As a personal tutor, you’re always prepared to hear some choice words from students. These students are navigating their lives and juggling college, home, jobs, anxieties, relationships and expectations to name a few. When you combine these pressures to big changes they may be going through physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially, there’s no doubt that pastoral work is a vital source of support to students throughout the academic year.
However, as the mental health crisis spirals and services are cut, increased caseload and administrative workload can mean that personal tutors themselves are risking burn-out, compromising their own mental health and wellbeing to prioritise their commitment to supporting students.
Being ever-present with students in crisis takes skill and energy – and can take a huge toll if you’re not supported properly. I’ve worked with pastoral teams across a number of FE colleges since 2002 and have researched a number of teams between 2013 and 2016. It has provided me with an insight into the changing role of tutorial provision, and the related pastoral work that is couched within it, particularly post-2011 when the coalition government cut tutorial and enrichment funding by 74 per cent.
Background: Mental health issues on the rise in colleges
Pastoral support: a privilege and a challenge
Over these years, pastoral teams have supported thousands of students through times of difficulty, which is both a huge privilege and a challenge of the role. That said, nothing quite prepares us for the increasing range and frequency of student crisis, angst, trauma and frustration.
From safeguarding to suicide, whether it’s about sexual health or self harm, we listen to our students and are present with their thoughts and experiences. We do this with care, empathy, commitment and professionalism.
However, this level of support also means we run the risk of sitting with this encounter long after it has ended. There an aftermath of wrangling and worrying, exhausting ourselves thinking: is the student OK? Did I say the right thing? Did I do the right thing? Did I listen enough? These critical reflections often happen when we’re alone and outside of the workplace.
Some of these encounters are procedurally taken out of our hands under referral systems or signposting, but the memory of the pastoral work is still there, and we are expected to carry on and continue to repeat this level of support and its related aftermath each time we work with a student who needs us.
Running alongside this, we’re plugging the gaps austerity created and cuts to youth services such as college counsellors and CAMHS – which means students seek us out on a regular basis while on a waiting list for professional services. The increased frequency of exposure to adverse student experiences over prolonged periods naturally takes a toll on staff.
Tidy checklists and tick boxes
In 2002, I was in my first personal tutoring role. I had a caseload of 20 students from a course I taught, and also had course leader responsibilities. I worked with a designated senior tutor who had experience in pastoral care, and was therefore experienced enough to support my work with students. They were a great sounding board, and offered a dedicated space to discuss pastoral practice, reflect on the provision for students and to talk through difficult situations.
In 2014, I had a caseload of 279 students and a different personal tutor. This time, my manager measures the number of targets I set students, and the number of final-stage disciplinaries I had retained. It was a completely different perspective of reviewing pastoral practice – and I quickly realised the profound impact meaningful development of pastoral practice and support can have in these roles.
The comparison demonstrates a stark change in the pastoral landscape as more performance management-based notions of measuring students have become part of the role. The focus has moved from pastoral care as a priority of practice, towards neoliberal perspectives of measuring student performance and collecting data for contributing to audits and business case models.
Students cannot fit neatly into transferable data, and their lives have not become less complicated however much some institutions and government agendas may wish them to fit into tidy checklists and tick boxes. While the institutional demands may remain grounded in data through target setting and number crunching, pastoral work remains grounded within the dynamic and relationship with the student, which takes a great deal of professional practice and emotional energy to get right. This mismatch in priorities can often leave pastoral workers functioning in silos, where there is limited support made available by the institution.
Given the increasing demands on FE pastoral workers, we must look to similar lines of work to see how professionals are supported when exposed to similar encounters. We can learn a lot from the counselling profession, and their role of ‘supervision’ could provide an answer to emotionally and professionally supporting those who support our students. It’s about casework supervision, not managerial supervision, where the expectation is to discuss aspects of pastoral practice post-supporting students, not to appraise the number of targets set under institution guidelines for example.
Casework supervision is a space for pastoral workers to discuss the support they have undertaken with students within their caseload, particularly after emotionally challenging communication, or when a student divulges distressing information. This supervision allows pastoral workers to have a consultation with a more experienced person to discuss elements of the provision, and to offload in a safe and non-judgemental space.
A duty of care
From my own experiences and completing research with other colleagues within the FE pastoral profession, one of the key themes was the need to talk through ethical dilemmas, seek reassurance, check in with an experienced colleague to develop practice, or find a safe space to decompress after a tough encounter. Support in all of these areas would help pastoral workers to maintain balance in their work.
The FE sector needs to make sure that in addition to committing to student mental health and wellbeing, it is equally committed to supporting the staff that are providing this to students. We need to proactively commit to professional support and a duty of care to pastoral workers.
As a sector, if we expect staff to respond to mental health, safeguarding and student wellbeing in a professional way, then the sector also has a duty to support the staff undertaking this level of pastoral work and provide the best mechanisms for supporting both staff and students: supervision can be an immediate measure to begin this commitment.
Jodie Rees has worked across a range of tutorial models as a personal tutor in FE and is currently lecturing in PcET at the University of South Wales.