A night in accident and emergency has nothing on a day as matron in a private prep school, says former nurse and school matron Janie Price. When she wasn't dealing with urgent medical complaints – torsion of the testicles or an asthma attack – she was soothing teary seven-year-olds over a glass of Ribena, correcting table manners, mending uniforms, separating sparring pupils or rushing across a rugby pitch with a first-aid kit.
"Matrons have to be cuddly and warm. They are the ones children go to when they are sad or sick. They are the ones parents go to with problems that aren't about school work. I'd liaise with teachers – a good pastoral team at school will talk to each other and have a holistic approach," says Price.
Decades ago, pastoral care barely existed, but independent schools and even many academic hothouses are now making huge efforts to create a nurturing and supportive setting. Every establishment will boast excellent pastoral care, and some achieve it more than others. "Pastoral care [at independent schools] is rarely less than good, and often excellent, which reflects the emphasis schools tend to place on this area," says the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI).
As well as cuddly matrons, pastoral care falls into the remit of a web of staff overseen by a headteacher in smaller schools, or often a deputy. Year group tutors liaise with heads of house and other relevant staff to catch pupils who might otherwise have fallen through the net. In many schools, such as Loyola Preparatory School for boys in Essex, older pupils might be mentors. "They're not prefects. It means pupils can talk to them without retaliation. We pick pupils with natural empathy and they have guidelines and report to staff," says Peter Nicholson, the headmaster.
In some schools, dedicated counsellors or members of the clergy are on hand to chat directly with pupils. "The people who work there like children. More often than not matrons are lovely, hardworking women who've been there for years and years. People won't pay for their children to attend unless they are happy," says Price, who has worked in leading prep and senior schools within Hampshire. Happiness for young pupils often depends on being ready for lessons, says Price. Large chunks of her time were spent finding sports kit or musical instruments. But medical staff are also adept at dealing with weightier problems, such as strife at home, bereavement or illness. "You have to be discreet. Most schools have weekly meetings to discuss welfare."
Independent schools pride themselves on being available to parents, who can phone or email a teacher directly. Such access has proved invaluable to one mother who is in the middle of separating from her husband. She has just received a reassuring email from the headmaster of the school where her two boys board. "I'm on first name terms with the staff," she says. "I can ring them up or pop in and let them know what's going on. Their house parents are lovely – like surrogate grandparents. I am so relieved my boys have been out of the home during this time, had their own life and not witnessed all the fights."
She drops by the school every day. "It's a walk-in school [with a security code]. If I want to give them a hug, help them with music practice or drop something off, I can. I don't feel they are behind a wall, and I know staff are looking out for them."
Her experience reflects how much boarding schools have changed. Today's boarders are more likely to settle down to a pizza and a film than a cold bath and early bed. "You have to make it fun, like a sleepover," says Price. Having someone on hand around the clock reassures parents. If tears are going to come, it's usually after lights out, say house parents and staff who remain on call throughout the night. "We give the pupils a view of home life with a stable and happy couple," says one wife of a house parent and teacher at a Surrey boarding school. "For some children, boarding is better than back at home. Some of them don't want to go home in the holidays as school is where they are happiest."
Day schools can also provide this kind of nurturing. A long day, often from 8am to 6pm, and freedom from the tyranny of league tables gives teachers room to forge firm relationships with pupils. "We have the luxury of more time; plenty for the teacher to stop and spend it with the children and nurture individuals, which you might not get in the fast-paced day of a state primary," says Julie Robinson, education and training director at the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS) and a former prep school head for 11 years. "Parents tend to be very supportive, because they have literally invested in their children to go to school."
Since teachers at independent schools are nearly always required to lead extracurricular activities, they bond outside the classroom. "I know from experience that pupils may not have engaged academically, but when they realised I wasn't only a dusty don waxing lyrical about philosophy but someone who could also crunch them in a rugby tackle, we developed more of a rapport," says Dr Jerry Grundy, head of Akeley Wood School. "During my own school days, I worked harder for teachers who knew me best," he says. Smaller class sizes inevitably help teachers focus more on individuals and spend less time on crowd control. At Portsmouth Grammar School, staff make a point of ringing new parents at the start of the year to chat about any issues and follow up if necessary.
