Cleese was at our school some years back when it was used as a film location for the movie ‘Spud’ which he was acting in. I also played alongside Cleese in the movie. When I say played alongside him, I mean I was one of about thirty extras in a scene that he was in. If you look carefully you can just make out the back of my head in the film. Actually I was surprised I was in it at all given what happened during the filming of the scene, that is perhaps a story is for another time, suffice to say that it involved my malfunctioning iPod, an irritated sound technician, an irate director, several takes and an impatient cast including Mr Cleese.

Anyway I wanted to see if Cleese’s book was worth my time reading and if Cleese mentioned the time he was at our school and perhaps even the aforementioned scene. It wasn’t and he doesn’t, but while I was flicking through it I came across a passage about his final year at Clifton College when he was up for selection to be a prefect. He writes, “I walked into North Town (his school house) and strolled up to the notice board to confirm that Mr Williams, my housemaster, had finally made me a house prefect. This was not an unreasonable assumption: in the summer, I’d been in the School XI, captained the House XI, passed three A levels, completely reorganised the house library, played the lead in the house play, and stolen more cricket equipment from the other houses than had ever been nicked before. Besides all my other friends were not merely house prefects, but school praeposters, official Big Cheeses and none of them seemed so vastly superior to me as the discrepancy in our social status would suggest…It never occurred to me that ‘Billy’ Williams would withhold this trial act of recognition any longer.

“But, as you have guessed, he had. I stood there, staring at the blank space where my name should have been, as I experienced first utter disbelief, then hurt, and then contempt”

It is that time of year in our own school when as the boys in the senior year head off to write their final examinations, we appoint a new round of pupils to leadership positions. I am not looking forward to it. Over the years I have sat with countless boys trying to come to terms with the fact that they have not been made prefects. Like Cleese there has been disbelief and hurt, but also tears, frustration, anger and confusion. Like Cleese many of them cannot see how their friends and peers who are really not that much different to themselves suddenly seem to have so much more social status that comes with being a Prefect.

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I think part of the problem is that it is such an either, or, winner takes all system. You are either a prefect, or you’re not, with all the privileges and status, or not, that it entails. For many boys it feels like stamp of approval on them, or not. Either validating who they are and their efforts or seemingly ignoring them. Of course we know that being a prefect makes no material difference to your later life, but it does not seem that way to a seventeen year old boy at the time. With a prefect badge and/or tie you are someone, without it you are no one.

Just recently I found myself watching ‘Spud’ on television. This was not to reassure myself that the back of my head was still in the film, but rather because as the father of three teenage boys you often find yourself watching movies of this genre and my eldest is now physically strong enough to ensure I can’t wrestle the remote control out of his hands anymore. For those of you unaware of the books and movies that bear the name of Spud, these are simply the fictional diaries of the life of a boy named John Milton at boarding school in South Africa. This was now the third in the series and along with the usual fare of farting, body parts, alcohol and obsession with sex, a good portion of the film focused on the fact that John Milton and his peers are up for prefect selection.

I popped into our school library after watching the movie to pick up the book. The idea of PFP or Pushing For Prefect is preeminent throughout and refers to the lengths boys will go to in order to impress staff and other boys in order to make convincing case that they should be prefects. It also alludes to the damage done to the relationships of the boys as they compete and jostle for only a limited number of positions. At one point near the end of the book, one of Milton’s friends who goes by the nickname of ‘Garlic’ gives his reasons for wanting to be a prefect:

  • Nobody can boss you around
  • Tea and snackwiches are made for you whenever you want
  • You can tell people that you are a prefect and not be lying
  • You never have to make your bed or pick up your laundry
  • The prefects room is like having your own private lounge
  • Everyone respects you
  • You can punish anyone you want whenever you feel like it
  • You don’t feel like a loser
  • You get a prefect’s tie, which you can wear to a job interview to impress bosses.
  • You’re guaranteed to score more chicks
  • People take you seriously
  • You rule the world.

In the diary when Milton hears his friend recite this list he records, “And then it sank in. I do want to be a prefect. I do want all these things. I also want to be taken seriously and be respected by the other boys…I want to walk around the house like I own the place. I want it all desperately!”

