Miss Hannah Johnston, Head of Houses at WHS, examines why the House system is as important in the modern world as it was in the famous tales of Mr Chips and Harry Potter.
Mention ‘Houses’ in the context of a school and for a certain generation it is hard not to be instantly transported to ‘Hogwarts’ and all the connotations of the sorting hat. Originating from boarding schools where students lived in a ‘house’ the inclusion of a House system is popular among schools, and, thanks to J.K Rowling and those 4 most famous of Houses there is more awareness than ever of the advantages the House system brings.
While we do not rely on a sentient hat, each year we have the ‘Stepping In’ ceremony where our new girls are warmly received into their House, a pivotal moment in their entry to senior school. As girls and staff cheer from the side-lines, the initial ties of camaraderie and identity are being formed.
The Specialist School and Academies Trust (SSAT) found that in 2008 16% of Year 6 students did not feel ready to begin senior school. They advocated the House system as a way of ensuring students felt supported by their peers from the beginning; “Ensuring students feel comfortable in their new surroundings and making them feel part of their new environment as quickly as possible” (Garner, 2008). By dividing the school into 4 smaller groups (Arnold, Hastings, Meredith and Scott) we allow students to develop their sense of belonging quickly and help to remove the fear of ‘small fish big pond’ that can often follow, particularly if a girl has joined from a smaller primary school environment.
One of the main strengths of the House system is giving students of all ages the opportunity to work together, creating a truly cohesive environment and ensuring that age is not a barrier to friendship and collaboration. This reflects the life that we are preparing our girls for outside of WHS, nowhere beyond the confines of a classroom will they be required to work / interact with those only of their own age.
As David Tongue (Head, Brighton College Bangkok) said of the value of the House system; “camaraderie and solidarity is second to none and the benefits of this vertical interaction, where the young look up to the elder and where the elder look out for and support the younger, are profound”. We see this throughout the year in WHS but perhaps nowhere is it as evident as during House Drama. Watching the Year 7 and Year 12 students plan, rehearse and perform is one of the highlights of the Winter term. The dedication shown by all involved and the support given by fellow House members at each performance is wonderful.
Of course it is not only students who are allocated a House, staff are also involved. The sense of community that pervades throughout the school would, arguably, be incomplete if students were not given the opportunity to interact with teachers beyond those they see in the classroom, thereby encouraging “stronger relationships between adults and students” (Green, 2006). Our recent ‘Connections Fortnight’ highlighted the importance of celebrating the relationships formed in school. Where better than to see this than through our Houses, small communities within the larger whole formed on shared interests and challenges.
To talk about the House system and neglect to mention competition would be foolish. Potentially it is the competitive element of the Houses that people think of first. The all-important termly round up where the current leader is announced to great fanfare, the selection of mini competitions each term and, of course, Sports Day. Competition is good, it drives our students to improve, improves collegiality and teaches how to fail.
The House system is first and foremost inclusive of all learning types and interests. We have sporting (swimming, netball, hockey and sports day), artistic (Big Draw, House Music and House Drama) and cross-curricular (Robot Wars and the upcoming Spelling Bee and House Escape) events.
As was seen in a study between engagement and performance the sense of belonging provided by House membership, and the opportunity to enter into competitions with your peers can have numerous academic benefits as well as the social-emotional (Lee, 2014). Those who feel comfortable and supported enough to participate in House events are more likely to feel able to commit themselves fully to academia.
The House system allows for the promotion of student’s responsibility, “giving pupils the chance to learn and develop leadership skills is an outstanding benefit” (Tongue, 2016). The House Captains hone their leadership skills in the role, managing not only their peers but also learning how to ‘manage up’ among the staff body.
In another case of preparation for life beyond school, our House Captains rise to each challenge set, developing impressive time management and delegation skills.
In the upcoming House Robot Wars, the Captains have delegated the training sessions to those in KS4 that they have identified as having leadership qualities and the necessary Computer skills. Events such as House Music promote team work and communication. It takes a small army of girls to form the small group, organise whole House rehearsals and teach the choreography, yet everyone throws themselves in with dedication.
While we have our 4 House Captains there are opportunities throughout the year groups to take on smaller leadership roles, recent House Jigsaw saw students in Year 9 take charge and each inter-house sports team has a captain.
The House system searches for ways that students and staff can feel more connected to and involved with the community around them. It facilitates discussions between the most junior and most senior of school and fostering friendly competitive spirit along the way.
Garner, R., 2008. State secondaries urged to bring back the house system. [Online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/state-secondaries-urged-to-bring-back-the-house-system-913930.html
Green, D. G., 2006. Welcome to the House System. Educational leadership: journal of the Department of Supervision and Curriculum Development, N.E.A, p. 63.
Lee, J.-S., 2014. The Relationship between Student Engagement and Academic Performance: Is It a Myth or Reality?. Journal of Educational Research, pp. 177-185.
Tongue, D., 2016. The House System: a typically British educational institution. [Online]
Available at: https://www.relocatemagazine.com/articles/education-the-house-system-a-typically-british-educational-institution