When a new headteacher was appointed with the aim of raising our school towards “outstanding”, we all knew that change was inevitable. However, few seemed prepared for the radical nature of one of these proposed changes: “vertical tutoring”.
Vertical tutor groups consist of a small group of students from each year group. The school had always operated on the traditional model that I remembered from my own school days: teachers were allocated a class of 30 or more pupils from a particular year group and followed them throughout their time at school. I had never stopped to question the merits of this system, I just accepted that was the way it had always been – why change it?
This exact question was posed early in the autumn term, and it soon became clear this was not just one for the teachers – support staff would get tutor groups, too. The thinking was that by involving all staff, we could reduce group numbers and create a more supportive, “family” environment.
Staff were asked to volunteer for a working party, enabling us to examine prior research and raise potential issues. Staff had logistical concerns and support staff, who had never had a form tutor role, were particularly anxious. There was also disquiet among the students – I spent many a lunchtime fielding questions about friendship groups and the potenial demise of social experiences.
To address these concerns, groups of staff and students visited schools that had already implemented such a system, allowing the day-to-day realities of vertical tutoring to be witnessed first-hand. This consultation process culminated in an informative and inspiring CPD day, led by Peter Barnard, an acknowledged expert in vertical tutoring.
Though this process answered many of our questions, it was still with trepidation that we implemented the change in June of this year. Teachers and support staff were assigned to tutor and co-tutor roles respectively, while great care and attention was taken over the formation of balanced tutor groups.
Because the Year 11s had already left, the reduced numbers made building relationships easier. Initial grumbles from pupils were soon replaced with happy chatter during games of “people bingo” and “get-to-know-you” quizzes. When the Year 6 pupils came to visit later on for their induction days, it was a proud moment to witness our prospective Year 11s maturely adopting a mentoring role.
Last September, our new Year 7s joined us and our “family” became complete. To avoid cliques forming, a seating plan was devised to optimise interactions between year groups. A degree of resistance was inevitable, but I was reassured to see how quickly the group bonded – we even began to forget which year groups pupils belonged to. Our Year 7s soon found new big brothers and sisters, who helped to facilitate a smooth transition to high school, allowing them to settle in quickly.
Since then, time has flown by in a frenzy of house competitions, quizzes and birthday celebrations and I have learned a lot about the aspirations, hobbies, fears and talents of each individual. Tears have been wiped, successes praised and difficulties resolved, but my own personal highlight was cheering on my form during their performance in the interhouse haka competition.
After just over a term, my form really does feel like a family. They may tease, bicker and moan at times, but they are mine – and to me they are perfect. I hope that all the other tutors feel the same.
Abigail Joachim is a higher-level teaching assistant in the English department at a secondary academy in Suffolk