Q&A with the Headmistress: Why Boarding?

15 Mar 2022
Ask the Expert

Girls on a bed

During a recent online event in collaboration with Tatler’s Education Editor Tori Cadogan and Tonbridge School, Headmistress Samantha Price answered a range of questions on boarding, pastoral care and the Complete Education on offer at Benenden. We share some highlights below.

  • What are the benefits of boarding?

Boarding really supports your whole academic experience at school because you have so much more time. As teachers we have more time with the children, while the children have more time to enjoy co-curricular activities outside of lessons.

Youve got every sort of co-curricular offering on the table for you. You can roll out of bed and access the swimming pool or the gym if you want to. You can have breakfast while youre doing some music practice. Those things carry on right the way through the day, but you havent got to travel at all.

We have a club called Amplify, started by the students, where staff talk about their unique academic interests. We also have guest speakers: we recently had some of the AstraZeneca team talk about their experiences and the excitement from the girls was palpable. They realise that this is something to which they can aspire. You dont get those opportunities in a day school because you simply dont have the time.

You make fantastic friends at boarding school. The two girls in my dorm became my closest friends, bridesmaids when I got married and now godmothers as well. You go through the highs and the lows of teenage life together.

The chance to be away from home and to develop independence is another huge benefit. It allows you to recognise that you can organise yourself to do things that your parents may have previously taken care of.

So, for me the main benefits of boarding are the opportunities, friendships and independence it offers.

  • Can you tell me how often parents can see their children at Benenden?

Boarding has transformed over the last 20 years. Parents can see their daughters every weekend if they want to. Their daughters can go out every weekend should they wish to, from Saturday afternoon until Sunday evening.

At Benenden we have a fantastic Weekend Programme. We launched our new term with a zip wire on site, so the girls were having great fun. They were playing football, doing tai chi, face painting, and all sorts of activities. The difficulty is they dont always want to go home: quite often students will ask parents to come in and watch them in their matches, and then they can have lunch in the dining room or have tea and stay for a few hours.

We are here for the girls, in every aspect, but were also here for the parents to be a part of Benenden life. We build a very enriching relationship with families which lasts way beyond Benenden.

students in dorm

  • The old-fashioned perception of boarding school was cold dorms and homesick children. Can you tell me about the changes that might surprise people?

In terms of how the houses are furnished, its completely different to how you might imagine. The girlspersonal space is important. They love putting everything up on the walls and to really decorate their rooms as much as they can, so theres lots of colour and warmth. Its very comfortable.

We want to make sure that for the girls while theyre at the school, this is their second home. Were not replacing their first home, but we want to give them as much comfort. Once they leave school and go to university, theyre shocked that their halls of residence dont have quite the same quality of décor, or indeed the same quality of food as they enjoy here.

  • Can you describe the girlssleeping arrangements?

From Year 7 through to 9, you can be in a dorm of between four and, at most, eight. By the time you get to Year 11, you may be in a three, a double, or in some houses you may even have your own room. In Sixth Form you have a single room.

Having a good number of students together when theyre younger is important because thats how they make their friendships. They may not get on brilliantly well with everybody, but you adjust, and you learn how to live with people. When youre in a dorm of eight or six students its all about compromise, and those skills help them enormously in later life.

In the Sixth Form houses they all have their own bedroom, preparing them for more independent living, but they all go back to their Lower School houses on a nightly basis to perform duties. Theyre very much a part of the leadership for those younger students.

  • Which staff members care for the students?

Within each boarding house is a Housemistress or Housemaster, a Deputy Housemistress or Deputy Housemaster, and a team of three matrons plus the boarding assistants. So, an awful lot of staff who are there to support the girls. Sixth Formers come in every night to provide academic support too, which is incredibly helpful.

The pastoral care is very strong. We want to make sure that the girls feel theres somebody they can go and talk to, and feel that this is a safe environment where they can be themselves.

student with staff member

  • What do your girls do to help local schools and their families?

We have a great Partnerships Programme, and on Tuesdays older students engage in community work. As part of their Complete Education they are expected to make this a priority.

We bought the village shop which has been transformed into a beautiful, bespoke shop with a lovely café. Some girls will help serve at the café or behind the counter, which they absolutely love. Other girls will help at Benenden Primary School or the Benenden Hospital. There is also the Swattenden Centre, where refugees are engaging with English learning, and some of our students offer support there.

Then there’s our fantastic relationship with The John Wallis Academy Church of England Academy. We have students going between schools on a weekly basis; we have a Combined Cadet Force, students join for drama and music and for our Oxbridge Programme, and our students mentor their students.

The most important thing is making sure that our students recognise that they are in a wonderfully privileged environment here at school, and that the world theyre going into is not often as fortunate. Every single pupil who comes through here leaves knowing that it doesnt matter what profession or community shes going into, its her responsibility to give back.

  • International boarders are important to your community as well. How do you help families stay in touch and ensure that young boarders settle in without any homesickness?

Regular communication before they start is important. Pre Covid, we would have a team who would meet the families face to face. During Covid weve been able to do that remotely, which has worked well.

Most international parents will bring their daughters to the school and stay for the first few weeks to make sure their daughter is settling in. We all gather in London at the end of the third week and I give them some general feedback about how the girls are getting on. A couple of weeks later well have a Tutor meeting so parents can be updated.

We build a relationship between the house staff and the parents, so that if a parent has a daughter who phones feeling unsure, they can let the Housemistress or Housemaster know straight away, and one of the pastoral team will look after her.

A girl may feel low at a certain time and phone their parents, and within ten minutes after that phone call they are fine. But a parent is left at the other end of the phone feeling distraught and worried. Youve got to be there to help parents through that. No matter where you are across the globe, we are still a very close community.

students in dorm

  • I wanted to ask you about your day boarders, who started last September. How is it going?

Its going very well. Throughout my time here, local parents have asked me whether we might offer day places, because they have wanted to send their daughter to the school but couldnt justify it with our boarding model.

Last year we decided to allow a very limited number of day places. They are integrated and attached to one of our boarding houses, with their own study space they can go back to during the day. Or they can go into their friendsdorms and have a chat with them as well.

Our day boarders can stay right through into the evening. Weve got lots of societies and academic enrichment that goes on after formal lessons, so if the girls want to stay up until 9.00pm they can. Day boarders are already staying until nine, and a couple have decided to convert to full boarding. Its going very well indeed.

  • Pastoral care and mental health are big concerns for parents. What does Benenden do to help?

We build relationships with students and parents. Once you establish those relationships it is easier to recognise where a girl might be struggling. We have the facilities to intercept and support students very quickly if they are finding life difficult. Theres always going to be somebody, whether thats a school doctor, tutor, Sixth Former or school counsellor, who can be there to provide the support that a student needs.

Being specialists in girlseducation, theres nothing that we havent seen before. There is always a way to move things forward. As a parent, that is incredibly reassuring.