Ten Takeaways from ‘The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership’ by Amy-May Forrester

Ostensibly, this is a book written by a pastoral leader, about pastoral leadership, for prospective or current pastoral leaders. But, I have a secret: it’s not. It’s a book written for everyone. It’s now top of my list to buy for members of my team. I hope this blog will explain why.

I don’t think it’s as simple as “we are all pastoral leaders”. I guess we are, in one way or another, whether leading a tutor group or just students – but that’s not why I think this book is so useful. It’s essentially a book about how to build relationships (with parents and students) through incredibly high expectations and standards. Amy clearly understands that to improve a child’s life we can’t make excuses for them (my absolute mantra) and every suggestion in the book focuses on this.

There are lots of practical suggestions for pastoral leaders, but as an experienced teacher and curriculum leader, I took so much from it, from tips on parent contact, difficult conversations with staff, dealing with common pastoral issues (which anyone can be faced with) and embedding a culture of high expectations. If it’s not obvious by this point, I would definitely recommend the book, currently a bargain at £11.99 on Amazon Here – and if you’re not convinced yet, here are the ten main takeaways from the book: strategies, musings, processes (a bit of everything essentially).

1. The role of a pastoral leader

I don’t think at any point when I trained, or indeed in the early years of my career, anyone really explained the difference to me between pastoral leaders and curriculum leaders. I guess it’s something you just end up choosing between, for whatever reason (passion, right place right time, availability). So in the book’s first chapter, Amy wrote something which I have highlighted and returned to since:

“Learning really does have the power to change lives for the better – the role of a pastoral leader/head of year is to clear the path for this to happen, to operate in the background, keeping the wheels turning as the driving force of changing lives”

Amy-May Forrester The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership

I can’t agree more. But also this draws a clearer distinction between a pastoral role and a more academic role in a school. As a Head of Department myself, and especially in the days when I didn’t have any responsibility, when to go to a pastoral leader was never made clear. And I think what can happen is people will go to them for issues which in reality can be dealt with independently, through the tutor, or through the parent. And this time takes them away from the issue at hand, as Amy says, which is clearing a path for them to succeed.

2. The disastrous pastoral practices

When Amy explained the disastrous practices of a pastoral leader, I felt strongly that these are not exclusive to pastoral leadership. Anyone in a school an fall into the trap of trying to “win a child over” by making allowances – I think it’s common, and if I’m honest, at times, it can work. But – and this is the important thing that Amy explains – these practices can end up spiralling, until students are “leaving lessons” in order to “have a chat” with that teacher that lowered the boundaries at one point or another. It’s truly dangerous.

As Amy explained, and something I feel to my core, if we do this, we only take away the child’s chance to succeed – because ultimately students need to be in lessons. This is a message that runs through all of the book, everything comes back to making it possible for students to be learning in lessons. I think at times this is where a pastoral role can go wrong. It’s in forgetting that this is the core purpose of school and education, and once this is lost, this no longer becomes the priority for the child either.

3. Middle leadership is middle leadership

I said this book was for everyone, and I felt a lot of the messages to heads of year are similar messages needed by heads of department. There is an explanation at one point of what happens when pastoral leaders undermine teachers, and the knock on effect of this. I think this goes for heads of department too. As Amy explains:

“If students perceive you as someone that will overrule their teachers, or who will backtrack on a sanction if they’re difficult enough about it, you aren’t doing anyone any favours”

Amy-May Forrester The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership

There’s a lot of truth in this, for people at all levels of a school – from senior leadership through to tutor. When children try to push to get out of a sanction, it’s because this has happened before – a lot of children don’t bother. Some have learnt this behaviour from home, where parents have put a sanction in place, and then taken it away to avoid any form of conflict. If we start to do this in schools, we are sending the same message, that students can get out of something if they push hard enough. But where does that stop?

Ultimately, at a school, we are one big team. Pastoral, academic, learning support – wherever we work, we have to never undermine each other. The minute we do this we give students a way in. Amy’s emphasis on this for pastoral leaders in particular is well rationalised and incredibly important.

4. Why sanctions work

I think as someone who has always thought strong behaviour systems are central to what I do – in my classroom, department, whatever it is – it’s easy to get a reputation as someone who is harsh, unfair, or worse – some evil tyrant who wants kids to suffer. We’ve all seen the polarised views on behaviour on Twitter. Either you’re soft and want them to get away with everything or you’re evil and enjoy punishing children.

However, as Amy notes: “it is the certainty of a sanction, when a rule is broken, that matters”. The truth is that the severity of the sanction doesn’t necessarily deter. Why might students hand in homework in one classroom and not another? Because they know where they will be sanctioned, and where they won’t. It’s hardly rocket science. Adults do it too – if we find a loophole and know we won’t get caught it, most people will exploit it. Students do the same. The expectation of the sanction has to be consistent in order to prevent the poor behaviour choices, as Amy explains.

