A different way of doing things…

As the Chair of the HMC Sub-Committee for Communications I have been asked to contribute a blog post to the new HMC website.  In many senses this is a daunting prospect, writing to an audience of one’s peers in other schools and to an audience which is well-known for having strong opinions on everything.  Thus, whilst mulling over what to write about I thought it might be interesting to encourage fellow heads to write about something at their schools which is either unusual to the sector they are in or something perhaps they are particularly proud of in their own school.  In doing this it is not my intention to say how wonderful things are in my school merely to encourage thinking about a different way that common issues can be tackled.  What follows is my attempt to do this.

One of the great joys of moving from one school to another is that it gets you to rethink some of your core beliefs and challenges your long-held perceptions of what is the right way to do something.  Thus, for many years I had worked as a form teacher in a typical structure for many day schools whereby the form teacher has the pastoral responsibility for a form for a year and then the form moves on and you get another class to take charge of.  Sometimes you might have been able to stick with the form for a second year.  There are many advantages of this system, you become a specialist at looking after pupils of a certain age, in my case it was generally Year 7 but there were also disadvantages with, for example, trying to ensure that all 20+ of the students you were responsible for were settling in ok or if a form teacher in the Sixth form having to cope with 20+ UCAS applications.

When I moved to my current school I encountered a new model for pastoral care and my eyes were opened to a different way of doing things which I believe makes the care we can afford so much stronger.  I was sceptical at first but over many years now have seen the advantages.

In our system a typical tutor set consists of 24 boys with three boys from each year of the School looked after by a tutor and an assistant tutor.  Each boy is placed into a tutor set upon his arrival at the School and remains in the same tutor set throughout his time with us.  The tutor sets are associated with Houses and form a strong basis for a thriving house system.

The advantages of this system are enormous.  There is a natural flow to the School year.  Thus, at the beginning of the year the tutors can concentrate their attention on the three new boys in the tutor set and ensure that they are settling well and making sure that early communications are had with parents to set this vital relationship up for the future.  A few weeks in, attention can then turn to those needing UCAS help, again the tutor and their assistant have just three boys in this position so individual attention can be given.  And so the pattern develops through the School year.

Another huge advantage of the system is that there is continuity for parents in terms of who looks after their sons.  There is no need on a yearly basis either  to build a new relationship with a different teacher nor explain the individual child’s needs once again.  The parents and tutors get to know each other so well over a school career and this means that it is much more likely for there to be effective communication.  With two members of staff with each tutor group it is even possible for the assistant to take over the dealings with a particular parent if relationships are difficult with the tutor.

Best of all parents love this system.  As a school we are fanatical about asking our parents for opinions and our tutor system regularly comes out as the feature that parents most like about our school.  They like the fact that they get to know the tutors so well.  They like the fact that as the tutors know the boys so well over a period of year they tend to notice when the teenage boy goes quiet for a week or two and that  problems are therefore picked up early.  It means that the care given can be both sensitive and sensible. 

Another advantage of this system is that as each tutor set contains three boys from each year in the School there are excellent relations built up between boys of different ages.  Senior boys play an important part in each tutor set as role models for the younger boys and are a constant source of valued advice for them.  The link into the house system is always so much stronger as the senior boys encouraging them to get involved in a house activity are from the same house.  It plays a huge part in our aim to encourage pupils to become mature and responsible young adults and the ease with which our youngest pupils communicate with adults shows the benefits of this sort of structure in terms of building confidence.   

We do still have forms but they are just for administrative purposes and the form teachers merely register the boys and deal with daily administration.  The pastoral care is always undertaken by the tutor.

This form of vertical tutor system is still very unusual in day schools.  I suspect that this has much to do with how difficult it can be to change those core practices in our schools like the form systems and so perhaps it is easier to fight shy of doing this.  In our case this system was established many, many years ago and works so well. 

I hope that others reading this will contribute an idea from their own schools as to how things can be done differently from the norm and that this will become a valuable source of ideas for all of us who have the privilege of leading schools.  It may be of course that a vertical system such as ours is used already in other day schools and if so I would love to hear from you to share experiences and good practice.

Kevin Fear, Head of Nottingham High School