Does your school respect the importance of the form tutor?

Written by: Adam Riches & Roy Watson Davis | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The form tutor role incorporates a wide range of vital tasks, yet there is often little CPD and little support for teachers taking it on. Adam Riches & Roy Watson Davis issue a call to action for school leaders

The role of form tutor is of the utmost importance in school. It may take different names, but the basic concept of students having a person in school who sees them every day and is responsible for them is both a traditional and vital part of schooling.

Often, as a tutor, you are the first face a student sees in the morning and you are the person who is called upon at times of celebration or, indeed, for those more difficult moments. The tutor is the one fixed point in a world of turbulence outside, and sometimes inside, school. Indeed, a form group is like a little family, but how much value is the role of tutor given and how many schools get it right?

A varied role

It is always striking to consider the contrast: the importance of the role of form tutor versus the training or CPD we allocate to the role. Safeguarding training is of course mandatory for teaching staff, but beyond this – bar some shadowing during teacher training – very little guidance or CPD is given.

This is astounding considering the responsibilities. On a daily, weekly and termly basis, most tutors undertake most (if not all) of the following:

  • Supporting the academic progress of your tutees.
  • Supporting the social progress of your tutees.
  • Delivering aspects of a tutor programme.
  • Liaising with parents and carers.
  • Acting as a link between pupils and teachers, parents and teachers, and sometimes between teachers or departments.
  • Writing reports and offering feedback at parent/tutor evenings.
  • Taking a register and distributing messages.
  • Dealing with misbehaviour or incidents.
  • Dealing with friendship issues.
  • Helping with exam preparations.
  • Taking a role in the safeguarding process.
  • Mentoring and coaching.

A lack of training and support

The gulf between what is expected from a tutor and how that tutor is then supported with CPD and skill development is too big in too many schools.

Somewhere along the line some schools have lost focus of the importance of the role, presumably because of the incessant focus on results. But the blind spot is that excellent form tutoring can improve results because of the unique overview of a pupil that the tutor has.

The absence of comprehensive training is something that has been exacerbated by the closing off of the tutor role as a major career route, with head of year-type posts (and above) now being filled by non-teachers in a number of schools.

A lack of time

In some schools, tutor groups are around 25-plus pupils, with the tutor expected to explicitly monitor the academic progress of all of them as well as deal with many of the issues outlined above. Yet the same schools give the tutor perhaps two 15-minute “tutor times” in which to do this, with the tacit assumption that the tutor will see tutees during further sessions at break, lunch or after school.

Too much prescription

The tutor time also often has a tutor programme attached to it, further limiting the time available. There are also those schools which prescribe specific exercises for tutors to conduct with their groups. Such high levels of prescription often lead to the loss of that personable time that tutors are able to spend with their form group.

A further risk of this kind of prescription is that students begin to disengage with their tutor as tutor time becomes “just another lesson”. This undermines the role and does not take into account the practicalities and importance of this pre-lesson buffer time.

When management becomes detached and they forget the importance of those precious pastoral minutes, the time is quickly consumed by curriculum hole-plugging. Are those extra maths sheets really going to boost GCSE grades?

Striking a balance is important. Tutors need to be sufficiently guided and trained to allow them to fulfil their role effectively. Having routines and activities is a must, but giving trained professionals the freedom to use their time as they see fit is of equal importance.

The academic

Academic mentoring is something that tutors also take responsibility for. Having a group of students, often with mixed abilities, whom you are expected to guide and help progress (in subjects other than your own) can be a real challenge, especially when all the other jobs are taken into account.

Interpreting data, setting targets and actions on top of the actual monitoring of progress is a separate workload in itself – and all before you start teaching.

How many members of the senior leadership team have a tutor group? Exactly. But the majority of classroom teachers have a tutor group and a full teaching timetable.

One best practice model we have seen gives each senior leader a small tutor group at key stage 4. This has the double effect of giving pupils access to experienced professionals during this very important time, and reminding the senior leaders of why tutor time is so vital and the workload it entails. But this is a very rare approach indeed.

Timetabling

The time that a good form tutor can save is significantly more valuable than bashing through some worksheets.

A conversation at the start of the day can stop a full incident report during the day. A word of encouragement can quell trembling nerves and, most importantly, having the time to give to individuals makes them feel valued and safe.

We quickly forget as adults that some of the children we teach do not have the privileges and structures in their lives that we do and form time for some takes the place of that interaction and attention that they lack elsewhere in their lives.

Schools need to back their reliance on this important role with sympathetic timetabling – how many schools have tutor timings as a planning priority when designing their timetable? How many schools have a comprehensive support and development package for tutors? How many have workshops to share best practice? Not enough in our view, and now is the time to change.

  • Adam Riches is a lead teacher in English, a Specialist Leader of Education and an ITT coordinator. Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. Read his previous SecEd articles at http://bit.ly/2DhTAJu
  • Roy Watson-Davis is head of history and politics at the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook. He is also author of the Creative Teaching, Form Tutor, and Lesson Observation Pocketbooks. You can read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2FwO59H


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