Two girls popped by to see me recently. Or at least I thought they had come to see me. It transpired very quickly that they had really come to see Bodie, the High School dog. I was delighted because when I made the decision to bring Bodie to school I did so because I am a firm believer in the pastoral advantages of dogs in schools and the work place.
One of the girls had come in a bit wobbly – she left laughing and calm and ready for her next lesson. We all do better when we feel better and ten minutes with Bodie the dog made her feel better.
We all do better when we feel better is an obvious truth. We have long known it applied to our physical health and appreciated that we all perform better when we feel physically fit and healthy. Fortunately it is now universally accepted that this adage also applies to our mental health and that we all do better when we feel better about ourselves. When we feel confident, competent and connected we achieve. This is particularly true for our children and acutely so for our teenagers because, as the psychologist JoAnn Deak recognised, these are the ingredients which build their self- esteem.
Schools have known this for some time which is why most schools work hard to offer excellent pastoral care. Pastoral care is the umbrella term used, in education, to describe the structures and systems a school puts in place to take care of its young people. I must confess that I had never heard the term pastoral care when I first went into teaching. Pastoral to me conjured up images of rural idylls and shepherds tending their flock. I was vaguely aware the church used the phrase to describe the care a vicar would administer to their flock but in educational terms it was all just jargon to me.
Of course, the term is entirely appropriate to apply to a school’s responsibility to the welfare and wellbeing of its pupils and it was not long before I realised excellent pastoral care was essential to the achievement of girls and boys and that developing pastoral instincts and knowledge was a key priority for any teacher’s toolkit.
So it is perhaps no surprise that my top priority, as Head of Shrewsbury High School, is to ensure that our pastoral care is second to none because from expert pastoral care flows everything else. An excellent school must provide first-rate teaching and learning, broad co-curricular opportunities, produce brilliant results and add value but it can only do this if it first takes care of the wellbeing of all of its students.
Check any school website and it will (or it certainly should!) tell you about the school’s pastoral care and how that care underpins academic results. But what does that actually mean for your child? What does excellence in pastoral care look like and what, as a parent, should you expect?
You should expect a school to know your child as an individual. At the High School we pride ourselves on knowing each and every pupil really well and by having small tutor groups our tutors and class teachers can really get to know the young people in their care and respond to their individual needs. These relationships encourage pupils to share problems and tell teachers when things go wrong. Every member of staff is expected to embrace their pastoral responsibility and safeguarding runs throughout our entire culture.
On a day-to-day basis it is vital that a school has expert reactions and understands how to support and protect the wellbeing of children from the challenges they face today. That is why the High School now has a Deputy Head Pastoral solely dedicated to the provision of consistent and proactive pastoral care. In the past two terms our Pastoral Deputy has built an experienced team of safeguarding leads across the Prep and Senior school with specialisms in key areas such as child protection, e-safety and mental health. Our Deputy Head Pastoral has also founded a pastoral committee to bring together all our pastoral experts, including pastoral staff from our Prep school, Senior school Heads of Year, the Head of PSHE, the SENDCOs and the School Nurse. This joined up approach means that we are well placed to respond to the ever-evolving challenges and opportunities that face our young people.
Of course few issues are neatly academic or purely pastoral, most are a blend of both e.g. school work suffering because of anxiety, friendship issues undermining progress, a lack of self-esteem preventing a child taking part in sport and so on and so forth. And so our Deputy Head Pastoral works in close liaison with our Deputy Head Academic and Heads of Academic Departments.
Parents should also expect a school to be proactive in the care it provides. Through the active promotion of our core pillars, values and positive behaviour the High School seeks to promote wellbeing rather than just respond to problems. Through our curriculum, PSHE, Co-Curricular programmes, assemblies and tutor time we provide opportunities, activities and situations that give students the chance to build resilience, hone their initiative, develop resourcefulness, take risks in a safe space and learn how to seek help when required.
That said, good pastoral care is not about being a push over, or soft, or nurturing at the expense of progress and excellence – anything but. Excellent pastoral care will sometimes be about tough love, hard truths and coping with failure. It can be about discipline and respecting the rules. It is about balancing the need of an individual versus those of the entire community. Sometimes pastoral care cannot solve the problem and despite a school’s very best efforts the issue is not happily resolved. Schools and parents must accept that a school can only do so much.
So excellent pastoral care is not always easy, it is not precise, one size does not fit all and resolving complex pastoral issues can take time. That said excellent pastoral care can be transformative, confidence-building and hugely rewarding. Pastoral care builds the culture of a place, it sustains the community, it underpins the academic and co-curricular success of an individual and the entire school and above all else it is absolutely vital in the school’s contribution to the development of each individual child into a successful and emotionally secure adult.
In the words of one former pupil, “This is the school that has taught me to believe in myself, be committed, courageous and confident and composed and to believe that I leave here with the capability to make a difference”.
That does not mean that schools always get it right or that school and parents always agree but schools that seek to work in partnership with parents and prioritise the pastoral care they provide are much successful in producing confident and compassionate pupils who are at ease in their own skin, who have a strong sense of self-worth and value the worth of others. At the High School we encourage close communication between home and school and we seek to build relationships with our parents so that they can raise issues with us at any time and know that we will listen to and address their concerns. I want our parents to trust our care, to be guided by it and to be confident in the knowledge that the wellbeing of their children, our pupils, is our chief driver.
I want to ensure that the girls and boys of SHS do better because they feel better. I want each and every pupil to be confident in who they are, competent in the skills they are developing and connected to our wonderful community – strong as individuals who feel known and valued and further strengthened by being part of a community that supports them, challenges them and holds them dear.
It might be something as simple as ten minutes with Bodie the High School dog or much more complex support that spans a child’s time with us but whatever your child’s needs please rest assured that providing expert pastoral care is top of our list.