Pastoral Care: the foundation of the school environment

Mar 24, 2024

Cokethorpe prides itself on the strength of the pastoral care system. Mr Stevens, Deputy Headmaster, discusses what makes the system so effective.
What are the core elements of our pastoral care?

There are two factors at the heart of the system. You have the mechanics of the structures, and then you have the relationships which underpin them.

We have strong foundations, structurally, behind our pastoral care. These take the shape of our House system and our Tutor system that works throughout the School. These give a clear framework for staff, parents and pupils to understand where the care is coming from, and who is responsible for particular aspects of it. We top and tail what is a vertical nature to our House system – with the intermixing of year groups – with a Lower House, helping the First Form to familiarise themselves with Senior School life, and the Deputy Heads of House in Sixth Form who are responsible for a particular year group, all are part of that House system. The structure allows for a greater sense of identity and belonging than it would, say, in a more informal structure where the ‘House’ grouping is represented in, for instance, only an inter-House sports competition.

That puts an emphasis on the older year groups to act as mentors and role models for the younger pupils in the House. We aim to try and embed that through Sixth Form students leading House Assemblies, taking the lead in charity initiatives, in being Peer Mentors, and the Prefect body who have specific responsibilities, such as the Lower House Prefect and the two Prefects for the Prep School who support these activities and responsibilities in their respective areas. These are key elements of providing the influence and role modelling for the younger pupils. There is that relationship piece in this too; when the pupils see the older students around the School, they have that reference of a familiar face and a friendly association who will look out for them, be that ‘touch point’ with life further up the School, who might be on their bus route, work with them in an AOB or spend time with them as part of the Tutor Partnering programme.

The Tutor Partnering is a significant factor for us at Cokethorpe by way of that influence and role modelling as it provides a formal setting, as opposed to some of those more ad hoc interactions I described, with members of the Sixth Form joining Tutor groups regularly, from the very youngest members of the School in Pre-Prep, right through to Third Form. It provides great leadership roles for the Sixth Form and provides examples and influences to follow for the younger pupils, and it has proved a hugely successful – and popular – programme since it was introduced a couple of years ago.

Having protected Tutor time twice each day with small tutor groups is significant in allowing relationships and understanding between teachers and pupils to flourish. Some Tutors may be with the same group for three or four years, following them up through the School. It allows for a really individualised consideration of the needs of each pupil. What encouragement, what nudging might they need, what support might be required at a particular moment in time, where do they need to be inspired, to be pushed or challenged in order to achieve the very best academically that they can. The whole notion of pastoral care is not a matter simply of kindness or of emotional support, it is also there to support what we are doing as a school to produce children who are flourishing and reaching their potential, whatever that potential might be, across all areas of the School.

How does the Tutor’s relationship underpin the wider structure?

The information picked up on by the Tutor will feed into the Housemaster or Housemistress, when it is appropriate for it to do so, and ultimately to myself. We work on the basis that any small cause for concern or even awareness, in isolation might seem relatively innocuous, but as part of a wider jigsaw of information from, say, a teacher in a particular lesson, or a coach on the sports fields, might create a different picture. The role of the Tutor in this framework is crucial, given the amount of time spent with the pupils and the regularity of it.

I also meet weekly with the Housemasters and Housemistresses to take the temperature, to see what threads might be emerging that we need to be mindful of, what issues there might be in a particular year group or among a group of friends that might need addressing or awareness provided to staff about. Similarly, I meet regularly with the Prefects to get their take. The mechanics around the pathway from Tutor to Housemaster or Housemistress, to myself and, ultimately, the Headmaster, is a clearly defined one and a well-oiled machine which operates effectively, providing a flow of information in both directions.

The other crucial element of the pastoral structure is the third point of the triangle alongside staff and pupils: the parents. The relationship between Tutors and subject teachers and the parents is important. Those relationships with parents, with the House system providing a good structure for that to develop, are crucial – we all have a vested interest in seeing the development of the children under our care. When parents have good relationships with Tutors, Housemasters and Housemistresses, as we have here, it allows the parents to know that we have the best interests of the child at heart, such that if and when a bump in the road occurs, it allows for better outcomes for the child in their development.

We are a day school, what impact does the boarding school house system have here?

We were of course a boarding and day school at Cokethorpe through until the early 2000s. There is a lingering legacy there, I am sure. Although, perhaps of greater significance, the Headmaster and I, and indeed several other key members of staff, have prior experience in boarding schools, acting as Heads of Houses in those settings. The cohesive nature of a vertical structure in the houses, with the role modelling provided by the senior pupils, is a common element in the boarding system. Whilst we are not looking to replicate that experience and that setting, and nor should we, what we can do is to pick out some of the best elements from them and apply them here.

