St Peter's School
Design and Technology teacher Jon, and his wife Lucie, a physiotherapist, have been House Parents at Dronfield for eight years, living in their own quarters within a boarding house that is home to up 40 girls aged between 13 and 18.
Dron girls speak happily, when asked about life here, of an atmosphere that is relaxed, and where every girl feels part of a family. Many comment on how the house feels less strict, and offers more freedom, than other boarding school houses that they may have lived at or visited.
Creating and sustaining a culture in which girls thrive and are happy is the core purpose of the house parent.
"This is our eighth year as House Parents and I can’t think of any reason why I would want to stop doing it."
Jon Whitehouse, House Parent
Boarding is not an extension of the school day, according to Jon. Referring to the footbridge that separates the main school campus from the leafy residential street that houses Dronfield he says, “I see that bridge as quite significant. On that side of the bridge there’s discipline, and there’s learning, and there’s structure. When they come over the bridge they should be able to feel relaxed and be themselves. This is their second home.”
“It is consciously done,” Lucie adds, “It’s important that it’s relaxed. We create that atmosphere. At the same time, we want them to behave a certain way, be kind to each other, and be the best that they can be.”
With 20 years of experience as boarding parents at three different schools, and having guided and supported hundreds of girls on the path to adulthood, the couple have a relaxed, confident approach to the trials and tribulations of adolescence and communal living.
“When they get something wrong, there’s not a system of rules and punishments and sanctions. You say, come on , that’s not how we do things here, and they learn. They learn by us encouraging them and from the older girls,” Jon explains.
That self-regulation, both at a community and an individual level, is crucial. Younger boarders joining the house may initially find the freedom on offer exhilarating.
“We’re not their parents. We are adults around them who will support them and guide them"
Lucie Whitehouse, House Parent
Visitors from other houses are welcomed most evenings, in the downstairs areas only. Girls may sign out of the house to visit the school music rooms, gym or local supermarket. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays may see independent trips into the city centre. There are regular Dron nights, when the “no visitors” sign will be posted on the front door, pyjamas will be donned and romantic comedies watched by the bucketload, with suitably large containers of popcorn or other snacks. Bedtimes and lights out times are enforced, but on occassion talking can go on into the night, especially for excited new boarders.
“After a while you see them realise that they need structure,” John says. “And rather than us imposing that on them, they work out what’s right for them, and what makes them happy. It’s not about us telling them how to behave, really, it’s about learning to self-regulate.”
It’s that development of personal responsibility and the ability to make decisions with long-term consequences in mind, that boarding is proven to accelerate.
Jon and Lucie, parents themselves to two girls, are clear on their role. Lucie adds: “We’re not their parents. We are adults around them who will support them and guide them, and tell them when things are wrong. We’re here every day. There’s consistency. Nothing shocks us. And that works.”
It is perhaps their experience both of boarding (Jon boarded for several years as a child) and parenthood, that has influenced the House’s very welcoming attitude to parents.
“Some parents we’ll see a few times a week,” Lucie explains, “others we’ll see at the beginning and end of term but we want everyone to feel that they can pop in.”
For those further afield, almost instant communication with the House team is a valued option. Jon explains: “I always say to parents, regardless of what it is: pick up the phone, email me, talk to me. However you prefer to do it, get in touch with us.”
John and Lucie are supported by a domestic team of three and House Tutors, who are present on many evenings a week. “The tutors will happily spend time chatting and answering questions and let their guard down. The girls enjoy getting to know staff outside of the classroom. It’s not a formal environment,” Lucie says.
John explains, “The tutors who come into boarding are those that really enjoy it. They’re not 9 to 5 people. The idea of coming in on a Sunday for eight hours is something that many of them look forward to.”
The comment is revealing of the very real enjoyment Jon and Lucie evidently get from the role, although they prefer the word ‘lifestyle’ and Lucie maintains that after so long in boarding, for them, this way of living is "just normal".
“You’re getting to know the girls for who they are,” Lucie says “And you really know who they are. We have the luxury of time in a boarding house. We have a lot of them for five years so they grow up around you and it’s honestly great fun to be around that, for those years.”
The relationship does not necessarily end when girls leave for university. “It’s up to them,” Lucie says, “but it’s lovely when they come back. The St Peter’s network is pretty tight.”
There is good news for girls still looking forward to joining Dronfield. Unprompted, Jon tells me: “This is our eighth year and I can’t think of any reason why I would want to stop doing it. Lucy will vouch for the fact that before I was at St Peter’s I moved around a lot. But boarding here is great.”
“It’s a really lovely school,” Lucie adds. “The children are lovely: they’re grounded, they’re good fun, they’ll give everything a bit of a go. You hope it’s a great place for them and it’s certainly good fun for us.”