The importance of good pastoral care at school cannot be overemphasised. In this article we look at different approaches schools take to ensure your child is happy and well supported.
All teachers and school staff know that before they can focus on learning, children need to feel happy and settled. Pastoral care is just as important to schools as academic provision, because they know that though their teaching and facilities might be fantastic, young people cannot make the most of them unless they are focused and ready to learn.
The approaches schools take to maintaining high-quality pastoral care are as unique as the schools themselves. Each school will emphasise different aspects of students’ characters and behaviour, usually tying in with broader school priorities and objectives, but always putting the emotional well-being of all the students at the forefront of how the school operates.
Most schools take some form of layered or tiered approach to their pastoral care structure. This means that children have adults surrounding them who they might see several times a day (a form tutor, for example), or just a few times a week (a head of year or a subject teacher), or maybe only occasionally (a head or deputy head of the school), but all of whom they can turn to if something is troubling them. Having several members of staff who students can identify as potential sources of support increases the likelihood that children will feel confident about raising a concern. It’s a way of acknowledging the uniqueness of each child; that there is no way of knowing what will make a child feel comfortable when speaking to an adult if they need to, so as many opportunities as possible need to be available.
At Cranleigh School, Abu Dhabi, Natassja Williams who heads up the pastoral team says, “We have more than five layers of pastoral care at Cranleigh. This includes class teachers, heads of years, housemasters, deputy heads and the head of school. The pupils also have 'Cranleigh Listeners' in the pre-prep and prep school if they want to talk to their peers, and in the senior school they have heads of house. Our aim is to ensure that all pupils have an opportunity to speak to a variety of people.”
For example, it might be that a child feels happier raising an academic concern with a sports teacher rather than a tutor, or a health issue with a head of year rather than a medical staff member, but because pastoral teams work so closely with all the school staff, systems will be in place to make sure the child is listened to, and their concerns acted upon. If a child is really struggling to verbalise a problem, schools often have what Cranleigh calls their ‘Speak Out Box’: “This is used in the prep school for children to write down their worries or concerns if they don’t want to bring them up in person,” says Natassja.
"It might be that a child feels happier raising an academic concern with a sports teacher rather than a tutor."
House systems can also provide a framework for children to feel they are part of a family within the school. Not only do house systems enable friendships to form across different year groups, with older students looking out for younger ones in their house and acting as role models but they also introduce a sense of shared pride and spirit. The houses at Cranleigh, Natassja explains, help “foster a sense of belonging and community, as well as teaching the values of competition, fair play and co-operation.”
The other fundamental structure of most pastoral systems is a combination of group instruction and individual counselling. At the International School in Hamburg, the pastoral team counsellors hold group lessons each week on topics such as digital citizenship, critical thinking or current affairs. Young people are encouraged to learn about both the immediate and wider world around them in a safe, structured environment, and to respectfully discuss such matters with their peers. For older students this begins to expand into careers and university guidance, right down to the very practical matters of writing a CV or university application form.
Alongside this group work, IS Hamburg, like most schools, provides a one-to-one counselling service: “This is about bonding between students and the secondary school counsellor,” explains Julian Brandt. “Personal counselling provides students with additional assistance to help them function well in the school setting.” Schools usually use referral systems, through which staff who are first made aware of a problem can highlight their concerns to counselling teams.
Pastoral care in an international setting
Ensuring students can share their problems and receive help if necessary is especially important in an international school setting, according to several pastoral team leaders. “The pastoral systems at Cranleigh ensure that students fully develop emotional intelligence alongside academic excellence to develop their full potential,” says Natassja, “but being in a transient international community makes it particularly vital that we ensure pupils have the resilience and coping strategies they need to adapt to changing environments and situations.”
In Julian’s experience at IS Hamburg, so-called Third Culture Kids, who are living with their parents in a foreign country, tend to seek individual assistance more often, mainly due to the sometimes difficult transition from one culture to another. And as Deputy Head Amos Lyso of Yew Chung International School in Hong Kong points out, the normal wider network of family and friends which might support a young person can be missing for children at an international school: “We are aware that families may be in Hong Kong as an isolated unit or that one parent may need to travel away from home. Much of the work undertaken by our counsellors involves assisting families with the issues this can cause.”
The pastoral team at an international school must also pay particular attention to the possible ‘gaps’ in children’s knowledge or understanding of subjects that come under the ‘Personal and Social Education’ banner. Ensuring that all students have access to age-appropriate information and lessons and that they don’t fall through the net as they move between different countries and schools is essential.
Finally, the last piece of the pastoral care puzzle is the involvement of parents. Increasingly schools focus on engaging parents in supporting the strategies and messages that are developed at school, equipping families with information and ideas to help them navigate different phases of childhood and adolescence. Amos Lyso says, “At YCIS we run talks and workshops throughout the year, responding to the needs of all parents. The counselling team conducts parenting skills workshops and ‘hands on’ training in internet usage and cyber safety. We also run lectures to help parents with common concerns, like, for example, the challenges faced by parents when their teens start dating.” Similarly, at Cranleigh, Abu Dhabi there are parent seminars on topics from healthy eating to coping with your adolescent to how to give academic support to children. “We run an ‘Open Minds’ lecture series which covers a variety of topics including the social and emotional development of children, specifically focusing on the importance of emotional intelligence,” says Natassja.
"We also run lectures to help parents with common concerns, like, for example, the challenges faced by parents when their teens start dating."
This focus on creating a school and family-wide network of support for students is crucial at international schools where students face new and exciting challenges alongside their academic education. The vital ‘tools for life,’ as they are referred to at Cranleigh, are recognised by all international schools, not just as a complement to but as the very bedrock of academic and future success for students.