A 17 year old boy wants to be someone, they want respect and to feel that they are taken seriously. It is quite a devastating blow when in their minds they miss out on the one vehicle that they feel can help them achieve this. Many boys, of course, cope with the disappointment well, but there are those who do not. It would be fair to say that some boys can become very difficult in their final year as a result of not being selected for leadership. It is as if the last incentive for good behaviour and attitude has been removed from their lives. In his autobiography, John Cleese shares more about his feelings around not being a prefect, “The hurt was not that I had wanted so much to be a house prefect, that hardly mattered at all. What wounded me was the put down, the undeserved insult. The dull ache of this stab in the ego began to throb, but was suddenly engulfed in an extraordinary upsurge of high minded contempt.”

For Cleese it was a seminal moment, “I believe this moment changed my perspective on the world’. He explains that up until that time understood that those in authority were basically fair, but with his frustration around this event he says, “I started to become sceptical of authority as a whole…I responded rather splendidly, throwing away my North Town cap that very day and borrowing one from Wiseman’s House… and wearing it defiantly throughout my last year at Clifton.” He also started to hate his Housemaster, “Up that point I had tolerated Williams but now I realised that I really disliked him.

All Housemasters I suspect have seen this sort of behaviour to a greater or lesser extent from disenfranchised boys and with a bit of imagination it is not hard to see why. It is interesting to me that well over 50 years later John Cleese can remember and write about these emotions so vividly.

Times have changed in some ways but there are always problems and issues when it comes to selecting some boys over others in such a value laden arena. So what do we do about it?

  1. We have to remember what a big deal this is for the boys in our care and that the precarious self-esteem and confidence of a 17 year old boy is a precious and fragile thing.
  2. We have to be extremely mindful of these young men when we frame and manage the process of leadership selection. The process must recognise both their dignity and emotional capacity.
  3. We must be honest in acknowledging the flaws in the system and that we too as adults make mistakes.
  4. We must continue to explore other models of leadership more in step with the modern world, that move away from privilege, control and direction to those which recognise the importance of serving and relationships more suited to leadership today.
  5. Finally we have to try to bring perspective into the lives of these young men. Whether they are prefects or not is not significant once they leave school and so, either way it should not define their experience at school. For that to happen, as parents and teachers, we have to make sure we first keep perspective on the issue. For parents this means not being overly invested in whether your son is or isn’t a prefect. For staff it means the onus is on us to ensure boys are not put on too high a pedestal by virtue of the fact that they have been chosen for a leadership position.

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As the adults in their lives, our boys will need our support and guidance whether they meet with success or failure around leadership selection. As teachers and parents we need to be able to say to them, as  Kipling said:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same…

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”

Better out than in?

Three days are spent in the Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack
The High Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack

I am not the most athletic of people. OK I am not at all athletic, the less charitable of my colleagues might go so far as to say that I am a trifle overweight. In addition my bush craft is somewhat lacking, while I can navigate round the mall with the best of them and triangulate with unerring and pinpoint precision the nearest coffee shop, my sense of direction deserts me the second the words outdoors and, great, meet up together. In short I would much rather be inside than out. So it was with a sinking feeling (a sensation that I was to experience again too soon) that I caught my lift to take me out to join a group for the second week of our school 13 day ‘Journey’ experience.

Involving six full days of hiking including the ‘barrier of spears’ of the high Berg, three days of mountain biking, three days of paddling and 40 hours of solitude (which has a certain satisfying Biblical resonance to it), this expedition is not for the fainthearted. Add in to the mix that for staff comes the added responsibility of making sure the 25 or so boys in your group are fed, watered, cared for and behaved for the duration of the journey. Not so much 24/7 then as 24/13. There is often no privacy, no bathrooms, no downtime, no escape. When nature calls, heading off under the gaze of 25 adolescents into the bush, complete with toilet roll and a spade leaves no room for doubt in terms of how you will be spending the next few minutes.

