A recent lunchtime chat with Sarah Kerr-Dineen, the head of Oundle School in Northamptonshire, covered several pertinent issues relating to a British boarding-school education. It was a highly informative lunch, as Kerr-Dineen knows the independent school scene well. She spent 13 years at St Edward’s school, Oxford, as a boarding housemistress, and later became director of studies there. Before becoming head of Oundle School in August 2015, she was warden of Forest School, London. Her experience and her Oxbridge qualifications give Kerr-Dineen the right to be forthright and immodest in her views and demeanour. Nevertheless, we were all taken aback by her relaxed manner, her willingness to listen, and her genuine passion for nurturing future leaders.
One of the first points we discussed was the style of teaching in the UK. According to Kerr-Dineen, the “prevailing philosophy of teaching… is of discovery”, where children and teachers are both learners. Certainly, UK independent schools have largely moved away from the “teacher knows all” approach which characterised the exam-oriented curricular of yesteryear. Indeed, as Kerr-Dineen stated, we have moved away from “pouring knowledge into the child” and have started to teach children how to question, research, and comprehend, rather than engage in rote learning patterns.
The development of a global economy has caused the need for curriculum designers, teachers, and students to adapt their approaches. It’s now important for our children to be taught how to think critically and solve complex problems. British boarding schools are leading the way in moving beyond a narrow curriculum and outdated instructional methods, towards whole-child education, where the syllabus sets the foundations for challenge, expression, debate, and enjoyment.
Kerr-Dineen said that the independent school sector is distinguished by “everything else that goes on beyond the classroom”. There is an expectation that a child’s schooling will go beyond the academic to include sport, character development, involvement in the local community, and service activities.
As for the boarding itself, Kerr-Dineen mentioned two key words which typify children’s development throughout their teenage years: “independence” and “resilience”. The longer school day, and the fact that children from abroad must adapt to a new environment, suggests that they do eventually succeed in being independent and resilient. The extended day at boarding school helps, as it caters to the “social, personal, spiritual and academic development” of children. Finally, Kerr-Dineen noted that many children do have tremendous strength of character, as they are able to assimilate, juggle their duties and flourish with relative ease.
Kerr-Dineen neatly packaged the very essence of a British boarding education with the story of one boy from Hong Kong who attends Oundle School. Oundle has its own radio station and the boy has developed a passion for radio. He is known for “being very enthusiastic” and Kerr-Dineen says the key to success is a enthusiasm, enjoying the opportunity to flourish, and not being worried about failure or setbacks at the outset. The student is apparently, thoroughly determined to run the programme in the Sixth Form. Kerr-Dineen said that pupils who are similar to this boy settle quickly, as they become so absorbed by their busy school life, there is little time for homesickness.
Would such enthusiasm, resilience, independence and choice be possible without a strong support network of caring staff members? Kerr-Dineen places an emphasis on the strong pastoral care which exists at Oundle, and it is no coincidence that pupils flourish in such an environment. For instance, pupils have a tutor for the whole time at the school to oversee their academic progress and to look out for them “as people”. Moreover, teachers and tutors are very attached to their respective houses, and dine in them twice a week. The housemaster also sees children three times a day.
At our lunch, Kerr-Dineen defined some of the key characteristics of a British boarding education. How can a child be thousands of miles away from the safety of his or her own home, yet revel in a newly discovered passion? This would probably not happen without inspiring teachers, a curriculum which allows space for children to breathe, and a dedicated team of caring staff members.