Finding the balance: The pastoral and the academic


New ‘pastoral assistants’, a focus on extra-curricular activities and supporting students’ revision has led to excellent results at principal Jason Wing’s school. He explains some of the school’s approaches


Pastoral care and student wellbeing are hot topics at the moment, and rightly so. The recent Department for Education advert tells us that teachers make the country’s future CEOs, nurses, scientists and engineers. But they also foster inquisitive minds, self-confidence and courage of conviction. Academia of course has its role to play in this, but the well-rounded, self-assured individuals who are the next generation’s CEOs require much more from their school day.

At Neale-Wade Academy, pastoral care is about just that, providing our learners with the support and skills they will need in adult life. It is about removing any barriers to learning, whatever these may be, and creating the perfect learning environment.

It is for this reason that pastoral care is not just another education buzz-word for us; something to fervently work on for a few months because a politician has made it a bit between their teeth. 

Whether we like it or not, our role as teachers is changing. WISE’s Schools in 2030 report demonstrates that less than a third of teachers believe learning will take place primarily in schools within the next 15 years. 

Furthermore, the development of personal skills was perceived as fundamental by 75 per cent of respondents, with 42 per cent putting academic knowledge first. And, perhaps most interestingly, nearly three quarters of those surveyed viewed teachers’ roles changing and evolving to “guiding students along their autonomous learning paths”.

Given the integration of technology within the classroom, and the fact that learning can now be 24/7 and not confined by geographical location, is it any wonder that interest is turning to developing those skills that need to be fostered rather than taught? 

As a society, we are becoming more isolated than ever, and yet we are confused as to why mental health issues among our young people are on the rise. Students spend seven hours-a-day, five days-a-week in the classroom. We are erroneous if we fail to see that it is our responsibility and duty to ensure that they are supported during this time.

I became principal of Neale-Wade in September 2011. The school calls the small, rural town of March in Cambridgeshire its home, and while the town is small the student population certainly isn’t, with more than 1,600 students on role. I made good pastoral care provision our goal, and over the course of the last three years, thanks largely to a strong and dedicated leadership team, we have really made some headway.

The first thing we did was to transform the vertical tutoring system to a horizontal one that offered clear accountability. Heads of year became “progress leaders”, and are now supported by pastoral assistants and an attendance officer. 

The progress leaders are responsible for the wellbeing of their year group, and as such monitor academic progress and attendance, as changes in these areas often indicate potential issues. The pastoral assistants have proved a key addition to this team. They are from the local community and are not part of the teaching staff. This means that they are more readily available to meet with parents and students. 

It also means that tutor periods can be freed up for more time to be spent on academic development. The main focus of these periods is core subject areas, and subject teachers visit tutor groups in what is known as a “core carousel”. 

We also ensure that year 11 and 12 students have their tutor groups in IT classrooms, so that they are able to work on UCAS applications in school time where they are more easily able to get support and advice from teachers. 

Year 11 students are also given the opportunity to attend revision sessions. These start at 8:15am, and a free breakfast is provided. Living locally, it is incredibly satisfying to see students on their way to these sessions as I am driving into school at 7am. Some staff also teach sessions on Saturday and Sunday mornings for additional support.

These sessions, alongside residential experiences where students stay at a hotel, studying hard during the day and taking part in social activities in the evening, may not be seen as part of a traditional pastoral care provision. 

At Neale-Wade, however, an extra-curricular roster of activities that have learning at their core but also allow students to socialise among themselves and with staff are intrinsic in reaching the key aim of this pastoral activity: creating a safe and happy environment conducive to learning and student development. The popularity of these additional sessions serves to highlight their impact, demonstrating that the right environment encourages desire for learning rather than stifling it.

The current obsession with metrics means that any use of resource must have some kind of “return on investment” in terms of achievement and progression. In my opinion it is far from a happy coincidence that attainment and results have improved since implementing this structured pastoral care programme.

Attendance at the school has risen, along with improvement in core subjects, with a 76 per cent pass rate at A* to C in GCSE English and 70 per cent A* to C pass rate in maths. The school is now within the top 25 per cent of similar schools nationally for five GCSEs at A* to C.

Great work, of course, should be rewarded, and this is something that we view as extremely important to the wellbeing and progression of our students. Staff can award students stars for effort made within a lesson or a series of lessons, and these rewards are recorded on our data system. A text message is then sent to their parents, which they and the students really like, as a small reward at school can often lead to bigger ones at home. It also enables parents to easily keep tabs on their child’s progress. 

Something that really made me smile recently was a student telling me: “It’s great when I get an SLT star as my mum will text me on the way home to tell me that she loves me.” While that may not be a metric that Ofsted and the Department for Education recognise, it is certainly good enough for me.

I think the most important thing that overhauling our pastoral system has taught me is not to underestimate its impact. We now have a student body where the majority are eager to learn. Some even come in early to do so, or give up their time over their weekends. They realise that results and grades are important for their futures, but also understand the other benefits that a good education will give them outside of these letters and numbers.

  • Jason Wing is principal at Neale-Wade Academy, an Active Learning Trust academy in March, Cambridgeshire.

CAPTION: A balanced approach: Students at Neale-Wade Academy, which prioritises the pastoral alongside the academic (Photos: Neale-Wade Academy)


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