Why would you introduce a Vertical House System?

Why wouldn’t you?

Whenever I am asked why I introduced a vertical House system I fairly quickly respond with the reciprocal question.  Why do schools organise students in year groups? This question never elicits a long answer, since the only answer that I or anyone else can ever think of, is, “so that it is easier for schools to organise”.  That’s it, fullstop.  No benefits, just pragmatics.


The world is vertical.  Families range through vertical ages, so do communities, so are the clubs to which many students belong outside of school, so is the world of work.  So if we are preparing students for the world, why would you do anything other than mirror it?

Having once been a Housemaster, I have either developed or introduced House systems in four schools.  Since introducing a fully vertical House system at my current school, over 40 schools have now visited to hear about what we have done, and I have now coached many schools through the process of what it is, why do it, and how to do it.  However, there is a health warning that must be understood, namely that; there is nothing worse than a poorly introduced vertical House system.

Several schools have asked to visit to learn about vertical tutoring.  I always counter by telling them that we don’t do vertical tutoring.  Once the confusion subsides, I then outline that we have a House system, comprised of 4 vertically organised Houses, who themselves are broken down into vertically organised tutor groups.  Families, within a House, within a community, within the community.  This sense of belonging, the bigger picture context and over arching ethos binds the system together, adds value and creates a whole larger than the sum of its parts.  Without this, you have a trendy or historic (depending upon your viewpoint) difficult to manage system which is doomed to fail once it ceases to be the next big thing.

The tutorial groups, who operate as vertically aspirant family units, are linked through healthy competition and a sense of belonging to a team.  The Houses meet weekly in an assembly which I tag, “The Sunday lunch of the House”.  Student responsibility is key and I relentlessly lead the Heads of House to lead the staff to lead the students to our Holy Grail where the students run the Houses, with students supporting them.

What is unique about our system?  Maybe nothing, perhaps it is just the energy and drive, the outrageous (in others eyes sometimes) willingness to attempt an impossibly fun and energising event or activity, or the breadth of the vision, interleaving across our wider community.  Does your House system have parents and students winning House Points in the Boxing Day run?  I am very careful to ensure that equal weight and prominence across the full range of areas is valued and earns House points.  The consistent factor is that school should be fun, but that the ethos, mutual respect, celebration and the seeing of students as individuals within families rather than units in a large organisational structure is our aim.

Verticality adds richness, bridges and removes barriers between the ages and creates a happier and more dynamic community.  One negative positive would be that bullying was dramatically reduced, and a positive positive would be the much closer integration and friendships between the year groups daily throughout our school.  If you are in any doubt, come to visit us where our students will tell you why it works better than I ever could.

A word about the number of Houses and House names.  Every sporting competition in the world at some point uses units of 4, 8, 16, etc. for semi-final knock out competitions.  Combine this with the 7 years of an 11-18 school or the 5 years of an 11-16.  What you are trying to do is to bring your community together, not fragment it, whilst allowing for healthy competition.  It has therefore got to be 4, or if your hall is not large enough, 8.  I therefore always worry about the schools who have 3 Houses, or 5, 6 or 7.  Have they confused the ethos of a House system with the pragmatics that dictated their year system?  Of the names, our first House competition was to name the Houses, the criteria being that we did not want old deceased people, more to be rooted in our community.  Hence the Houses of Valley, Marine, Walton & Conygar were born.  In a Valley, beside the Sea, bordered by the woodlands of Conygar and Walton.

The benefits of a House system are multiple and broad.  OFSTED declared our support for students to be ‘beyond outstanding’.  The House Teams greet newcomers as children and see them off as adults on their chosen careers or university courses.

I am very happy to help if you would like to learn more, should you wish to explore a seismic shift for your community.