Healthy culture at a leading independent school - Hurstpierpoint College

Healthy culture at a leading independent school

Schooldays should be among the happiest days of our life, but the pressures on our young people are immense at both independent schools and the maintained sector. The intense need to fit in and the fear of failure can weigh heavily on today’s students, perhaps more than ever before.

Although the intensity has amplified, the good news is that schools have never been more aware about their responsibility to look after the welfare of students, and staff.

The health and wellbeing of the Hurst community is a priority for Tim Manly, who is all too aware of the potential stresses for staff and students alike.

The students

“Our year has real peak pressure points, notably leading up to and during the exam season,” says Tim. “What happens in exams is critical for the school, but more importantly for the students, so we are playing for high stakes. This is especially the case for A-levels, where students need certain grades to be accepted at the universities they have set their hearts on.

“We simply want the children to achieve the best they can, and to be happy with that. We are working with students to recognise what they are capable of rather than leave it all up to their own neuroses. We can’t all run faster than an Olympian or be brighter than Einstein. We want to know we are doing as well as we can and to be recognised for this fact.

“The classic stereotype is the very hard-working girl (as opposed to the stereotype of the boy who spends too much time on the X-Box) who puts a huge amount of pressure upon herself. It’s not always good if someone works too hard and worries too much. If they can relax a bit they become more efficient.

“For us it is about avoiding the dog fight over who comes out on top. You should not value yourself based on who you defeat. Not everyone can win at sport, so it is important to remember that taking part is fun. It’s about how you make the most of what you have and how you treat others around you.”

With a lifetime in education and a parent of four, Tim understands what children worry about and when these issues come to the fore. “The key ages are around 11-15. When you are a child you are spontaneous and you say whatever comes into your head. Then you reach an age where it is common to be anxious about conforming to the social norm of a particular group. They worry if they are liked or not liked, but they don’t realise that the most likeable characteristics are those of warmth, confidence, openness and friendliness. It takes a while to work this out. They are terrified of being a loser (or whatever the current terminology is). You must have a culture that counteracts the idea of winners and losers.

“Children are far too worried about what other people think. The vast majority of children require structure, encouragement and to feel valued. If they are coached, supported and never left to feel vulnerable, isolated or like a failure – then they’ll fly.”

It seems that independent schools and the maintained sector are more aware than they used to be – Tim concurs: “For some time it has been common to have someone who is there for safeguarding vulnerable children or those who have special needs. However, for most children there has, historically, been very little support. Now there is more awareness of a school’s responsibility to help children develop a resilience and a sense of being able to look after themselves. We are helping children to be able to navigate the world they are in.

“The danger is it doesn’t go too far to create a generation with an overblown sense of entitlement. The next few years will be about navigating through an uncertain world. Our challenge is to help children be ready to adapt to a changing environment.

“It is often hyped that if you come to a school like this you will leave as a confident young person. Actually, the important thing is to leave with a sense of self-worth. If a young person doesn’t have that, then they can be vulnerable.”

The staff

Alongside student welfare, there is far more support for the staff as well as Tim explains: “There is no doubt that if your employees are mentally healthy or happy, they will be more productive and committed.

“This is now recognised as a responsibility of the employer, which is very different from 10 or 20 years ago. There is greater sense that to function in a healthy and productive way, we need our staff to thrive.

“We have a counsellor who is there for any member of staff. I wanted something in between the full-on counsellor and someone you have can have a bit of a moan to when you are sitting at the college bar. It’s someone who you can say to: ‘It’s all getting a bit tough at the moment,’ and be listened to.

“Mike Lamb, the Director of Staff and Pupil Wellbeing at Hurst, runs forums and makes sure we take time to exercise, have a swim, do some yoga, and he’ll organise social events. He tries to ensure that every-body has the right balance. This is vital when it becomes very heavy leading up to the end of term, and the work/life balance goes out of the window, even if it is just temporarily.”

In conclusion, schools need to value and support their staff so that staff can do the same for their students.

Tim Manly, Headmaster, Hurst College


Please follow the links below for further information about Hurst College, an independent, co-educational, day and flexi/weekly boarding school for pupils aged 4–18, located just to the north of the village of Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex.

Prep & Pre-Prep
Senior School
Sixth Form
College Campus

Hurst College’s inspection reports and reviews:
ISC Inspection reports
Good Schools Guide