Amid the traditional setting of many independent schools, there are often progressive additions to the school day designed to nurture and expand minds. North London Collegiate School encourages pupils to organise their own extracurricular societies, with older girls offering the likes of book clubs for younger pupils. At the informal Bedales School in Hampshire, pupils can work in the school's bakery. Harrow School offer hands-on experience at its working farm, complete with longhorn cattle and a flock of Shetland sheep.
Meanwhile, at St James Senior Girls' School in Kensington, pupils spend around 10 minutes at the start and end of each day in quiet meditation, contemplation or silent prayer. Every lesson begins and ends with a silent pause, and pupils can choose to learn meditation at a centre in nearby Holland Park. "Wellbeing is a really overused word, but pupils say they find [meditation time] brings them simple peace. It just works," says headteacher Laura Hyde. She teaches values that have been drawn from the ancient and modern wisdom traditions found in both the East and West. "We look for relevance to everyday life," she explains.
Parents say they like the supportive and unusually kind atmosphere, where sixth formers act as mentors or "big sisters" to younger pupils – the ISI praises it highly for a holistic approach and nurturing environment. Hyde also tackles internet and online social issues head on – talks about online behaviour are well attended by parents. "Levels of anxiety about early sexualisation and online protection are high," says Hyde. "The key is appealing to girls to assume responsibility for themselves and for the welfare of others. We don't want to shield them, but encourage them to value something greater than what society is throwing out. It's a massive challenge, and something independent schools perhaps have more freedom to focus on."
'I really missed the gentle atmosphere at St James'
Sarah (not her real name), 14, joined St James Senior Girls' School in Kensington aged 11 and chose to leave for a co-education independent school in 2012. She opted to return to St James after one term.
"I wanted to move schools because I wanted to experience a large coeducational school – I talked it through with St James and they were really encouraging. In the new school, there were about five classes to a year group as opposed to two. I found the girls weren't that kind and I really missed the gentle atmosphere at St James. There was a dress code, but no uniform at the new school – I didn't like it. There was a big division about what people could afford and I felt I was being judged. You had to be cool.
There was a lot of nastiness. St James girls are so nice and calm. I've learned here to focus my thoughts. All the teachers are kind and gentle and really open. When I had worries, I spoke regularly to [the headteacher] Mrs Hyde. She talked through ways of dealing with a situation."
"The head is very approachable, she doesn't talk down to the girls. When it was clear Sarah was determined to leave, we had a formal meeting and she took Sarah seriously and gave her blessing.
Sarah began to realise what she had left behind. All schools talk about caring, but this is a school which actually does. There's a prize for speaking well of others. There's a low staff turnover and you know they really know your child. It's traditional, but ahead of the game. It's not pretending celebrity and teen culture doesn't exist, but it shows you what choices you can make. You don't get many schools were 14- and 15-year-olds will happily play Dungeons & Dragons rather than on their iPhones."
'We have always felt very supported'
Penny Rowden's daughter, Charlotte, now in her final A-level year, developed chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) aged 14. She attends Portsmouth Grammar School.
"Charlotte has been battling with CFS since the age of 14. Despite enjoying school and doing very well academically, she was complaining of feeling ill and exhausted much of the time and I had difficulty getting her into school. This has continued on and off throughout her GCSE and A-level years and on average she probably manages two or three days a week in school.
This is such a difficult illness to understand, but as a family we have always felt very supported by the school. Her tutor and I are in regular contact by email and phone and her teachers make sure that any work missed is emailed to her or made available on the school's [online learning platform]. They allow her to work at her own pace and ensure she has as much notice as possible of exam deadlines to avoid putting unnecessary pressure on her.
This is a very academic school, but I remember a meeting with her head of house when she first became ill. He told her: "Just be the best you can be, not what everyone else wants you to be." Her paediatrician recommended that she should only take four GCSEs, but with all the support she managed eight, gaining all As and A*s, and is studying for three A-levels.
Her passion is music, particularly choral singing, and this has been supported and encouraged, even at the expense of missed lessons, because her teachers recognise it makes her feel so much better. She's now a head chorister and has university offers to read music – the music department at school has been incredibly helpful and proactive in helping her to achieve this."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies