As Safe as Houses
Every pupil joining Highgate in Year 9 took turns to stand on the stage of the Mallinson Sports Centre on Tuesday 18 September and sang to an audience of a thousand spectators. An unusual way of ensuring that the first ten days of term in a new school passed off well? Of course, each pupil was accompanied by other members of the house in the final of the House singing competition: twelve houses went head to head in the annual musical battle to find the best house song. For the record, The Lodge won, and deservedly so, but among the winners of this gloriously enthusiastic event was the idiosyncratically British system of pastoral care which shepherds pupils through their teenage years: houses.
We know that the house system, by which pupils are allocated to a group containing young people in each of Years 9 to 13 and to a housemaster (male or female), has been adopted by newly-established Academies throughout the land. Often thought of as a feature of boarding schools, including fictional ones, houses have been the mainstay of day school organisation for years. Highgate’s first houses, unimaginatively named A, B, C and D houses, were introduced at the end of the nineteenth century; the names we know today are owed to a later re-organisation to reflect the areas where pupils lived - Northgate, Eastgate, Westgate, Southgate etc. – an arrangement which continues to this day. Why does this relatively recent tradition (after all, the School made do without for over three hundred years) continue?
As all pupils new to the school will tell you, a senior school feels big: not only are there more pupils than in a primary or a prep. school, the pupils are all older and often larger. ‘How will I become part of this?’ new girls and boys wonder. A house is a way of making a bigger unit smaller: only twelve or so pupils per tutor group, only sixty or so pupils per house. A housemaster is the specialist human portal into the school for parents and carers, and the housemaster’s task and skill is to get to know each family. Families come in different shapes and sizes, and knowing about what makes a family tick is gold-dust: is this a 95-email-a-day family or a family which has seen a dozen children safely through to university, employment and grandchildren already? Both will be great, but they will need, and expect, a different service. As housemasters answer enquiry after enquiry, some routine, some acute, they build up a picture of their charges which will inform their pupils’ care; which will act as the backdrop to advice, encouragement, guidance and, where needed, firm words.
Houses at Highgate start in Year 9, and this is a historical quirk, but it works well. Pupils in Year 9 are entering a different phase of their lives, academically and socially, and it is good for them to see the continuum which will take them through to their final year, and to mix with older pupils. Competitions such as house singing are a delightfully public manifestation of the individual finding a stronger identity among peers (for those of you who enjoyed this, look out for the house drama competition; you will doubtless also hear about house chess, house sport, house debating and house quizzes), but houses do not have only a social but also a strategic strength in a school: relationships and mutual understanding develop between families and a school over time and in dialogue: all those emails and ‘phone conversations help the jigsaw puzzle of a child’s future fall into place.
That said, there was something very special about that Tuesday squeezed into the Mallinson, not only in the superb quality of the singing but in the spirit of the evening: the pupils’ spontaneous standing ovation as the winning house came on stage – magic!
Adam Pettitt, 25 September 2012