On one previous occasion when I had finally ensconced myself in a location designed to provide maximum privacy in order to complete my rudimentary morning ablutions, I had an overwhelming sense that I was being watched. Given the vulnerable stage in the proceedings that I found myself, I was unable to move and so slowly turned my head while trying to maintain my precarious balance (the consequences of toppling are best not spoken about). Sure enough three pairs of curious and intent eyes belonging to a family of giraffe no more than a stone throw away were silently observing me with no small degree of curiosity.

In the mountains one boy thought he had headed a decent distance from the camp, however altitude can do some funny things to ones sense of perspective and distance and he made his midden in full view of the campsite. Given that it was an extremely windy day and that the young man failed to get full control of the toilet paper, the results were unpleasant both for the participant and forced observers alike. Suffice to say the view of the Berg was somewhat sullied for all concerned.

Putting such thoughts aside I grabbed my final cappuccino for some days from the ‘Pig & Plough’, the name of which should have given me enough of a clue as to the type of landscape we were heading into. Sure enough under an hour later I joined the group in a field full of cows and where there are cows there is always … yup you guessed it, it seems that part of the journey involves dealing with excrement of one kind or another. It was a treat though as we braaied T bone steaks kindly provided by the local farmer. It was less of a treat as we cooked them in a cattle feeding trough while standing in the middle of unseasonably cold and wet weather.

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The long and winding road. Photo: Helen Bownes

The next few days were more of the same, punctuated by 20 kilometre walks, with fully laden backpacks, splashing across rivers, clambering over, under and through barbed wire fences. The one evening was spent with four other staff uncomfortably squashed in the back of the small support vehicle sheltering from the weather while listening on the radio to South Africa being beaten by Japan in the rugby. Not the best Saturday night I have ever spent.

I also struggle to understand that no matter how tired you are, sleeping in a tent on the ground means that you will wake up more exhausted than when you went to bed. I use the phrase ‘wake up’ in the loosest possible way of course as it implies that you had actually slept beforehand when nothing could be further from the truth. Then of course come the joy of packing up a wet tent, while it is still raining, before heading off on the next part of the journey.

There are wonderful moments of course, arriving at a venue with a flat lawn, or where the farmer has allowed access to hot showers, or even provided fresh bread, farm milk and butter for your weary arrival. Many groups also cross battlefields, Spionkop included, and this provides a wonderful opportunity for hands on spontaneous historical, geographical and political lessons. For me what is perhaps most notable is that one learns to value and appreciate the simple things, shelter, food, warmth and water (hot or otherwise).

OK I spoke to soon, I am not sure I learnt to value water. The final three days of our journey involved paddling down the river. This was demanding on the lower back, shoulders, biceps, abdomen and hands.  Added to the fact that I was partnered with someone who had certainly not paddled before, and possibly not even during, his time with me on the plastic contraption that passed for a canoe. Despite this all was going well until the end of the second day when we had our safety briefing for the next day when we would head into ‘The Gorge’. The fact that we even had to have a safety briefing is cause enough for concern in my eyes. I don’t want to go into details but the phrase ‘foot entrapment’ wedged itself in mind, apparently if that happens your foot is actually the last thing you have to worry about. A more wide-eyed and attentive audience of teenage boys is hard to imagine. Once the briefing was complete a subdued group of teens and staff headed for yet another night of restlessness, made worse by dreams of rushing water, rocks and yes ‘foot entrapment’.

One of the Tugela Gorge rapids. Photo: Paul Fleischack
One of the Tugela Gorge rapids. Photo: Paul Fleischack

The following morning we headed down the river picking up our white water guides (one of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to a character from the Hangover) before stopping on the final bend to listen to a technical briefing about which route to take down the approaching rapid. I say listen, but due to a combination of nerves (fear) and the roaring noise from around the corner no one really heard anything. This was evidenced by the glimpses of legs, paddles and safety rope that went flying into the air as the first few boats headed into the Gorge. Somewhat mercifully for those of us waiting to go we could not see much more than that due to the drop at the entrance to the white water.

