Teachers’ jobs are academic and pastoral. You can’t split the two

The widely accepted division between the academic and pastoral aspects of teaching may be a convenient way of ‘divvying up the jobs’ but it does not reflect the interconnectedness between who your students are and what they learn, argues Clare Jarmy
31st May 2019, 12:03am
Pastoral & Academic Doesn't Need To Be Split
Claire Jarmy


Teachers’ jobs are academic and pastoral. You can’t split the two


Academic or pastoral? All teachers cover both. But as we move through our teaching careers, we tend to find ourselves heading more firmly in one of these two directions. For some, head of year, student welfare, perhaps houseparent in a boarding school, maybe safeguarding lead: in short, a pastoral route. For others, compiling the timetable, taking charge of value-added data or a becoming head of department: the academic route.

Few defy this divide, and those who do - an outstanding colleague of mine, who has been both head of department and housemistress in her time, springs to mind - are in the minority.

Professional guidance often underscores this divide. Continuing professional development tends to concern either academic matters (such as understanding GCSE marking) or pastoral ones (such as safeguarding or preventing bullying). Appraisal conversations tend to head this way, too, with managers helping us to find out which route is for us - academic or pastoral - as though it were as intrinsic to us as eye colour.

But nice as it is to go on courses and continue training over the years, the bulk of our expertise is formed by the daily lived experience of being a teacher in a real classroom with real kids. It's here that the divide between pastoral and academic falls down. Every day, students provide evidence of this. Consider these familiar cases:

1. The student who sleeps in your lesson

We might think he's rude, but perhaps he is bored? If he is bored or being rude, why is that? Perhaps it is a problem with what he is being asked to learn. Is it that the curriculum isn't engaging him? Perhaps he can't access the lesson. Perhaps he can't see its relevance to his life. Or is there, perhaps, a reason why he comes into school tired? It could be that his home life, for whatever reason, leads to him coming into school unrested. Clearly, something is wrong. He's underachieving and he's sleeping during the day. But what's wrong is not only academic and it's not only pastoral: it's both, and each is affecting the other.

2. The student with anxiety because she never completes an exam paper in the time allowed

The experience of anxiety is clearly a pastoral problem, but here there seems to be an academic cause, and there are likely to be academic consequences as well if she can't start timing her answers correctly and if she doesn't overcome the anxiety. There is a chicken and egg question about whether the anxious tendency is caused by or causes the academic issues, but clearly both the academic and pastoral issues are important here. Certainly, she is not going to make the progress she needs to unless pastoral and academic staff are working with her on this. And crucially, they need to be working together for the same aims.

3. The student whose behaviour is always poor

Yes, she's undermining her own and others' chances to learn, but disruption doesn't only stop a class learning: it can make students feel uneasy, even unsafe. There are academic and pastoral repercussions for the other students. And that's not to mention the effects on this student. Why is she behaving so poorly? We could consider academic questions: would she behave if she were learning something else? Is the pace of the lesson not challenging her? Is she not seeing relevance in the curriculum for her? Just as important are the pastoral questions: what's home like? What is their attitude to learning? Is she supported in the belief that her time at school is time well spent or not? The problem manifests itself in the learning environment but prompts questions about both the academic and the pastoral, and crucially, these are interconnected.

4. The student who, having finally had a bit of academic success, leaves your class smiling

We all strive for those moments where the struggle of difficult academic work pays off for a student and, for those achieving at the lower end of the class, those moments can be harder to bring about. Of course, you have differentiated and made the lessons accessible, but the GCSE exam is the same paper the rest of the class will be sitting, and he is getting 3s again and again, despite his best efforts. When he finally gets a 4, this is a tremendous academic success, but isn't it also a huge step forward for him personally? Won't this experience not only buoy him on to future academic effort but also make him a little happier and more confident?

The simple distinction between academic and pastoral is starting to not look so simple after all. It's also worth saying that, to students, our job titles frequently don't matter. Irrespective of our roles, they see us as teachers. If they feel more comfortable disclosing something to their maths teacher, they will. If they think the safeguarding lead is the person who can help them with Spanish, they'll go to her.

Why, then, does the leadership - indeed, school structure overall - not reflect the interconnectedness between who your students are and what your students learn?

Of course, schools leaders are deputising for the headteacher, and he or she is in charge of all these things. Separating out the academic and the pastoral is a pragmatic way of divvying up the jobs that there are to do in a school - you have to cut the cake somehow.

But actually, this division does lead to some harmful results. By shaping the leadership in that way, academic and pastoral, we come to think of them differently.

First, the division suggests that learning is not personal: that it is not about who you are or where you're from or, importantly, who you will become. It gives the impression that learning is something you acquire, not something that forms you. It is tempting to see the academic as being in some way objective and pastoral stuff as about the person and therefore subjective.

The current trend for a "knowledge-rich curriculum", where the curriculum is conceived of as a body of knowledge that exists prior to learning and external to learners, underlines this picture of the academic being separable, conceptually, from who you are. This is a very narrow picture of what learning means. After all, the word "education" is thought by some to derive from the Latin educere, meaning "to draw out". Schooling isn't something that you receive, it's something that forms you.

Second, although we recognise that pastoral needs affect academic progress, we don't often recognise the effect the academic can have on the pastoral. We all know from Maslow's hierarchy of needs that if someone doesn't have the basics of food, home, shelter and so on, their learning will be affected. If the pastoral stuff is not in place, higher aims of learning can be impossible to achieve.

But do we ever think the other way round? Do we think about how learning helps people, personally? Yes, we are aware of how academic achievement allows people to succeed in the future, and overcome their material circumstances in that way, but we don't think enough about how small successes in the classroom make people happier. Teachers know this and see this daily.

Moreover, it's important to think about why what is on the curriculum is on the curriculum. It might be imperfect, and we might sometimes wish we could teach other things but, flawed though it may be, the things that students learn are intended, in different ways, to help them flourish. What students learn should contribute to their future life, to who they become.

When we divide leadership into academic and pastoral, we can end up separating these intertwined areas.

Third, because they are intertwined, separating the roles can result in one of two things: on the one hand, it can lead to inefficiency and people doing things twice because both think it's their responsibility. For example, if a student has concussion, should I, as her academic tutor, be the one to contact their parents, or should it be her housemistress or head of year because they deal with medical problems? When it affects both areas, only great communication prevents doubling up the work.

Of greater concern, though, is the risk that if the academic and pastoral are thought of as separate domains, issues can be missed because each thinks it's the other's job. Perhaps there is a fear of stepping on toes. Doing things twice is inefficient, but cases such as the murder of Daniel Pelka, whose neglect and abuse at the hands of his parents was missed by the authorities, show what happens when people in different roles all think it is someone else's responsibility.

So, let's recognise the personal in the academic, and the influence of the academic on the personal, and whether we're academic or pastoral staff, let's make sure we talk to each other.

Clare Jarmy is head of academic enrichment and Oxbridge, and head of religious studies and philosophy, at Bedales School in Hampshire

This article originally appeared in the 31 May 2019 issue under the headline "Two sides of the same coin"

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