I have been overwhelmed by the response I have had to my last post. The amount of positive feedback and support has been amazing. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to contact me or send me messages of support. It is humbling to see that so many people can relate to my experiences, it is also quite worrying how many have gone through difficulties like mine.
A student teacher once told me of the introduction she got to one of her placements. The headteacher welcomed them in the usual way and then told them that, “The best pastoral care that you can give a pupil is a good set of exam results.” Don’t get me wrong, exam results are important and schools should strive to help students get the best results that they can. But the best pastoral care??? I beg to differ.
One Monday morning my year 1 teacher rang me with a concern. A child had just told her, “Miss, do you know what happened this weekend? A man was in our street trying to get into the houses with a machete. He tried to get in my door. My mam was crying and the police came and took the man away and arrested my brother.”
The teacher’s response? “That’s very nice dear but you have your phonics test test week and you are currently only two points off passing. Let’s continue with these flash cards.”
Of course it wasn’t. The morning was spent making referrals to social services, making sure that the child was able to talk to someone, following social worker’s advice and contacting the mother to make sure that she was okay. We arranged for the child to see our counsellor and made sure that the people on yard duty kept an eye out for them.
Pastoral care is of such importance in schools, for some children it is the most important thing. School may be the one place they are listened to, the one place that they feel safe and valued. Their class teacher may be the most significant adult in that child’s life, the only one who takes the time to check on the welfare of the child.
I have been in schools on supply and asked of there are any children in the class who need a bit of extra TLC. Often this is misinterpreted as asking who are the children who are a bit of a challenge with their behaviour. What I mean is who needs a bit more encouragement, which child is coming in from a toxic home environment, which child will need a couple of minutes to calm down or which child will just need lots of smiles?
Pastoral care in my book is not just about having a separate room where children can go, or appointing someone to be the pastoral manager. It is a cultural thing. The school culture needs to be one of nurturing, caring and watching out constantly for children who need help.
I once had a pupil who was constantly in trouble and in my office. He was disruptive, abusive and sometimes violent with other children. He would argue back with everyone and had some anger management issues. We arranged counselling and a placement at a behaviour unit. One day he was withdrawn and sullen but still arguing with everything. He had a bit of a meltdown which meant we had to evacuate the class. I rang his dad as I was going to exclude him for the rest of the week. His dad came in to see me and was in a bit of a state. The boy’s mother had been sectioned the night before and was taken to a secure psychiatric unit. The police were involved, social workers and doctors. The street was full of neighbours who were all very vocal in their opinion. The child had witnessed it all. Did I exclude him? No. I had a meeting with his class teacher who immediately understood the reasons for not excluding him. We arranged extra counselling, a way of telling the teacher that he needed some time out and also told the rest of the staff to keep an eye on him and allow him to come to see me or his teacher at any time. Over the next week or so he often used to turn up in my office. Sometimes he just wanted to sit quietly for a while, other times he needed to talk.
The point is that the whole staff were involved in his pastoral care. They would have a laugh and a joke with him, give him a hug if he needed it and just generally ask him how he was. Not one person in the school disagreed with my decision not to exclude him. They all had the cultural attitude that every child in the school was their responsibility, not just the ones in their class. Also, at no point did they ask how he would affect our figures as he wasn’t likely to meet the required standard in his SATs. The person was more important than the percentages.
If pastoral care is seen just as the responsibility of the pastoral manager or the SENDCO, if it is a room that the “naughty” children can go to then the system needs fixing. Pastoral care is not just one or two people, it is everyone. It is not just following a programme or an intervention it is a constant alertness to the needs of the children. For some children pastoral care is a smile and a “how are you?” For others it is more intense but it needs to be embedded in the culture and the ethos of the school. What is more important, the person or the qualification?
Pastoral care also applies to staff. Who looks after the staff member who is having a bad day? What does the school do to help someone who has suffered a loss? Is a couple of day’s absence and a bunch of flowers enough? What about the teacher who has a doctor’s appointment for some anti-depressants? What about the staff member who is going through a relationship breakup? Is this just the job of the headteacher?
There are so many teachers leaving the profession because of stress or other mental health issues. On Twitter I hear about so many people who have had similar experiences to me. Leaders who have no emotional intelligence or empathy who have destroyed the confidence and in some cases the careers of dedicated, caring teachers. I don’t have the answer. I know that qualifications and exam results matter, that they are important and that we need to encourage children to do their best. I understand the pressures on schools under the current inspection regime. Every week we hear on various television programmes about how schools should be doing more about this, that and the other. I know how schools are judged.
Perhaps in this time of lockdown where the pressure of exams has been reduced and schools have been, in some way, forced to concentrate on the more pastoral side of things rather than the academic, it may be time for a review. Perhaps the education community has an opportunity to pause, to reflect, to consider and to change the priorities it is judged on. Just a thought.