“There is a momentum in kindness, that beats the momentum of ‘no tolerance” 
In these last few dark days of a seemingly endless January, it would be easy to be even less optimistic about some of the challenges in caring for the wellbeing of young. Many school staff (and parents too) face a huge challenge in trying to gain support from overstretched local services whose job is to offer advice and guidance. And with the opening of every newspaper, teachers discover yet another 21st Century problem could be fixed by simply ‘teaching it in schools’ (mobile phone safety, financial skills, cooking, resilience – you get the picture – many of those things that communities used to teach their children). So I was delighted to discover that my cold journey to the ASCL Pastoral Conference, in the shadow of Blue Monday, was to prove a refreshingly positive experience.
Pastoral Care is a tough one; it encompasses all of those things that are not the nuts and bolts of academic work. To name a few strands, we are talking about health in all its guises, including mental health, extracurricular offerings, happiness and resilience, behaviour and rewards, safeguarding and online safety. Countless things that are so important to the wellbeing of our pupils, and that make such a difference to their potential to thrive and succeed.
The conference I attended introduced keynote speakers who all talked of the increasing challenges facing all teachers and especially those charged with leading on pastoral care. There was acknowledgement that times are difficult, local support is sparse and an acceptance that young people are facing challenges that adults are struggling to get to grips with. But this was no navel-gazing self-help group. It was a conference filled with practical advice and professionals sharing their experience of supporting pupils and parents in myriad, innovative ways. Paul Dix, founder of Pivotal Education, whose astonishingly effective behaviour management techniques advocate simple kindness and consistency (and tearing up the long list of rules) was both entertaining and practical. Then there was Tony Clifford’s enlightening talk on Attachment in which he discussed how understanding the impact of experiences in early childhood can affect the behaviour and attitude of the teenager will really help teachers get the best out of their pupils. Other workshops included a practical session on digital parenting (useful for parents and teachers) from Maria O’Neill of UK Pastoral Chat and workshop from Janet Goodliffe on developing a whole school approach to student emotional health and wellbeing.
It is good, for any professional, to get out of normal routine and discover what others are doing, particularly in these times of change and uncertainty for young people and their wellbeing. I’m looking forward to implementing some of the strategies and ideas learnt.
But the day also made me reflect on the fact that the staff at the High School really care about our pupils and really want the best for them. We aim for pro-active pastoral care; spotting issues before they get out of hand and supporting the pupils in building a toolkit of strategies to help them deal with things that life can throw at them. We achieve this through our PSHEE programme, tutorials and lots of informal support. Our adoption of the Girls on Board programme to empower our pupils to tackle friendship problems with adult support, rather than interference, has been groundbreaking. We also embrace the Positive Project, which is used across the GDST network, to help young people tap into their feelings and determine some strategies for improving how they feel about life’s ups and downs.
As a reflective practitioner, I am always evaluating areas where we could make small tweaks to turn the volume up on warmth and support too; I fully advocate the notion, from Paul Dix, quoted at the top of this post. We are fortunate to have few behavioural issues of any consequence in our school, but that quote really embodies for me what every interaction between a pupil and member of staff ought to be. Anyone who has spent time in my office will be familiar with my chalkboard wall, upon which I write quotes that I find inspired or inspiring. For some time now, the Frank Turner lyrics ‘In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose its mind, be more kind my friend, try to be more kind’ has been on that wall. And the facts back up the words – there is strong evidence that schools that embody mutual kindness between all members of the community have fewer behavioural issues and a greater academic purpose too.