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Pastoral Skills: How to Develop?

24 Jan 2020

By Alan Peters


This article will look at how to develop pastoral skills in school, the kinds of pastoral roles that are on offer and what headteachers are often looking forward in terms of past experience. 

A teacher’s first duty is to ensure the safety of their students.  It is the pastoral staff who are in the front line of this responsibility. There comes a time in many teachers’ careers when they feel it is time to try something new.  Not necessarily outside of school, but a different role.  No doubt, this year there will be many colleagues who have returned in September feeling it is time to move their careers in a slightly different direction.


First Step - Becoming a Form Tutor

Lucky colleagues in primary schools do not usually have to worry about this, because one of the pleasures of having a ‘class’ rather than a teaching set is that the general ‘looking after’ of young people that can be so rewarding. That might sound a little wishy-washy, but there is, of course, a strong pedagogic basis behind pastoral skills.  Because, if anything is being a cause of distraction to a young person, then classroom performance will almost certainly drop.  And there lies the key reasons for why knowing how to develop pastoral skills is a crucial part of being a successful teacher. The first step on this rewarding route is to become a form tutor.  The role varies from school to school, but fundamentally the form tutor undertakes administrative tasks with their group of young people, provides pastoral mentoring, oversees academic progress and is a first point of contact with parents. Many form tutors also deliver aspects of the ‘pastoral’ side of the curriculum, such as PSHE, Citizenship, study skills and so forth.  Mostly, tutor groups are smaller than class groups (in secondary schools at least).  The role definitely puts a drain on a teacher’s time, but is incredibly rewarding. 

Perhaps because of their earliest experiences at school, even older students like to have their ‘teacher’, the person who is their advocate, their role model and their guide.  Strong relationships can be forged because tutors get to know their tutees so well.  Being a form tutor rarely comes with a salary enhancement, but is a good thing to be able to include on a CV. There’s no real training involved, just putting our name forward, finding out the duties specific to our setting, rolling our sleeves up and getting on.


Head of Year/Phase

The next step up, and the move into pastoral middle management, comes with a Head of Year position.  Often, the person who takes on this role needs to develop pastoral skills, because it is likely that they will be overseeing a group of tutors for their particular year groups. And it is definitely the case that managing colleagues is tougher than managing children – they tend to answer back more!  For anybody looking to move into a Head of Year role (the primary school equivalent is often called head of phase, for example Key Stage One, or Upper Key Stage two) it is strongly recommended that a course on people management is taken.  Getting the best out of colleagues is, naturally, essential in getting the best for our students, but the down side is that the skill set required is different.

 People who can manage kids cannot necessarily do the same with adults.

I once got to know a new Headteacher, one who it was fairly clear would not make the grade. She had a lot of trouble with the staff at her small primary.  Her solution?  To give them sweets when they did something good.  Safe to say, that did not go down well.  ‘Patronising Pat’ lasted less than a year in post.  Another rather dismally run school had the idea of celebrating everything good with a ‘rocket’ (a label worn round the neck which prompted ‘rocket’ noises during the end of week assembly). 

It was good for the four to six year olde, and those in Years 3 and 4 tolerated it.  The oldest pupils – Years 5 to 6, thought it somewhat demeaning and for the teachers it was a mark of shame and intolerable staff room ribbing to be overtly visible as such a management pet.  Teaches went out of their way to avoid taking responsibility in order to avoid the humiliation of having to wear their rocket. There is a wider administrative role in being Head of Year.  Not only does the incumbent undertake directed administrative tasks with the pupils, such as calling the register, but now planning those activities for other tutors becomes a part of the role.  So, good organisational skills and creative thinking are required. Several years ago now there was a directive that removed the requirement for teachers to undertake administrative roles. 

However, when such tasks impact directly on the well being of the student – for example, phoning home to see why a child is absent – it seems that the teacher is the best person to do the job.  Teachers are expensive beasts, and every responsibility that is taken from us is not a move to help make us better classroom performers, but to weaken our position and make it easier to replace us with unqualified staff.  That is worth bearing in mind when a pastoral leader has to make the call as to whether an administrative task falls within their job description. It is certainly the case that becoming a head of year has the down side of reducing direct contact with classes. 

