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"The house is the home for its pupils"

Kieran McLaughlin, Head at Durham School, argues that the house system mirrors that of family life and forms an important network of support for pupils.

Posted on: 13 Oct 2016

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

“Which house were you in?” It’s the first question exchanged by any two alumni of my school when they meet, and one which is no doubt asked by those who spent time at any boarding school in the country. The response of course is keenly awaited, and once the name is uttered, there will be much good-humoured reminiscing about particular characters in the House or of famous sporting victories in the inter-house competition.

School houses are back in the news, with a number of schools – state and independent, day or boarding – introducing or in some cases resurrecting the system to “improve results, raise morale and provide pastoral support”. Of course, associations with Harry Potter are much to the fore, and indeed some schools have explicitly drawn parallels with the stories, sorting hats and all. But, gimmicks aside, schools are once more appreciating one of the central strengths of the traditional public school system.

What makes the house system so successful? Quite simply, the house is the home for its pupils. Amidst the wider community of the school, the house is the family, complete with other pupils as siblings (admittedly a rather larger number than in their real family), a parent or parents (who often have their own children living amongst the pupils) and a matron and other adults forming part of the extended network of support. The relationships between those figures mirror the family dynamic at home: between adults and children of course, but more importantly amongst the pupils themselves. The mix of ages which the house system affords, in manageably small groups of ten to fifteen in each year, means that the smaller pupils have role models to look up to and the older ones develop the sense of responsibility that their age requires. It works remarkably well, and either formally or informally the pupils enjoy a peer mentoring system which is invaluable in steering them through the pitfalls of adolescence.

We don’t use a sorting hat to allocate pupils, but we do make an effort to make sure that each house has a mix of different people in it. There are a number of reasons why we do that, some of which are pretty straightforward such as to make sure house competitions are as fair as they can be, and also because we don’t want people to feel that there are some houses which are better than others. We want all of our pupils to believe that their house is the best. However, what is really fascinating is how, over time, the personality of a house begins to reflect the personalities of the staff and pupils it contains. The Housemaster or mistress of course is key to this; for my money, aside from being a Head of course, the role of Hm is probably the most rewarding in education. The phrase in loco parentis could never be more appropriately applied, with the Hm overseeing all aspects of a pupil’s life at school. It’s a hugely demanding job – physically, temporally and emotionally – but those adults in that role have a huge impact on the lives of the youngsters they look after.

There is a more important reason however for a good mix of pupils in a house. They say you can choose your friends but not your relatives and, once again, the analogy applies. As they move through their lives, our pupils will meet many types of people from many different backgrounds. Some of them they will naturally feel a connection to, some of them they will have less in common with. What we want to do is at school is to prepare them for other people's points of view; we want them to be respectful of other people’s opinions and their ways of doing things; we want them to be tolerant of others’ experiences, beliefs and values. I believe the house system is crucial to this and brings in a multitude of different lives under one roof. It’s priceless preparation for whatever awaits after school, and not just for trainee wizards.


About Kieran McLaughlin

Kieran McLaughlin is Head at Durham School, a co-educational day and boarding school.