Boarding changes to go ahead

Nelson College is set to make the biggest changes to its boarding facilities since 1939.

The college now has three boarding houses - Fell, Barnicoat and Rutherford. Each homes year 9 through to year 13 students, who pay fees to board. The college has 170 boarders but there is capacity for 230.

In March, the school's board of trustees started a review of boarding, hiring an independent consultant who offered a variety of recommendations.

When that report was leaked to the students, it provoked a social media outcry and plans for a protest, with concerns that students would be divided by age between Fell and Barnicoat houses. The protest was averted after headmaster Gary O'Shea stepped in to explain the proposal.

The board has now released its final decision, which will see Barnicoat and Fell houses refurbished as high-school boarding houses, while Rutherford House will be developed into a preparatory school and boarding house for boys aged 11 to 13.

The changes will be managed over more than a year, with Barnicoat the first to close for refurbishment at the end of this year. All returning Barnicoat boys will join Rutherford until the refurbishments are finished.

The board's statement says the integration of Rutherford boys into the other two houses would be managed by O'Shea, the director of boarding and boarding/international staff over September to December.

O'Shea said the three houses had capacity for 230 boarders but in the last 12 years, they had rarely housed more than 190. He said 170 was sustainable.

"The challenge is, we can fill two houses comfortably, but what do we do with the third house?"

Currently, the preparatory school of 116 students is spread across four classrooms in the body of Nelson College. Boarding preparatory schoolboys are integrated within the general boarding population, which O'Shea said was functional but "hardly the code of practice for that age".

He said Rutherford House was chosen to be converted because its location at the front of Nelson College made it safest and most convenient for the boys.

O'Shea said the students were concerned about the loss of identity of one of the houses, but there was an acceptance that things changed, and the school was there to support them. The project would be carried out sensitively: "It is their home."

Harry Begley-Kenny, 17, said he wished the situation had been addressed earlier. He said the majority of Rutherford House occupants understood what was happening but were not happy about it.

"It's your home," he said. "And it's them saying they're just going to take it away."

Pete McEwen, 17, a year 13 boarder from Upper Moutere who has lived in Rutherford House for the past five years, said he was "reasonably upset" at the changes. But he felt the preparatory school was ultimately a positive step if it helped the school run better as a business and preserved the boarding culture.

"Something has to be done and I think they've made the right decision."

Pete said he did not think the change would affect the school's culture much over the long term, but it would change interhouse rivalries.

He said the next five years would be hard for Nelson College boys who had been through the traditional cycles, but after the changes were assimilated, they would do the school "a world of good".

"It's not necessarily the place you're in, it's the people you're with, but since we've all been in the same place, we share that connection to it."

President of the Auckland branch of Nelson College Old Boys, Stephen Titter, agreed broadly with the changes.

He said boarding's fortunes had often gone up and down with New Zealand's economic cycles, and he understood that in recent years there had been less demand for Nelson College's boarding.

"From what I understand of the ‘new normality' environment for boarding, which has been new for some time, it is just not possible to pull in 230-plus boarders a year."

The Nelson Mail