The school is divided into a number of 'houses' and each student is allocated to one house. Houses may compete with one another at sports and maybe in other ways, thus providing a focus for group loyalty. Different schools will have a different number of houses, so that some might have more than 10 houses (with as few as 50 students in each house) or as few as four (with as many as 200 students in each). Facilities, such as pastoral care, may be provided on a house basis to a greater or lesser extent depending on the type of school. Historically, the house system was associated with established public schools in England, especially full boarding schools, where a 'house' referred to a boarding house at the school. In modern times, in both day and boarding schools, the word 'house' may refer only to a grouping of pupils, rather than to a particular building.
Houses may be named after saints, famous historical alumni or notable regional landmarks. Other more arbitrary names – animal names or colours, for example – are also often used. Houses are also often referred to by the original name of the building or by the name or initials of the teacher in charge of the house (housemistress or housemaster). Each house will usually also be identified by its own symbol, logo, or colours.
At co-educational boarding schools, there may be separate houses for boys and girls. Students may also be grouped by year groups or status as a boarder or day student. At Winchester College and Eton College, there is a separate house for foundation scholars. Where the school has boarders and day pupils, they will often be allocated to separate houses. There have also been cases, for example at Cheltenham College, of pupils being allocated to different houses according to their religion. At traditional full boarding schools such as Radley College and Harrow School, students are grouped by boarding house.
Especially at a boarding school, one of the main purposes of the house system is to provide pastoral care to the students. With parents absent, children are likely to depend on the school to look after their basic physical, social and emotional needs.
Competition between houses
A secondary feature of house systems is the competition between houses. For example, the traditional school sports day is usually an inter-house competition. Debating competitions and charity drives are also often organised along inter-house lines. Merit points for behaviour and academic achievement may also be totalled up for comparison between houses.
Membership and roles
Pupils are usually assigned to houses randomly, perhaps with the aim of balancing the houses in order to increase competition. Sometimes the assignment is based on the social and emotional needs of the student and to ensure proper peer mentoring is enhanced with the right fit of students within a house. Traditionally, however, once a pupil has been assigned to a house, any younger siblings he or she has may automatically become members of that house when they arrive at the school, but this varies from school to school. (This tradition sometimes extends to the children of former pupils.)
One notable feature of the house system is the appointment of house captains, and maybe other house prefects, who exercise limited authority within the house and assist in the organisation of the house. Large schools may have a house captain for each year group (with vice-captains in the largest schools).
In boarding schools the term housemaster is held by the member of staff responsible for pupils living in a particular house (or dormitory). In state schools, members of staff are appointed as (or volunteer to become) head of house. However, both terms can be used at either style of school for the sake of formality.
The term "house system" is also used to refer to the residential college systems found in some colleges and universities, such as Rice University, Caltech, Yale College, Harvard College, and University of Chicago. These systems are based on the college systems of Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the United Kingdom, which in turn share many similarities with the house systems of British secondary schools.
Prominence in school stories
The first boarding school story was Sarah Fielding's The Governess: or Little Female Academy, published in 1749. They did not become popular until 1857, with Tom Hughes' novel Tom Brown's School Days. The house system has since featured prominently in thousands of school stories books, with many authors writing a whole series of books such as Chalet School and Mallory Towers which have been published around the world and translated into several languages. The Harry Potter books and films (re)popularized this genre, and resulted in unprecedented awareness of British boarding schools (and their house system) in countries where they were previously unknown.
These stories depict the popular conception of a British boarding school rather than how modern boarding schools work in reality, and often focus on the most positive aspects. For example, loyalty to one's house is very important in real life houses, and is featured prominently in many of these books. The Harry Potter books have updated the boarding school to modern values, for example by depicting mixed-sex education houses. Many British people never went to a boarding school, but have integrated their values by reading these books.
The translators of some foreign editions of the Harry Potter books had difficulties translating the "house" concept in languages like Russian, because there was no word that could adequately convey the importance of belonging to a certain house, the loyalty owed to your house, and the pride in the prizes won by your own house. This forces translators to insert extra explanations in the dialogues, making foreign readers think that the house and boarding systems were a special feature of the fantasy setting rather than a real world feature which would not need to be explained to a typical British child. The French translation does not explain the differences between the French and English real-world boarding schools: for example, French houses are not responsible[clarification needed] for their own discipline via head girls/boys.
- Harvard house system
- House System at the California Institute of Technology
- Hogwarts houses, fictional houses in Harry Potter books
- Ball culture, a North American sub-culture also known as the House System
- David K. Steege (2004), "Harry Potter, Tom Brown, and the British School Story: Lost in Transit?", in Lana A. Whited, The ivory tower and Harry Potter: perspectives on a literary phenomenon (illustrated ed.), University of Missouri Press, pp. 140–156, ISBN 978-0-8262-1549-9
- Gill James. "Harry Potter - All Things to All People?". Proceedings of the first Harry Potter conference on the UK (Accio UK 2005).
- Judith Inggshttp (May 2003). "From Harry to Garri: Strategies for the Transfer of Culture and Ideology in Russian Translations of Two English Fantasy Stories". Meta Translators' Journal 48 (1-2 Traduction pour les enfants / Translation for children): 285–297.
- Anne-Lise Feral (2006), "The Translator's "Magic" Wand: Harry Potter's Journey from English into French", Translators' Journal 51 (3): 459–481