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Building the ties that bind

Mike Fielding on the challenges and rewards of being a group tutor

On Samantha's second day as a teacher a boy burst into tears during registration and kept shouting "Don't touch me, don't touch me!" She did the natural thing of trying to quiet and comfort him but then thought, "What do I do now?" The other children looked at her expectantly, but nothing in the school's superficial induction process had prepared her for what turned out to be a serious case of child abuse at home.

This is an extreme example of what can happen when the role of group tutor in making sure all teachers are sufficiently skilled and prepared is not taken seriously enough. But most new teachers will find themselves with a role in the school's pastoral system - often responsibility for a group - and need to know how to deal with a multitude of situations. The simplest - but confusing none the less if you are not told how - are the administrative chores including the legally important register. Taking a register sounds easy but the complications of tight rules and different definitions of absence, each requiring its own symbol, can be very unnerving.

Then there are all the notices to give out, money to take in and routine records to keep. Registration time - sometimes only five or ten minutes morning and afternoon - can be a rush of activity as you also try to check on uniforms, read letters from home, chastise children in trouble with other teachers and check on the overall "feel" of the group.

But, for many teachers, the work with "their" tutor group can be very satisfying despite the lack of time made available and, usually, training received.

Schools vary in the responsibility they give group tutors although in most prospectuses there will be a phrase like "the group tutor is the key person in the student's school life". Where the role is highly developed, the tutor will have real responsibility for all aspects of academic, personal and social welfare of the group which may range in size from 15 to 30.

This will mean getting to know parents; contacting social services and other agencies; representing the school at case conferences or in court; and writing reports for support services.

In many schools, though, these contacts are undertaken by a year or house head with the tutor often left in the dark about what is happening and yet, sometimes, having to pick up the pieces in daily contact. Oversight of the group's academic progress is a part of the role which tutors often find difficult unless systems for regular feedback of information from subject teachers are in place. Yet without the group tutor, no one is likely to know how well individuals are doing across the whole curriculum. Also, the academic cannot be separated from the social and emotional state of the child and a pastoral approach which concentrates on only one aspect is not serving the whole child.

Where the tutor is allowed to be the parents' main contact with school then the relationship can be rewarding. Parents value someone they can get to know well and this reduces the potential anonymity of the secondary school.

For teachers, the family is often the key to the child and a lot can be learned about someone in your tutor group from meeting the parents - particularly if you can do it in their home.

Beware, however. Some parents, particularly if they find their role difficult, become dependent on teachers not just for solving their children's problems but for helping with their own. The sympathetic tutor is likely to be enlisted into marital, financial, health and neighbourhood problems and may have difficulty establishing appropriate boundaries.

Confidentiality can also be an issue. Children may want to tell you things "as long as you don't tell anyone". The difficulty comes when the child discloses something - usually abuses of some kind - which professionally you are obliged to pass on.

Children must know, before they disclose, that you may not be able to respect their confidentiality and this presents them with the dilemma of whether or not to tell you. When told something you can keep confidential, it is essential that you do. Children have long ears and will soon know if their secret has been passed round the staff.

Tutors spend a lot of their time sorting out relationships within the group. Children, particularly younger ones, are forever falling out and can present their latest discontent with a former friend in very dramatic terms.

Distinguishing between this and bullying can be difficult - in both cases one child is being made unhappy by another - and the guideline has to be "when in doubt assume the worst". Then you must act on it. Children who look to their tutor for help expect something to happen. They don't understand about lack of time or the multiple other pressures of a teacher's life.

The trust that grows between tutor and group is especially valuable when the tutor is responsible for the personal and social education programme. By its nature, this will venture into sensitive and challenging areas for young people and they need confidence in the person presenting the work.

Sadly, too many teachers think themselves ill equipped for the different learning approaches and content of PSE. This can induce a dangerous reliance on work sheets. But for the new teacher concerned about the full growth of their charges this can be a very satisfying area of work.

This is true of the whole role of group tutor. In the maelstrom of teaching multiple classes, it enables you to get to know one group of children really well, and to feel you have some responsibility for how they progress, and to give you an identity within the school.

Groups are usually known by their year and the name or initials of their tutor. Everything they do as a group will have your name on it and many of your colleagues will base their judgment of you on the behaviour of your group.

It is in your own self-interest to take the role for which you feel probably least well prepared as seriously as possible. Its real satisfaction will come when the group performs and behaves well just because they don't want to let you, their tutor, down.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, north Devon

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