Finally my nautically deficient crew mate and myself launched into the current, to our surprise picking an almost perfect line into the drop. That was about as good as it got. I am not sure what happened next, just that there was a lot of rocks, a lot more water and even more adrenaline. I managed to ride the entire rapid, some three hundred metres in length, the only problem being that I was no longer in the boat. I have to stress that this was not recommended in the safety briefing, I learnt the hard way that rocks in a river are much harder than a 40 + year old body.

I am told that the spectators at the bottom the rapid saw first my one shoe appear, followed quickly by the second, then by my paddle and finally myself. Of the boat there was no sign but I took the words of the guide that you are to look after yourself first and your equipment second, very much to heart. Hauling my already bruising body out of the river I coughed up a good portion of the Tugela River. In terms of appreciating water, I think I swallowed more in that few short minutes than I had in the previous five days. As I lay on the rocks recovering, my aquatic partner, who had managed to get to the side soon after falling in, made his way to me down the bank and asked what had happened to my shoes. I replied that the river had not only robbed me of my shoes, but also my courage and my dignity.

So why do it? Well there is lots of literature to support the idea of outdoor education in terms of the benefits it brings. Appreciating the simple things in life, working within the rhythms of nature, rising with the sun and sleeping under the stars, cooking your own food, relying on the kindness of strangers, time spent away from electronic devices and having time to talk to others. I had some wonderful conversations with staff and boys alike that I would not otherwise enjoyed. As per the Outward Bound philosophy, it is also good for young people to overcome real mental and physical challenges. The phrase ‘character building’ is often overused, but it is apt in this case. A psychologist friend of mine says that character is built when we choose to act ‘contrary to impulse’. We do what we don’t feel like doing. There was plenty of this over the last 13 days accompanied by moaning, whinging, crying, swearing and anger outbursts, and that was just the staff.

Building character and developing resilience or grit we know to be key for success later on in life, so much of which is pushing through when we don’t want to or even feel we can’t. Do you have to be outdoors for this? No, but when you are outside, away from your home comforts, the consequences of not doing what needs to be done are immediate and vivid. Teenage boys need this in order to learn. If you don’t put your tent up you will get wet, if you don’t cook your food you will go hungry, if you don’t read the map correctly you will walk an additional 12 kilometres in the hot sun and if you don’t listen to the briefing you will fall out your boat.

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Take me home. Photo: Helen Bownes

The same psychologist friend describes fathers and mothers today as ‘Gourmet Parents’ He believes that we give our children the fillets of life without any of the roughage or emotional fibre. By giving young people the best of everything all the hard digestive work is done for them leaving them vulnerable when they come up against serious obstacles, challenges or failure for the first time.

Perhaps it is true that some things really are better out than in. Rivers for sure, but also maybe character education and learning for life. I hope these young men are able to internalise some of the lessons they learnt while in the great outdoors and apply them to their day to day lives both now and in the future. Oh and I really did learn to appreciate water, just so long as it is not white and full of rocks.

Guest-Blog: Ordinary Conversations – Extraordinary Opportunities

In this post Dr Rob Pluke examines the way in which ordinary conversations within school environments can be seen as opportunities to provide scaffolding for boys’ emotional development.


The benefits of emotional intelligence are now well-established. However, many boys struggle to understand themselves and their emotions and find it difficult to talk about their everyday challenges. Recent neurological and psychological research shows that certain conversational strategies can make a real difference when it comes to helping a young person to build emotional intelligence. These strategies are manageable for teachers and parents alike.

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The importance of EQ

As relational beings we are all designed to interact. Our brains are structured to connect socially, and relationship skills can be developed throughout our whole lives. Relationships are crucial to building emotional intelligence and in turn EQ is vital for general health, and functioning well both socially and academically. With a well-developed EQ we can fulfil our potential, manage adversity, persevere and be happy. What we find though is an increasing incidence of emotional difficulties in young people together with underdeveloped emotional intelligence. It is for this reason that constructive relationships are more important than ever.

What young people need

Good conversations embedded in a positive relationship are a life-long resource; they build emotional intelligence (self/other awareness). Good conversations help us to think, and as Daniel Siegel puts it, “a good question sends us on a good quest”. Such a quest helps the mind focus and activates prefrontal circuits in the brain, in turn helping them grow stronger. Constructive focused thought also boosts self-regulation and resilience.

