Strong pastoral care isn’t an added extra in a great school, argues Jason Wing – it’s an essential support system that allows brilliant teaching and learning to happen…
Surely being a teacher has never required a greater range of skills? We’re not just knowledgeable about our subjects - we’re also motivators, evaluators and occasional mentors. We need to teach resilience and grit alongside quadratic equations. That’s why having a good pastoral care provision in place is, in my opinion, a necessary requirement of any school. Student wellbeing should be high on any school’s agenda, as happy students lead to increased learning opportunities and improved performance. I became Principal of Neale-Wade Academy, an Active Learning Trust academy, in September 2011. The Academy calls the rural town of March in Cambridgeshire its home, and currently has over 1,600 students on role. Ensuring quality pastoral care provision for all students is by no mean an easy challenge, but I truly view it as the foundation for a successful school.
One of the first major changes we implemented was a shake-up of the vertical tutoring system we had at the Academy. This was replaced with a horizontal system with clear lines of accountability. Heads of Year have been renamed as Progress Leaders, and are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire year group, alongside tracking the academic progress of the 300 students under their care. Pastoral Assistants offer a vital support network, supporting the Progress Leaders in their work. As they aren’t part of the teaching staff they are readily available to meet with students and parents as needed, and, being part of the local area, they have a good understanding of Neale-Wade’s local community.
The pastoral team is also prepared for any non-academic issues that may arise or be pertinent for our students. Take, for example, the recent worrying statistics regarding young people’s mental health. Just as a school’s first aider would help any student with a minor injury, our pastoral care team is always on the look-out for less obvious issues. A dedicated team led by the Vice Principal and Director of Student Wellbeing works tirelessly to remove any potential barriers to learning, ensuring that students with varying needs across the mental health spectrum are supported and able to cope in their mainstream lessons, thus maximising their learning opportunities.
This support strategy is complemented with various co- and extra-curricular activities, which allow our pastoral care provision to evolve past problem solving to creating and maintaining a supportive environment that encourages and stimulates learning. This corroborates and is aligned with what happens in the classroom, but shakes things up a bit. We offer residential experiences, for example, taking place at hotels. Students study during the day, finishing at 6:30pm before being taken to the cinema and bowling. Year 11 students have the opportunity to take part in breakfast revision sessions, starting at 8:15am. These activities offer a sociable learning experience in a different learning environment, and they are extremely popular.
The teaching staff at all levels have been intrinsic in getting this pastoral care strategy off the ground. We recently sent round some questionnaires to staff aimed at getting their feedback on how they viewed pastoral care provision at Neale-Wade, and got some really positive responses at the effect it has had on whole Academy. All staff commented that they view providing strong pastoral care at the Academy as a vital component to our work as teachers and educators. Having the partnership of an experienced teacher as Progress Leader alongside a pastoral assistant ensures that there is always a knowledgeable point of contact for both students and parents. This is appreciated, and this appreciation demonstrates the value of such an initiative for everyone at the Academy.
In the questionnaires, one of our Progress Leaders commented that “Through gaining an in-depth knowledge of pupils we are able to treat each student as an individual, and have a wider understanding of often complex learning, home, or social issues that need to be considered when supporting each student”. This is not only great for our students, but has also had a positive effect on staff. Our Vice Principal noted that this knowledge on an individual basis has had the knock-on effect of “promoting a positive rapport with staff, which is key to a productive school”.
I think that students’ recognition of our efforts also goes a long way. When students understand that you have a personal interest in their academic achievement and general wellbeing, they are naturally more motivated to succeed. It’s easy to become bogged down in Ofsted guidelines and league table positions, and forget about why we got into the profession in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, the guidelines and tables are important, but perhaps we should move away from the labels and instead focus on the individual. It is important that we are a proactive and dedicated team, ensuring that communication with both students and parents is paramount and that positive student behaviour is reinforced with weekly rewards.
A caring community
It is important to remember that secondary school isn’t a factory production line; we are dealing with real people, who have real issues, and as such we should be sensitive to individual needs and potential. Great results due to improved attainment are often a happy side effect of contributing to a young person’s personal and academic development, and through students feeling safe, supported and valued, attendance in the Academy has improved by 2% over the last four years. 0.5% per year is a very encouraging trend and we hope to build upon this further.
21st century teachers face a multitude of internal and external pressures, and are increasingly accountable. But schools aren’t companies, and it is crucial to bear in mind that if we are in any business, it is that of educating and developing young people. Implementing a steadfast pastoral care strategy is one way in which we can ensure we’re doing this as best as we are able, taking the pressure off somewhat and allowing us to focus on what is our real job: teaching.
About the author
Jason Wing is Principal at Neale-Wade Academy (http://www.neale-wade.org), an Active Learning Trust academy in March, Cambridgeshire (www.activelearningtrust.org). He began his career teaching PE at a school in west London, and has held positions as Director of Sport, Assistant Head and Vice Principal before commencing his role as Principal at Neale-Wade.