Pastoral leader’s work matters more than you think

The UK has unusually high rates of family breakdown by OECD standards and above-average rates of other indicators of social breakdown. The number of children needing a social services assessment doubled between 2010 and 2016, and absolute child poverty rose substantially between 2010 and 2015.

This leads into a discussion about exclusion rates. While there are only 6,500 permanent exclusions reported a year, unofficially, this figure hides a much larger population of children in alternative provision (around 48,000) and even more children who are de facto excluded from the school system, but not picked up in any government data.

This is a huge problem, given the long-term impact of exclusion on students. Exclusion is often another rejection for students whose lives are likely to have already been filled with too much rejection and they may accentuate existing psychological problems and lead to higher rates of self-harm. Even more disturbingly, just 1% of excluded pupils get five good GCSEs, and excluded children are twice as likely to be taught by an unqualified teacher. Huge swathes of Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted, often all in one area of the country.

Unsurprisingly, this means that basic skills levels amongst excluded pupils tend to remain very low, meaning that 45% of children leaving PRUs are NEET (not in education, employment or training) six months after leaving school, compared to 6% of students nationally. This is a truly shocking statistic. This also means that exclusions have a vast economic cost to the nation, estimated officially at £2.1 billion, but likely to be more accurately somewhere around £10 billion. So there is a huge financial, social and moral incentive to cut exclusion rates, both official and unofficial.

The biggest takeaway from that dense paragraph of statistics is that the pastoral leader’s work matters. You are the people dedicating your working life to helping children and battling those percentages. Your work matters not just to the children, but to the functioning of our society. The excluded students who may seem like they’re on the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline were all originally children at school, dealt a terrible hand, and in need of the support of the pastoral leaders. You are often one of the few adults who can help a troubled child before their life spirals out of control.

In the current climate of mental health and CAMHS crisis, the pastoral leader role becomes EVEN more important. The statistic that a quarter of all girls are self-harming is a crisis at an epidemic level. If a quarter of girls had flu then we would probably go into lockdown, get the big pharmaceutical industries on it immediately, galvanise billions of pounds and call in the army. Given that this is not happening, it becomes the role of the pastoral leader, alongside the occasional national initiative, to bring about mental health success.

When it comes to the CAMHS crisis, it’s quite simply a matter of referrals: the speed of CAMHS referrals is pretty much a postcode lottery, with a very large variation in outcomes. A quarter of children will be flatly turned away by CAMHS. This is essentially a funding crisis.

But the point I am making here is that pastoral care should not be relegated to a social work problem. Teachers are not trained or funded for this. There needs to be an honest acceptance of the limits of pastoral care. While teachers should do their best to support their pupils whenever possible, it is really important to remember that they are not mental health professionals, and that they may even struggle to spot symptoms of psychological dysfunction. As a pastoral leader, you must remember to bear in mind that there is only so much you can do.

It’s important that your school develops an understanding of what they are trying to achieve. Make sure that you discuss and develop this vision reflectively as a pastoral team.

The fundamental issue at the core of trying to measure pastoral success is not necessarily based around exclusions, but rather of maximising the sense of well-being, self-esteem and belonging of the most challenging and vulnerable students in your school.

Three guidelines for measuring this (other than having an honest chat with students) are:

  • Keeping an ear out for how much shouting you hear, and how much praise you hear. The more praise the better.
  • How well do the staff really know the students: their aspirations, biggest fears and challenges, their biggest barriers to learning, and what motivates them. And how much do they communicate this knowledge to the students?
  • How well are you and your pastoral team equipped for self-assessing, reviewing your strategies and supporting each other, not just practically but emotionally?

It is almost impossible to put a numerical value on these measurements, but without these three indicators being strongly in the affirmative, it would be surprising if you could run an effective pastoral system.

As always, don’t forget to look after yourself. Set up a buddy with whom you can talk through challenging situations. When you’re particularly angry or upset about something, you may make decisions and have conversations that you later regret. Avoid this by sending those emails to your buddy. And just remember, the best way to avoid exclusion, is to promote inclusion.

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