Essentially young people cannot develop EQ of their own accord and need us as adults to provide the scaffolding through conversations to help them build this type of intelligence. This can be done using a three-step process.

Step 1 – Listen to their stories

The first step is to allow young people to tell their stories and for us to listen so that we can understand them. Good questions and responses can aid this. Once we truly understand the situation a young person is in we are in a position to help them develop self-regulation, the second step of good conversations.

Step 2 – Encourage self-regulation

Allowing teenagers to describe or write their stories and feelings fosters a measure of personal control over circumstances. Young people can also be taught self-regulatory skills like physical movement, breathing and relaxation, all of which can help them in this area.

Step 3 – Help them to act with wisdom

Finally, once young people feel understood and have had a chance to self-regulate, we can consider the third and final stage, that of acting with wisdom. We can help young people to gain perspective by reflecting on the possible consequences of their choices, their values – what feels right and good so that the person can remember the time without any regrets.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



Rob Pluke
Dr Rob Pluke is a psychologist in private practice. Over the years Rob has lectured part-time at UKZN and acted as supervisor on the Psychology Masters programme. Rob presents workshops and talks to parents and schools and earlier this year he presented a paper on his doctoral study at the 3rd Emotional Intelligence African Summit. He has also written several articles for parenting magazines. Rob has worked extensively with children and adolescents and is the author of the book, ‘Parenting the Sensitive Child’.

More than a game?

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

Gaming is big business. On 29 April 2008 a British-produced game, Grand Theft Auto IV, took the title of the most successful entertainment release in history. Within 24 hours, GTA IV had grossed $310m – comfortably more than history’s most successful book (Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows, at $220m in 24 hours) and its most successful film (Spider-Man 3 at $117m).

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The following year of 2009 according to Tom Chatfield, “…will go down in history as the point at which the UK videogames industry pulled decisively away from cinema, recorded music and DVD sales to become the country’s most valuable purchased entertainment market, with combined software and hardware sales topping the £4bn mark for the first time: more than DVD and music sales combined, and more than four times cinema box office takings.” Tom Chatfield, The Observer, 27 September 2009.

Since then gaming has dominated the entertainment industry…

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Boarding school changes

At the end of last year, David Zuma, one of our support staff, retired after 46 years of work in our school. He started when he was 15 years of age and recalls how he used to get up at 2am to ensure that the old coal stove fires were lit in the school kitchens in time for breakfast, which would unfailingly and solely consist of porridge.

David Zuma retires after 46 years of service

I could not help reflect that David will have seen and experienced many changes during his time working in a boarding school for nearly half a century. I think for me though, the pace of change has accelerated particularly in the last 20 years or so. When I arrived in Africa in 1994 I had not sent an e-mail or made a call on a mobile phone.

It is hard to imagine life today without mobile phones or e-mails although some of our older staff make a good effort to do just that. There is the story (possibly apocryphal) of one recently retired teacher who, when persuaded to get on board the technological train and finally open his e-mail application, found he had over 10,000 unopened messages to sift through. It may well be no coincidence that his retirement came so shortly after this event.

For the students, e-mail is the least preferred method of communication. Why go to the bother when you can (in rough chronological order) SMS, Facebook, BBM, WhatsApp, Instagram or Snapchat all from the convenience of your own mobile phone. Owning and using a phone 24/7 is natural to teenagers, almost like an external hard drive for the brain. Try confiscating one at school and the reaction is as if the right to a phone is enshrined in the universal declaration of teenage rights. To deprive an adolescent of data is like restricting their oxygen supply.

These changes have had a huge impact on boarding. Several of our teachers who have been working in our school for over 20 years remember that students used to have to obtain a permission slip to call home, which allowed them to join the weekly queue for the payphone. They did not have long once they were there, nor could they talk freely. Telling Mum how you miss her hugs and hate your dorm mates is difficult to do when there is an impatient, and clearly unsympathetic, line behind you.