It is a very time consuming job, when done well, and pastoral interventions with students can only take place when those students are actually at school, so it is inevitable that teaching commitments must drop. When we decide whether to develop our pastoral skills for career advancement, that can be a negative we have to consider.  Another negative is that the Head of Year needs to be a disciplinary presence. There are a couple of reasons for this.  Firstly, while many teachers develop their own classroom management techniques, some do not – maybe because they are new to the school, or inexperienced or just plain not very good at it.  Those teachers need somebody on whom they can call. 

It might be to deal with a child there and then, it might be to offer some advice on how to manage with Year Nine on the last period of the week. And at Head of Year level, we are at the final point where we remain ‘one of us’; the next step up turns us into ‘one of them’.  That means that colleagues will be happier relying on the disciplinary support of their Head of Year than, for example, the Deputy Head.


Specific Pastoral Roles

These fall broadly into two categories – roles that require the development of pastoral skills within a teaching context, and those that do not. The first category includes such positions as a classroom mentor (perhaps a sideways move, but a rewarding one none the less, especially if we show an affinity with the most challenged of students…by which, I mean euphemistically, the worst behaved) a more senior role such as liaison with outside agencies (often a role that comes with the position of SENDCO – which, I have just noticed, is an anagram of SECOND – the moment of that person’s time everybody needs all day long), or even DSL (designated safeguarding lead.) 

These roles each require specific training, often on an extended basis and are often senior management posts. The second group of specific pastoral roles are those such as counsellor, school nurse and so on, which do not require somebody with teaching qualifications.  We will consider how to develop the pastoral skills for these positions in a later blog


A Visit To Hogwarts

Once the domain of the independent boarding world, but now increasingly recognised as an important part of the staff in all schools, becoming a housemaster is great way of getting involved in pastoral care. In a non-boarding school, being a housemaster (or mistress) is great fun for the enthusiast.  It is, when used in the best ways, a chance to celebrate everything about a pupil’s contribution to school life that is not about academic progress. 

The role seeks to promote teamwork, effort, commitment, good deeds, manners…in fact, everything that we might one day lose if schooling continues the downward path to being a purely scientific approach to getting the best results.  (Although, and this is a story for a different day, I have often found that the most successful academically – for their ability – are the ones that contribute most to school life).

A good housemaster gets the students in their house (think Gryffindor or Hufflepuff) to play sport, to organise charity events, to take up gardening, to mentor younger pupils, to join the debating club. And many, quite reasonably, feel that this is what school should be about.  Like becoming a form tutor, the role is unlikely to carry much in the way of extra salary, and will require organising and running house meetings (which are like mini assemblies). 

However, although a lot of work, it is another strength to add to our CV when applying for more senior pastoral positions. By contrast, a boarding housemaster (positions for which are overwhelmingly within the independent sector) is more like a glorified Year Head/Headteacher mix. 

This kind of Housemaster holds day to day responsibility for all aspects of their students’ lives.  They provide substitute parenting – often to mixed ages of pupils.  They offer a friendly shoulder, but are also responsible for discipline. It is hard to define the qualifications needed for this kind of role.  They are, although it would be hard to get any school to admit this, the kind of politically incorrect ones that, if put in the open, would result in a charge for improper employment practices. 

A certain maturity, the presence of a partner (it can be a full on, 24 hour a day job, and to be fair, another adult to sound off to is pretty important), perhaps experience of boarding themselves either as a pupil or in an assistant housemaster role.  (A great position, by the way, if you are a young teacher looking to save up for a house deposit, since accommodation, bills and food are usually provided without their being any impact on salary.) Housemasters often share the same status in a school as the Deputy Head, and within the Independent Sector offer at least as good a pathway into Headship as following the deputy route.

The skills the position requires are once more hard to define, and certainly difficult to train for.  Patience, organisation, tolerance, a willingness to work hard, no desire to clock watch, the ability to turn off from school when the chance arises, a good awareness of pastoral matters.

In return for that, Housemasters can expect a reduced timetable, a glorious house – free of charge – access to wonderful greenery during the summer (although they might have to share it with the visiting summer school) and a whopping salary. Oh, and one more skill is needed. 

A Housemaster has to enjoy the presence of young people. In fact, all of the above (apart from the reward bit) are the characteristics of every good teacher.  There is probably no need to develop the pastoral skills required for this position. We already have them.


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