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"For houses to really stand the test of time they need to be more than worthy enterprises"

Pastoral Director at RGS Newcastle, Sue Baillie, discusses the timeless quality of the house system in schools.

Posted on: 13 Oct 2016
Posted by: Sue Baillie

This blog is in response to a Times article 'Schools find bringing back houses is a wizard idea'.

The Times report earlier this week which chronicled the return of the house system to both independent and maintained schools gave the impression that the system had been in the doldrums for more than a generation, and attributed the resurgence in part to the popularity of Harry Potter, itself now being discovered by a new generation. Of course, houses never really went away, in boarding schools at least, where they have always been the lynchpin of the school ethos. In some day schools they weren't so much abandoned as allowed to wither on the vine. House systems, in any school, are marvellous things but they need care, nurture and less respect for the Harry Potter image or sense of the past (always seen through rose tinted glasses I think) and a proactive thoroughly modern confirmation of all that they can offer. There are, and have always been, a way of reaffirming what a school is about and inculcating in its students those altruistic and less measurable virtues of community, tolerance, team work, resilience and gratitude which are part of educating young people to become fulfilled members of society. Schools are coming to recognise this either by boosting their existing house systems or by establishing a system which can work for their community. About time too.

Of course there is always a carrot and a stick and the continued focus on British Values, Prevent and the development of interests beyond the curriculum give an impetus to a resurgence of interest in house systems.

So why give house systems a chance? The obvious virtues of the boarding house system in terms of giving children a sense of place, purpose and nurture are perfectly replicable in a day school without the loss of other systems which are working well. It is possible to run both a vertical and horizontal system of tutoring and support using houses and heads of year to focus on the needs of each child. Parents like the idea of two teachers ( a form teacher and a house tutor) with specific responsibility for their child, and so they should. Creating heads of houses give opportunities for leadership in both the staff and student body. Inter- house competitions enable more students to participate competitively in a meaningful way and outside the usual sporting arena. Some schools choose to also link academic achievement and disciplinary issues to a house point system too.

But for houses to really stand the test of time they need to be more than worthy enterprises, they need:

  • Staff leading them who are charismatic motivators who really believe in the value of what they are doing and can convince students and staff of that.
  • A sense of pride in the system and commitment in terms of devoting time and energy into the house competition etc. from the Head and SLT. Why can't a Bursar be a member of a house?
  • Time - for assemblies and group meetings, vertical tutor sets are a natural consequence of a house system
  • Symbolism - colours, badges, perhaps even flags
  • And last, but not least, a willingness to review and update the system to keep it current and fresh.

Modern house systems may not play quidditch but they can be a hugely important symbol of the school community.


About Sue Baillie

Sue Baillie is Pastoral Director at RGS Newcastle, a selective co-educational day school .