Compassion is no longer enough

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Secondary school form tutors used to be able to look forward to a steady progression up the pastoral-care ladder - year head, then on to pastoral deputy.

But in the educational battleground of the 1990s, caring and compassion are no longer enough. The emphasis has switched to monitoring and improvement. Suddenly, the demand is for subject specialisms.

Schools faced with a choice between advertising for a year head and a skilled subject specialist will go for the academic - every time. League-table performance is at stake and, besides, nine times out of ten pastoral care posts are internal promotions.

Yet, according to the National Association of Pastoral Care, the two career paths are not incompatible. NAPCE spokesman Peter Lang, senior lecturer in education at the University of Warwick, says: "The traditional pastoral career route may be on the verge of becoming obsolete but the skills of being a good form tutor are central to the support of achievement." The model he paints is one where form tutor moves seamlessly to head of department or year head and beyond.

An increasing number of schools target low achievers through the tutorial system with tutors acting as a focal point, gathering results from subject heads and feeding them back to pupils.

As Mr Lang explains, the skill of the tutor comes in counselling pupils, setting them targets, suggesting learning strategies and tying in after-school homework clubs and the like. "Telling a pupil to pull up his or her socks is simply not enough," he says.

So how should teachers prepare themselves for the new form tutor's role?

With funds for external training earmarked, most schools inevitably fall back on their own resources. The school can play an important role through in-service training and mentoring.

Hazel Stocks, head of guidance, careers and personal and social education at Greenlands High School, Blackpool, has co-authored with Sue Mitchell a self-help guide for schools, The Form Tutor Staff Development Pack. The guide contains lists of duties and responsibilities with accompanying exercises that will be useful for inexperienced form tutors.

At Greenlands High, newly-qualified teachers are mentored by experienced form tutors. Deputy head Sue Crouch explains: "We put all new teachers in with experienced form tutors. And we always ask newly qualified teachers to help Year 11 tutors target underachieving pupils and offer them concentrated support before their GCSEs."

Court Moor School in Fleet, Hampshire, organises in-service training days for form tutors. Mary Prior, deputy head in charge of staff development, says: "We ask a lot of our tutors. Nearly every teacher in our school is a tutor. It is part of their role to teach PSE and to monitor a child's progress through the school. "

Form tutors and year heads follow the year cohorts as they move up through the school from Year 7 to Year 11. The system fosters stability and underpins the school's academic success.

But opportunities for career progression in the pastoral field are limited. While most teachers are form tutors, only the very experienced staff make it to year head - long after colleagues have risen to head of department.

Ms Prior explains: "A year head should be an authority figure. It is not a job for someone who is in their fourth or fifth year of teaching."

While waiting for a promotion opportunity there is much that prospective form tutors and year heads-in-waiting can do to improve their chances. Management of groups, counselling and listening skills are techniques that can be learned. Membership of a professional organisation can be a help with training.

Mr Lang says: "NAPCE organises training for its members on a demand-led basis. A useful technique is to organise 'circle time' where only one member of the group is allowed to talk at any one time - which is good for confidence and listening skills. For counselling, tutors need the ability to empathise. "

NAPCE emphasises, however, the need for tutors to know when to refer problems to a better-qualified professional. "If a child discloses information about abuse, the tutor is contractually bound to pass it on to a higher authority," says Mr Lang.

Further information about the NAPCE can be obtained from David Lambourne, University of Warwick CV4 7AL (tel: 01203 523810). The Form Tutor Development Pack is published by Folens (tel: 01582 472788), price #163;49.99

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