Student well being: Why prep schools must aim higher

Dunhurst Survival Night

Recent articles in the national press have directed attention to the pressures experienced by many 11 plus and Common Entrance pupils at prep schools. Prudence Lynch, headmistress of Kensington Prep suggested in The Times that ‘fevered competition’ for senior school places has gone ‘beyond boiling point’. Symptoms of this have already been seen according to the Headmaster at King’s College Junior School in London, who detects mental health problems such as ‘a great level of anxiety’ among six year-olds who have been tutored to pass entrance tests.  This begs the question as to the purpose of schools such as ours. Should they serve as an introduction to the career driven, stress-laden treadmill of a particular version of adult life, or is there an alternative?

John Haden Badley founded Bedales in 1893 to be a humane alternative to late-Victorian public schools, with an emphasis on educating ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ – a radical idea, driven by a desire to do things differently.  122 years later, Dunhurst continues to provide a difference, a world away from the confines of Common Entrance and traditional prep school teaching. At Dunhurst, we have a three-day assessment event for admission to Year 7, and it is easy to identify those children who have been prepared by their parents or prep school. You don’t feel that you get to know the child at all (which is the significant part of the purpose of the exercise), just the performance.

At Dunhurst, there is no uniform, and staff and students address each other by first names – symptoms of a culture that values the individual, rather than raw material to be moulded to be the perfect fit for their senior school of choice.  Dunhurst pupils – typically confident, interesting and engaging characters – can focus on learning in a collegiate atmosphere rather than competing, rehearsing and worrying about ‘passing on’ to the next stage of their education. Recently, one of the boys in our Year 6 gave an assembly on his passion of designing fashion items for women. I was deeply touched by his confidence in sharing in this way, as he was applauded by everyone in the school.

So what is to be done? Conferences on addressing issues of mental health in prep school- aged children are currently in vogue. Indeed, I write this having just read publicity for an event hosted by a prep school, stressing the need for schools to ensure that pupils ‘manage the pressures’. The cynic in me wonders whether such events are simply a new way in which schools seek competitive advantage. More generally, I am concerned at the focus on treating the symptoms rather than dealing with the cause. During my teaching career I have had various pastoral responsibilities. The truth is that in many schools the focus of conversations between staff and parents is not so much about the children themselves, but about the exits – selection tests, next schools and scholarships.

As many prep school children begin their race for top exam marks, A team sports representation, Music and LAMDA grades and a thickly bound CV,  I am reminded of a quote by the American comedian and actress, Lily Tomlin, who wrote ‘The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat’. The question facing prep schools today, I would suggest, is whether they are content to simply produce better-adjusted rats. For what it is worth, I believe we should be aiming for more.

By Nick Robinson, Dunhurst Deputy Head, Pastoral and Head of Blocks

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.


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