Lessons learned: Providing pastoral care during a pandemic

Written by: Dave Stephenson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Providing pastoral care this past year has been a particular challenge for schools. One year on from the outbreak of Covid-19, head of year Dave Stephenson reflects on the challenges, successes and lessons learned during the pandemic

Among the debates around the quality of online lessons and when schools should re-open, there has been little focus in the mainstream media on the challenges that pastoral teams have faced.

I am head of year 9 at a large secondary school and, along with a team of 12 form tutors and a deputy head of year, I am responsible for the pastoral care of 255 pupils.

To say that it has been challenging during the past year would be an understatement. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the first national lockdown, I have been reflecting on the pastoral care that my colleagues and I have provided in the last year and the lessons we have learned.


An evolving approach

The first lockdown now feels like a dress rehearsal for everything that has happened since. In the early days of the pandemic, we did what we could to offer pastoral care to our pupils. At first, we did not have access to a live online learning platform, and so it was decided that form tutors and heads of year would check-in with pupils and their parents over the phone on a fortnightly basis. This was a workable but imperfect way of keeping in contact.

During the summer term, we were able to offer weekly live meetings between tutors and their pupils, which was more effective than contacting them by phone.

By the time schools closed again in January, we had developed detailed plans for providing remote pastoral care. As well as their online lessons, now delivered through a mixture of live and non-live teaching, pupils attended form time for 20 minutes at the start of each day. This proved to be successful.

Although we provided our form tutors with resources to use, they had autonomy over how these sessions were run. Sometimes, the time was spent allowing pupils to discuss their feelings about lockdown, often leading to emotional support being offered between peers. Many teachers have commented how the online form time was the highlight of their day; many pupils echoed this sentiment.

Throughout the pandemic, the ties between pastoral care and academic engagement were strengthened. Data pertaining to our pupils’ online attendance and engagement was published fortnightly and the parents of any pupils who were struggling to motivate themselves were contacted directly, by either myself, the deputy head of year or the form tutor. This was vital as parents were often unaware of these issues and my year group’s attendance and engagement continued to improve throughout lockdown.

I delivered a weekly online assembly to the year group, allowing me to maintain regular contact with the pupils. I used this time to celebrate the many positives that were emerging, reading out praise from classroom teachers, and sharing poems or artwork that members of the year group had sent me.

I know that, at times, I was also struggling with the feeling of separation from the pupils and these weekly sessions reminded me of the sense of community that the year group has built since they arrived at the school back in year 7.


Emotional wellbeing and safeguarding

Regular communication between home and school allowed us to identify any emotional issues that pupils were facing. With the help of our inclusion team, these issues were dealt with quickly and sensitively.

Any pupils with pre-existing social and emotional issues received weekly contact from their assigned key worker, with detailed records being kept whenever contact was made. We provided over-the-phone counselling sessions for any pupils who were struggling emotionally and we also offered support to parents.

The stress caused by home-schooling was overwhelming for some families and we were available to offer reassurance and advice to parents who required it.

Occasionally, issues around pupil engagement led to safeguarding concerns. Communication between all stakeholders was key to dealing with these concerns in a timely and appropriate manner. Our safeguarding team was quick to establish contact with the parents and pupils in question, and home visits were made when we were unable to make contact over the phone. The physical and emotional wellbeing of our pupils is the cornerstone of everything that we do and I was impressed with the dedication shown by my colleagues to ensure this.


Responding at short notice

The greatest challenge during lockdown was the implementation of complex policy at very short notice. Although we had drawn up detailed plans for our pastoral care prior to the Christmas holidays, the reality of the situation often revealed challenges we had not foreseen.

As head of year, I was the conduit between senior leaders and form tutors, explaining the practicalities of new pastoral policies and the reasons for them being implemented. Our school’s form tutors have gone above and beyond during the pandemic without question or complaint. I believe that transparent communication between all colleagues was key to new policies being implemented so successfully.

It was important to maintain a sense of “business as usual” with regards to many aspects of school life. For instance, monitoring reports were still produced and parents’ evening went ahead as planned, albeit in a different format.

Rather than speaking to subject teachers, parents made appointments with their child’s form tutor to discuss academic progress and emotional wellbeing. This was successful, with many tutors and parents commenting that this was a more personal way of conducting parents’ evening. I would like to see this approach expanded upon as we review school policies post-lockdown.


Pupils in school

Another challenge was providing a stimulating environment for the children who were in school due to being vulnerable or their parents being key workers. Around 25 pupils from year 9 attended school during the most recent lockdown. We provided emotional support to these pupils and they were supervised by a wonderful team of teachers and teaching assistants.

This group developed their own sense of community as well, with all the comradery and in-jokes that come along with that. One pupil produced caricatures of the pupils and teachers in this group, which adorned a wall in their assigned classroom.

I was in school every day during lockdown and supervised these pupils during registration, which was a real highlight for me. The atmosphere in the classroom was positive and focused. To achieve this, it was vital for staff members to reinforce the same expectations that they would under normal circumstances. The pupils’ uniform was still impeccable, poor choices were still challenged and their engagement with their learning was still paramount.

Despite the challenges this group faced, I hope that their experience of attending school throughout lockdown was pleasant and I think they managed to create some happy memories despite the uncertain times they lived through.


Conclusion

Our year team has always been fantastic at communicating, whether with parents, our pupils or each other. The importance of this has been reinforced by the pandemic and I am pleased to report that some previously hard-to-reach parents have engaged more willingly than they did in the past. It will be crucial for us to maintain this dialogue with parents in the months and years ahead.

At the centre of everything is our pupils’ emotional and academic wellbeing. I doubt whether school will ever return to “normal” for this cohort of pupils and the year team will need to be mindful of this as we move into key stage 4.

Despite our pastoral care being delivered from a distance, I believe that the pandemic has strengthened the relationships between tutors and pupils. The greater autonomy given to form tutors with regards to form time is another thing that I would like to see continue.

As I look back over the last year, I feel an immense sense of pride. Pride in the form tutors for their unwavering dedication. Pride in the local community and the way that parents have offered encouragement and support. Most of all, I am proud of the pupils for their resilience and positivity.

This experience has made us stronger, both as a community and as individuals. We may have been apart, but we were always united.

  • Dave Stephenson is a teacher of history and head of year 9 at Honley High School in West Yorkshire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2VJhEh5


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