Let me take you back through the mists of time to when I was an NQT at a “trying-to-improve” inner-city comprehensive. Back then, my lessons were punctuated by daily visits by one or more of the heads of year. There would be a knock at the door and a confident figure would stride in. The pupils would immediately stop throwing things and return to their seats.
“Morning Sir, how are Year 9 doing today?”
“We’re getting there, Miss.”
This sign of support, in the form of a truly non-threatening classroom visit, happened every day. There was a physical pastoral presence. We knew that each child had at least three people at their back – head of year, form tutor and classroom teacher. This meant that when one of my students tried to set fire to his desk during my lesson on Macbeth, he immediately had to answer to three very disappointed members of staff – before even considering what his mum was going to say.
Today, schools still have more experienced members of staff to step in when an NQT runs into trouble. But when we talk of middle leaders, we are increasingly referring to subject leads. They are often too busy struggling to analyse progress data for a Year 11 cohort and trying to explain why each individual isn’t already meeting their target in October to think about much else.
It seems to me that there has been an overwhelming shift within our schools from pastoral to subject – and it is not only NQTs who have suffered from that shift. Teachers at every stage of their career, students and even parents all need these figures of support.
Community of support
I remember heads of year and form tutors lining up to guide me through the numerous personal issues and contextual pressures that could explain why a student would take out his Bic lighter and try to ignite a desk.
Over time, within this community of support, I learned how to better help students – both as a classroom teacher and as a form tutor. Perhaps I am looking back with rose-tinted glasses, but I am not convinced that NQTs today receive the same level of support around pastoral issues.
Increasingly, trainee teachers no longer see the role of “form tutor” as part of their job description and breathe a sigh of relief when the school abandons afternoon registration as “wasted” contact time. Heads of years are being replaced by non-teaching pastoral support workers who may struggle to have the same gravitas as a senior teacher with a pastoral focus.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not looking to undo some of the great strides made in our profession, such as the positive use of data in helping staff and students to reach goals. But if the cost of these strides is a marginalised pastoral system, then this is something that has to change.
The messy stuff of knowing students and building the relationships that will support their wellbeing has been crushed under the juggernaut of exam progress. But what should we do about the problem, particularly at a time when funding is so scarce?
The answer, I believe, is for headteachers and senior leaders to re-enforce pastoral structures from the moment that a new member of staff joins the school – and to re-establish routines and duties around this aspect of school life.
At recruitment stage, leaders should give equal weighting to pastoral responsibilities and subject provision when writing job descriptions and make sure that this is followed up when interviewing candidates.
Each year group should have a pastoral team, but this should not be something that exists in name only. Make it a requirement that these teams meet daily, at the start of every day. This might seem like a lot, but it is important to touch base on pastoral issues regularly. Having a daily meeting slot sends a clear message about the value of pastoral care.
All staff should have pastoral duties of some kind or another, but seek out your pastoral enthusiasts to take lead roles. Let your existing heads of year manage their teams through co-tutoring approaches, so that there is an emphasis on developing pastoral skills in less experienced members of staff.
Finally, avoid gimmicks or token gestures. House systems and vertical tutoring systems should only be introduced if you really want to invest the time for staff and students to build relationships around them. Pastoral care should never be about ticking a box.
A great headteacher once said to me that his job was to create a structure that allowed every person in the building to be the best they possibly could be. The pastoral system is that structure. It has been sadly neglected of late, but we must reinvigorate it if we want teachers and students to thrive.
Sam Draper has been head of English in three inner-city London schools and has been teaching for 15 years. He tweets @alondonbookman