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View from the Top: John Browne on the benefits of horizontal boarding

By John Browne, headmaster of Stonyhurst College
05 January 2022

As the Head of the oldest Jesuit school in the world, I am the guardian of a school that believes horizontal, rather than vertical boarding best meets the needs of young people.

Stonyhurst, the oldest Jesuit school in the world, is an extraordinary school, with a forward-looking academic culture backed by a strong tradition as part of the Jesuit school system. The Jesuit pedagogy, based on meeting the needs of each child as an individual, and supporting them in developing their full potential in life, has been in operation for over 450 years, with its philosophy set out in the Ratio Studorium of 1599.

As our Curator and custodian of the oldest museum in the English-speaking world, which is entrusted to Stonyhurst, Jan Graffius, explains, "The Ratio Studiorum did away with the medieval system of education where children of mixed ages were educated in one class, as they found it disruptive, and it did not meet the needs of children at different stages in their educational and mental development. They designed a new system of education which focused on the needs of children at different stages in their development, and advocated that teacher and pupils got to know each other very well, so that teachers were better able to support and guide the children.”

This philosophy also applies to the Jesuit system of boarding. The needs of a 13 year old are very different to those of a 17 year old. They take examinations at different times of the year, and their concerns and preoccupations will be specific to their age. At Stonyhurst, there is a separate boarding house for each boys’ year group, and at the end of the year, the pupils move up the line, to the next boarding house in the school. The girls’ house is structured slightly differently, with two Lower Line year groups (Year 9 and 10) boarding in the same boarding house, Year 11 and Year 12 also share the same boarding house, Year 13 then have their own newly renovated accommodation. The girls, just as the boys, benefit from the same advantages of horizontal boarding, however. These include getting to know everyone in your year group very well, developing leadership skills within the year group, having a safe space to relax in in the evenings, where everyone is of the same level and, for full boarders, ensuring that there are plenty of friends around at the weekends. In the traditional vertical model, where boarding pupils are spread across a number of houses in which they remain throughout, there might be only a few friends of a similar age at weekends, which would never happen at Stonyhurst.

What about role models, you may ask. Well, we have those too. There is a “line system”, which works vertically through the school, so for the purposes of competitions, charity fundraising and so forth, younger pupils are encouraged, supported and led by older ones in much the same way as would happen in a vertical boarding house. The Jesuit ethos of ‘men and women for others’ helps everyone feel supported and the Head of the Line and Committee system ensure that the older pupils have plenty of responsibilities throughout the school.

The fact that we operate horizontally meant that during the pandemic and times of bubbles, Stonyhurst was able to function very well. Not only could boarders and day pupils within the same year group act as separate bubbles, but so could boarding houses throughout different years. Establishing these groups meant there was no need for multiple year groups to isolate at one time if a positive case was found. Schools operating in a vertical system, where boarding houses are made up of mixed year groups, would have found this very challenging.

Small tutor groups, with academic tutors staying with their pupils as they progress up the ‘lines’ ensures continuity of support, but the fact that pupils move to a new boarding leader who is a specialist in caring for pupils at their developmental stage also gives an opportunity to start each year anew, and be the very best that they can be.