The nature of modern life, such as the advent of the smart phone, has meant that the boundaries between school and what’s happening outside of school at the end of the day have blurred to a greater extent than ever before and, with that, the importance of that partnership and the triangular relationship has grown still further.

The focus on wellbeing and emotional health has grown substantially over the years, what has the effect been?

Things have moved on exponentially. Thinking back to the start of my teaching career, there were not really any conversations around mental wellbeing. There was still that element of support and taking care of pupils, but the growth of interest in, and acknowledgment of the importance of mental wellbeing, as a society and as a nation, is pronounced, not least being brought into stark relief by the covid pandemic. The impact of social isolation among children in key developmental stages of their lives cannot be underestimated and will likely be present for some years to come. At the same time, the funding for services like CAMHS, although higher than it has ever been, is still nowhere near meeting demand.

That raises all sorts of questions about how we can backfill on services that the state is not able to provide to ensure we fill in as much as we can, whilst recognising that we are not medically qualified. A few years ago, this resulted in the School’s employment of a full-time counsellor. It also led to the peer mentoring scheme, whereby a number of our Sixth Form each year are trained to work with younger members of the School community to help support them and be available to pupils who they are closer in age to than members of staff will be.

It is a national challenge, and we have to look to how we can address it. We have our WIT programme that helps pupils to face up to some of the challenges that they are meeting and we have to be mindful of doing so without impacting on their mental wellbeing. We have a broad curriculum that insists on the importance of physical exercise and all the benefits it brings. We provide and ensure pupils eat a nutritious and healthy diet and guide them to understand the importance of that to their physical and mental wellbeing.

You mention the WIT programme, how important is the content of that course to pupils’ development?

It has a hugely important role to play. Pupils today have influences on them that you or I might not have had to deal with until much later in life. We want pupils to be informed, to make the right decisions at the right time. Whether that is ideas that have been around for a number of years, such as issues around consent as young adults emerge and become aware of their sexuality, where our approaches and means of informing the pupils have developed and become more nuanced, or some of the more modern challenges – the transition in the tobacco industry’s approach and marketing to younger people with vaping is harder to monitor and to educate pupils on than cigarettes were previously, for example – especially where legislation is lagging behind developments. Social media channels and the irresponsible pushing of harmful content into the path of young people is another clear example. Where there are these lags, it is crucial that we are trying to steer children into the right ways of considering the content they are seeing, how these platforms can be used to manipulate and influence them.

Looking to the longer term, helping our pupils to be aware of these issues, some of the moral and ethical concerns around social media, for instance, is important in the context too of our wider school values, of leadership, of becoming global citizens. We are mindful that our pupils are among those who will go on to shape things in the future, whether that might be in government and their working lives or how they behave in personal and social settings. It is an area where I feel we are getting it right – I am always impressed by how much our pupils are aware of and keen to look beyond their own horizons and interests, thinking about the wider, global picture, whether it be a consideration of green initiatives or thoughts on rights and liberties. They are thinking on a bigger scale than I can remember in prior generations.

Having a space to call one’s own is important, how do we facilitate this?

We are blessed with an inspiring setting that provides plenty of space outdoors for our pupils though there are restrictions at certain times of year. One of those areas we have perhaps lacked is those social indoor spaces that are not multi-use – such as classrooms – when the weather is inclement. The Sixth Form, of course, have their magnificent Sixth Form Centre and we looked to replicate this for the Fifth Form with their Common Room, albeit presently having been re-sited to the popular 1950s double-decker London bus. We are lucky too that our library is an inspiring space and that is also somewhere that pupils can go to have some moments of separation from the rigours of the School day should they so wish. However, we are also mindful of finding social spaces for other year groups that allow the pupils to have time for conversations without always being under the eyes of staff – if we are doing our jobs correctly in imbuing the Leadership Traits, we should have confidence that they will act responsibly in those spaces, and we should trust them to be able to do so.

We are limited in this endeavour by factors such as the planning office and finances – to conjure up common rooms for all year groups would be a project that might well run into the millions. In considering alternative solutions, the School has been able to procure, refurbish and repurpose some ski gondolas that were, until recently, in use in northern Italy. The gondolas, which can seat eight pupils at any one time, will be distributed around the School site, providing spaces for about 100 pupils and conveying an important message about recycling, restoration, and what might be achieved through lateral thinking.