Today of course, communication is available constantly and instantly. Ten years ago a colleague of mine had an altercation in his classroom with a pupil. As the lesson neared the end he realised that it was the sort of issue that might end up on the headmaster’s desk and so decided to inform the head as soon as possible. Immediately the bell rang he made his way across the quadrangle to do just that.. Before he even got halfway across he was hailed by the head’s secretary to be informed that a parent had made a complaint about him. It transpired that the student while still in class had texted his father who in turn had contacted the head all before the end of the period.

This freely available contact with home has led to increased accountability for boarding schools and higher expectations on the staff who work in them. Many colleagues speak of how much more staff are involved in the lives of their charges now, with a much greater awareness of the need for pastoral care than 20 years ago. This accountability has without doubt been good and much needed. Boarding schools are much kinder and caring places than they used to be. However it has come with a cost for the teachers that work in them. Like the frog that got boiled alive without noticing due to the slowly but steadily heating water, staff from a wide array of boarding schools talk of how the incrementally increased pressure and expectations have built up to a point where the demands of the job take their toll both physically and mentally.

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‘Free Bounds’ from the London Illustrated News July 5th 1958

The one day of the week where there is usually the chance for some downtime is Sunday. In the school where I work students used to be encouraged (forced) to leave the vicinity of the school from the hours of 10am until 4pm to roam the nearby countryside, by all accounts every boy had a bicycle at school for this express purpose. One can only imagine what actually happened during this time. Today though, it is an effort to get the students to leave their dorms let alone the premises. Cyber space rather than outdoor space seems to be the environment of choice. With the rise of technology this has led to the phenomenon of what, in our school at least, is called ‘moleing’. This involves burying under ones duvet, preferably on an overcast day, to consume an entire series or as close as possible, on a lap top. ‘Suits’, ‘Vampire Diaries’ and ‘Breaking Bad’ are just a small sample of the almost endless supply of available fare.

To help occupy free time the school still does run clubs and societies, but these are on a much reduced scale to what they were. The Venture Club used to have a waiting list of eager boys keen to explore the South African bushveld. Nowadays however it struggles to get enough participants to make outings viable. The Natural History and Board Games Society no longer even exist. There was even a Gun Club; I still have the tie that its members used to wear. Today though the closest we get to a gun club is the ‘first person shooter games’ the students play. ‘Gaming’ is now a verb and a preferred leisure activity.  ‘FIFA’ and the ‘Call of Duty series are the most popular but there are plenty more.

As a boys only school, after a full morning of class followed by an afternoon of sport there is overwhelming temptation to succumb to some time out ‘gaming’ in the evenings between (hopefully) prep sessions.  Imagine multiplayer on-line games in a school setting where over 500 people roughly your age are all on the same network, the possibilities are almost infinite. Such is the enthusiasm that these games invoke that for one popular game about ten years ago; the students designed and programmed the entire school building into the game as a backdrop option for battles.  More recently the boys adapted FIFA 15 so that it included the entire school Under 16A soccer team, complete with pictures, player profiles and ratings. I can’t imagine this happening even two decades ago. Both of these initiatives require creativity, ingenuity skill and no small amount of effort. Whoever said boys don’t like to work?

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Cyber space, rather than outdoor space, seems to be the environment of choice

Of course it would be wrong to conclude without mentioning that old staple of boarding school conversation, food. I think David would be the first to say that what is available today is unrecognisable to the fairly stolid offerings of a few decades ago. Each day a menu is published, vegetarian and other options are provided, along with extra cold meats, salads and fruits that are made available. Of course this does not stop the students complaining, sometime vehemently, about the food. Perhaps that is one thing about boarding school life that will never change.

Pizza, Popcorn & Pastoral Care

Snow
Snow on the hills outside Merchiston Castle

As I stood waiting for the Number 10 bus to take me back into Edinburgh town centre it struck me how similar the school I had just visited was to my own place of work on the far side of two continents away. If there is one thing that seems to be ubiquitous to boarding schools worldwide, it seems to be the smell of microwave popcorn emanating from house common rooms. During my time in the UK I was able to visit four different secondary boarding schools in the United Kingdom, namely Winchester College, Harrow and Wellington College in England, and Merchiston Castle in Scotland hence my standing in the cold with a fresh wind coming off the snow tipped hills and blowing the remaining scent of popcorn rapidly away.The aim of my visit was look at the provision of pastoral care in UK boarding schools. All the institutions I had selected to visit were well known for their standards of pastoral care and their tradition of boarding provision.

