Call in the professionals

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Teachers should concentrate on teaching and leave the pastoral role to others, argues Phil Revell

Who keeps an eye on children at school? What a singularly stupid question.

Teachers do, of course. But do they? Primary school teachers certainly do, responsible as they are for the same group of children throughout the teaching day. But who are the surrogate parents in a secondary school?

Tutors are - in theory - but the typical secondary tutor has 30 children to oversee and less than half an hour a day to do it in. What about when the child is ill, or in trouble, or upset? Tutors will be teaching. The vast majority of schools have a cadre of senior managers to fill this gap in the system of care.

The most common model is the year head, with responsibility for one age group. But vertical systems exist, with mixed-age houses on independent school lines. This may come as a surprise to ministers, who thought they had reinvented the house system earlier on this year. In fact it was there all the time.

In a teaching career spanning 19 years I had responsibility for five different tutor groups along with a spell as a head of house. My last school still runs a house system, with four senior managers paid a substantial portion of the school's management budget.

That may soon change. Current proposals suggest that allowances should be reserved for posts involving the management of teaching and learning, which would seem to exclude allowances for pastoral work.

The National Union of Teachers is unhappy about this. John Bangs, the union's head of education, has called upon the negotiators to "think again" about the idea.

I don't agree. A long, hard look at the way that secondary schools deal with pupils' personal and social needs is long overdue.

It's one thing to have teachers mentoring young people about their academic progress - that kind of support can run on predictable timelines. But what about the fight that breaks out in the corridor, or the girl who arrives in a state because she thinks she is pregnant, or the child with special needs who goes missing at break?

These problems can't wait for someone to finish teaching maths to 4G. Left unsorted they fester. Yet no school can afford to have four of five teachers on a zero timetable. It would be appallingly expensive and a waste of their teaching skills.

The answer is to bring in people who have the experience that pastoral work demands. Not only would these professionals be on hand to deal with children's problems, but they could also liaise with parents, currently a weakness for almost all secondary schools. They might also be the link between the school and children's services.

Some will instinctively oppose the very idea. They will argue that only teachers can fill this role. That, I'm afraid, is both blinkered and arrogant. Thousands of adults work with teenagers and the argument that only teachers have the necessary skills is specious.

And there are educational reasons for the demise of the pastoral head. In too many schools classroom teachers have abdicated their responsibility for discipline and fallen back on the crutch of a pastoral system. Problems are referred up to the head of year instead of being dealt with in class.

Trades unions ought to be concerned about this process - it's called de-skilling.

Good schools insist that the first line of behaviour management is the classroom teacher followed by the head of department. They have clear sanctions and rewards that have been worked through with the students. But even these places struggle with the problems that inevitably crop up, which is why a few pioneers have given some of the work to pastoral support staff.

There is another equally powerful reason for someone else to do the job.

Occasionally the difficulties teenagers face at school involve their relationships with teachers. Some use positions of authority to bully young people. Others are simply not good at hearing the teenager's point of view.

Someone needs to be able to intercede on a student's behalf in these situations. Call them what you like - counsellors, house parents or pastoral supervisors - but start employing them soon.

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