4 ways pastoral teams have it tougher than ever 

The work of pastoral teams is underappreciated and misunderstood – right now they need you to take notice of the challenges they are facing, says Amy Forrester
1st December 2020, 12:00pm
Amy Forrester


4 ways pastoral teams have it tougher than ever 

Covid & Schools

Pastoral work is a much-underestimated role. It's not uncommon for staff to ask: "What do heads of year do all day?"

Perhaps you have asked it yourself. 

The truth is, those of us doing this work are on the front line of trying to find the answers to the many complex questions that occur at the junction between children and young people, their learning and the school system. We are constantly battling so many different things to ensure our pupils are healthy, happy and can access their education. 

And right now, everything is harder. Pastoral work is manic and reactive at the best of times; pastoral work during Covid is a Herculean effort. 

How have things changed so much? Let me explain.

1. Mental health

Mental health often makes up a big part of the pastoral workload. On average, we can deal with anywhere between one to five issues a week. At the moment, that's more what's happening in a day. 

Each disclosure takes something from you as a human; if it didn't, you'd be in the wrong job. As well as the emotional toil this brings, the aftermath is equally as challenging. We share parents' worst nightmares with them. We guide them through unchartered territories. We bring light to darkness, or at least we try to.

 2. Increasingly worrying conditions

As well as suicidal and self-harm behaviours, we are also seeing an increase in other dangerous and potentially fatal mental health concerns. This increase appears particularly prevalent in those conditions where there is an element of control, such as with eating disorders like anorexia. 

It comes as no surprise, sadly, that when the world feels entirely out of control, young people are developing mental health conditions that feed off creating a sense of control in response to that. 

A young person having this experience needs the arms of the school thrown around them to help them - there's a team effort to fight against the conditions that threaten their very being.

3. Grief

The stories some students bring with them are truly heartbreaking. There are new levels of grief in our communities, and entirely newly evolved feelings associated with these. 

Losing an elderly family member when they're ill is one thing, but losing another purely because of the chance encounter they had with a virus brings a whole new set of emotions. 

And it's kids dealing with this. Children. They're complex, difficult emotions to process as an adult, but for children, this brings a new and unprecedented stressor to their lives. 

Children's' grief charities are at capacity in our region, such is the scale of the problem. Even for the worst cases, where some children have lost parents during the pandemic, the top of the list never comes quickly enough. 

These charities work miracles in the darkest of times, but the scale of the problem feels insurmountable. 

In the meantime, pastoral leaders take whatever role they can: confidant, cheerleader, chocolate provider. Whatever the child needs. We focus on getting them through the day.

 4. The scale of issues

If I wrote down what I dealt with in a day, you'd be horrified at the scale of it. I had a go once at writing everything down. I got to 77 things before I realised I was wasting time that I could be using to get through the day. 

But, here's a taster: prepare the bubble, welcome students, hand out 24,000 masks, answer queries and questions about detentions, speak to children who are on report, provide a student with some sanitary wear, deal with a child in significant emotional distress, check in with a child feeling low, comfort a child whose grandfather has just passed away, deal with questions following Covid notifications, support a member of staff issuing a detention for not meeting expectations in form time, deal with a self-harm disclosure, congratulate a child on their sporting achievement.

It sounds ridiculous when you write it down, but that's our reality, normally by 9am.

If you picked another period of time, you might see: investigated a serious behaviour incident, listened to a sexual assault disclosure, taken a call to say a child's parent has died. 

This is our day, our reality. And not one bit of it is ever planned. 

I'm always an optimist. I try to schedule in 30 minutes of proactive time a day. But some days the police arrive and your proactivity goes out of the window. 


So next time you see a pastoral leader looking a little worse for wear, or we snap a little at you about a child moving a piece of paper, just take a second and remember we're dead on our feet. 

We all have challenges at the moment - I'm not saying ours are worse than yours. They just bring a different baggage to our work lives. If you really want to let us know we are appreciated, come and cover five minutes of our day so we can have a wee. That would be the greatest gift of all right now.

Amy Forrester is an English teacher and director of pastoral care (key stage 4) at Cockermouth School in Cumbria. Views expressed are her own, and not necessarily that of her employer

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