5. Authority and boundaries as a positive

I return again to some comments on behaviour. There are also some great case studies throughout the book with examples of what a HOY could do in certain situations, and, whilst enlightening and useful for me to read, these were not as applicable to my daily teaching practice.

The aforementioned polarisation of attitudes to behaviour comes up again when Amy discusses the importance of boundaries and authority. This was a particularly affirming section for me, again where Amy concisely and succinctly explains why students need structure and rules in a school: “it creates environments where the children know the adults are in control”. She goes on to explain that this creates a safe environment, which is ultimately what students (and I would argue, parents and teachers too) actually want. They want to come to school and feel safe to learn. I wholeheartedly agree.

6. What ‘No Excuses’ really means

I thank the Gods at John Catt for letting Amy write this book (hyperbole? You decide) because her explanation of what a ‘No Excuses’ or ‘Zero Tolerance’ actually means goes down in history as one of my favourite sections of an Edubook.

People will bemoan schools (or teachers) who work within a ‘No Excuses’ parameter for students, without really realising that how they deal with things doesn’t necessarily mean that every student who steps out of line is ejected from the school and asked to find somewhere else to go. That never has been what it has meant. Often, to argue this approach, people will give examples of students with difficult backgrounds, or financial difficulties – e.g “if child x arrived at school without a tie, a zero tolerance school would send them home and take their right to learn away”. This is rarely the case. It’s about having mechanisms in place so that if child x does arrive in school without a tie, it is by choice, and a sanction might be necessary.

As Amy says “crucially, though, this cannot become an excuse”. Too often, anyone – not just those in a pastoral role – can make excuses for students. It’s a slippery slope that often leads to the student expecting excuses to made for them. Given an inch, they will take a mile… as all humans will. The truth is that once we give an inch the boundary shifts, and that’s what No Excuses means to me. It’s superbly explained by Amy.

7. Working with parents

Once I became a middle leader, my contact with parents increased. I think this is something that is often forgotten in books focused on becoming a curriculum lead – they focus on curriculum, pedagogy, leadership of people, but never how to deal with your changing role in the relationship with parents. I wish I had read this book 3 years ago because there are some great tips for HODs even though it is aimed at pastoral leaders.

In the past 3 years there have been circumstances where I have had to intervene in situations with parents where things have already got quite tricky. I could have used some of Amy’s tips in these situations! A great one is about building relationships before things become tricky, which is a good one with hindsight, and a great tip for a new pastoral leader. Another valid point is about arriving to a meeting and just listening to the parent, properly listening, and make sure they feel you are actually hearing their concerns, and want to move things forward.

There is a whole chapter on working with parents, and a range of strategies, ideas, processes – it’s a good chapter for any new teacher, let alone a pastoral leader. It’s worth it because working with parents is an integral part of teaching, at any level.

8. Considering and improving attendance

This book has changed my attitude to attendance. I feel it’s important to explain what I mean by that so I don’t sound like a terrible teacher/leader …! I suppose I get frustrated with low attendance, and I definitely recognise that everyone in the school plays a role in improving student attendance. However, what this chapter did, was show me the amount of work, investigation, considerations a pastoral leader has to do to try to improve attendance. And the difficult thing is that something all that work can do in, the attendance won’t improve, and teachers just think you’re not going anything about it.

There were some great practical strategies offered in the book (mainly appropriate for pastoral leaders) but a personal favourite was one that can work for any teacher, which was essentially noticing student once they were back in, and comment on them being back. I do this in lesson without thinking, but not consistently enough. As Amy explains “It shows the student that someone cares about them at a time when they could easily create a narrative that no one does.”

9. Handling difficult conversations with staff

This is something I have written about in great detail, including a ten takeaways from ‘Successful difficult conversations in schools’ blog available here. Amy gives a quick overview of some key thoughts around how to hold these conversations, and I enjoyed what was a practical and clear overview of what to do. As Amy says:

The purpose of any conversation such as this comes from finding out what the problem is and what the barriers are preventing staff from doing what you need, and from working together to prevent it happening again.

Amy-May Forrester The Complete Guide to Pastoral Leadership

I like this sentence as a good summary of why these conversations are important. I think often this is something we assume leaders know how to do. I’ve been a Head of English for 3 years now and it’s only recently I have grown comfortable having these conversations. Amy’s tips around this would be extremely helpful for pastoral leaders whose difficult conversations with parents are obviously more common.

As Amy mentions a lot of times, a pastoral leader’s team is their year group – whilst a HOD might manage anything between 1 and 15 teachers directly, a HOY might lead 100-250 students. But in many ways, pastoral leaders also have to remain in contact with all of the teachers of their year group, along with a tutor team, whose priority may not be organising their tutor period. This will obviously call for difficult conversations, and there is some good guidance for pastoral leaders regarding this in chapter 7.

10. The permanent exclusions debate

I don’t want to go into this in too much detail, mainly because I feel like there is an excellent explanation from Amy in the book and I can’t share the whole thing! All I can say is that I agree on this one, entirely and totally and absolutely, with everything Amy says. It’s worth a read.

Thanks for reading! @lauralolder

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