That these schools have excellent boarding facilities and are well resourced is a given. While we South Africans enjoy more sunshine when compared to our Northern European counterparts, in the aspect of residential facilities they put us firmly in the shade. The key element is space. Generally speaking each individual boarder has more space, in that their room, or their share of it, was bigger, and that each boarding house had more common areas than we would typically find in a South African school. These areas included a day room, separate kitchen area, games room and often a quiet study area. There was even a gym situated in one boarding house.

The most impressive accommodation I saw was at Merchiston Castle where their new three storey VI Form boarding house boasted lounges, coffee bars, numerous spaces for activities such as table tennis and pool, kitchens on each floor and individual en-suite rooms for each student. The ground floor also included a reception area, clearly designed to make the building attractive as a conference centre in the holidays to help defray what can only have been quite considerable costs.

Coffee bar
Lounge & coffee bar in the new Merchiston Castle boarding house

One other school had private ‘Skype’ lounges in each house so that students could make contact with home comfortably and privately. While these facilities are impressive it almost goes without saying that good pastoral care is so much more than simply bricks and mortar, however elaborately and expensively arranged.

While each school that I visited is unique and has their own way of managing the provision of pastoral care in the school, by the time I visited the fourth and final school I was able to predict the essential structure and support that would be provided. This is because care in UK boarding schools is underpinned by a strong legal framework that gives definition and shape to what is offered.

Schools in the United Kingdom are inspected regularly, and in terms of pastoral care, boarding schools are measured against a criteria of framework set out in a document known as ‘Boarding Schools – National Minimum Standards’ (DfE, 2015). This is no small thing, many schools have a designated compliance officer whose job it is to ensure that the school comes out well when measured against these criteria. To get an inspection rating of ‘outstanding’ is the goal and a more than useful marketing tool. Conversely for top schools any other rating would be seen as a disaster.

‘Boarding Accommodation’ is one of these twenty minimum standards but they also include ‘Health & Wellbeing’, ‘Induction & Support’ and ‘Staffing & Supervision’ to name just a few. A few days after my Scottish sojourn, I was dining in the south of England as a guest of Bramston’s House at Winchester College.  After drinks with the Housemaster and his ‘Monday’ guests we were ushered into the house dining hall where each guest was seated at the head of a table. Latin grace was said and then we served the boys from the head of the table. Following about 30 minutes of good conversation and homely food we then returned to the Housemaster’s lounge for coffee and biscuits.

The ‘Monday’ guests I discovered are all staff members who visit the house for lunch each Monday having received an invitation on the first Monday of the school year. This invite is then a standing invite for every remaining Monday of the year during the school term. The same goes for every other day meaning that on each day of the week a different group of staff dine with the boys in the house. In turn this is true for each of the eleven houses at Winchester.

I really enjoyed this tradition. It really helps build relationships and exposes the boys to different staff members in a more informal setting each day. Each house at Winchester has its own dining room and kitchen and so the food served has ‘home cooked meal’ feel to it. The drinks and coffee also creates time and space for staff to mix in small and varied groups each day, something that is often sorely lacking in our fast paced world. It is very expensive to run eleven different dining halls, but every time Winchester has been tempted to look at alternatives they have always rejected these cheaper options. I can see why.

Tube sign
It’s quite a walk up to the school from the tube station!

Harrow has got around this by having a central dining hall but creating separate zones for each house, where staff and boys eat together. This has the advantage that a Housemaster can locate any boys in space and time that he may need to and vice versa. While it perhaps lacked the charm of Winchester’s system it was an effective compromise between cost considerations and the benefits of eating together as a house. Along with my sausage and mash I managed to learn a little about the rules of Harrow Football (you can tackle anyone in the vicinity of the ball) and in turn tell the boys a little about rugby in South Africa.

With the school spread out over the town of Harrow-on-the-Hill I was really struck how each house really is a place to come home to. Each house is well staffed with around three staff living in, and talk of increasing this to four in the years to come. The Housemaster’s home is integrated into the fabric of the house making him very present in the lives of his charges. It was clear how much Harrow valued the role of their Housemasters and tutors in the care of their boys. I left a little bit fitter from all the walking around, especially the route up to the school from the tube station. It’s not called Harrow-on-the Hill for nothing.

Wellington College is famous for placing a premium on happiness. Just look at outgoing Headmaster Dr Antony Seldon’s ‘Happy’ entrance to his final speech day https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2z_acIHVpA  I found that their approach to their students’ welfare was extremely comprehensive and thorough. An on-line Wellness Action Plan is created for any student at risk and key staff members are given responsibility to ensure that this happens with a committee to oversee the process. At Merchiston they called this GIRFEC (Getting It Right for Every Child).

In all the schools, house staff are supported in their pastoral care efforts by a team of counsellors (an average of around two per school), chaplains and nurses, as well as designated Child Protection Officers. Clear thought had gone into the provision of pastoral care; significant resources had been allocated towards it and structures to ensure accountability were firmly in place. I think the weakness in the system is that with such strong legislation the temptation may be to confuse the provision of good care with keeping up with paper work. At one school the notice boards in each separate house displayed identical documents to all the other houses. This is simply because certain information must legally be displayed and therefore cannot be left to chance or the vagaries of individual Housemasters.

There is little doubt that articulating standards to be met in what are important areas has gone a long way into lifting standards of pastoral care across the UK, but of course legislation cannot capture on paper the essence of care and sport which is at its heart an intangible concept. While legislation can perhaps help reduce poor pastoral care, it cannot ensure excellent care, only people can do that. Good pastoral care simply can’t be legislated for.

Wellington
Be happy at Wellington College

I loved seeing what schools in the UK were doing in terms of boarding provision. I was blown away by some of the facilities and centuries old traditions that enhance pastoral care. However what impressed me most, as it does here in South Africa too, were the people. People who are passionate, dedicated, and highly capable. Professional staff who go way beyond anything that legislation can impose. For me excellent care must have a relational, as opposed to a legal, basis. In all of our boarding schools, both in South Africa and the United Kingdom, it is the Housemaster or Housemistress who personifies the house system, which is in turn part of the DNA of boarding schools worldwide. These people along with the tutors, counsellors and chaplains who support them, are where the real heart of pastoral care lies.

Back at my own school, at a recent book study where some of the staff meet to discuss how to best care for students, there was common ground amongst the group as to their best moment with boys. These were invariably informal moments, often out of the class environment, such as a school trip or around take away pizza at a tutor’s home. It is often in all the gaps between, and the cracks running through, the curriculum, sports and activities, that good pastoral care happens. Any structures and support must be engineered and designed to provide time and space for such relationships to form.

In summary; good pastoral care really does come down to good relationships. While reading Bear Grylls’ autobiography ‘Blood, Sweat & Tears’, I was struck by what he said about the role of the Housemaster at one of Britain’s top boarding schools, “…so much of people’s experience at Eton rests on whether they had a housemaster who rocked or bombed. I got lucky”

Bear goes on to explain how his Housemaster, Mr Quibell, hated pizza with a passion, so as a joke Bear and his peers would call the local pizza store and arrange an order of thirty or more pizzas to be delivered to their Housemaster’s door. The students would then hide in order to witness the resulting reaction of their teacher and the consequent exchange with the delivery man. Despite the practical jokes Mr Quibell was clearly loved and respected. Bear writes, “…he was fair and he cared; and as a teenager those two qualities really matter to one’s self esteem.”

Conversely another notable celebrity, John Cleese, who attended a boarding school in the west of England describes his Housemaster as ‘one of only two staff members that he really didn’t like. In his book ‘So Anyway,’ he calls him a ‘joyless dwarf’. No amount of legislation can take care of a problem like that.