The way in which a school is organised (horizontal or vertical? House system? Form tutors or personal tutors?) has a huge impact on the culture and ethos of the school, but what will work best in each situation and why? Below we consider the changes made at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School

Each decision about pastoral organisation will have a profound impact on the ethos and culture of a school, however, many tend to go for the traditional model of horizontal grouping because that has always been in place and staff are comfortable with it. The question remains, is this the best approach, especially as we are increasingly moving to an examination and assessment system based on stage not age?

When I arrived at my school it had recently moved to a vertical tutoring system and I decided to take some time to review its effectiveness before making any decisions about the pastoral arrangements. What was clear was that staff were generally in favour of the model whilst students were indifferent, particularly sixth form who did not enjoy being with younger year groups. On closer inspection of form groups it revealed a worrying trend with clusters of each year group in every class with little evidence of students mixing. Even more worrying was the reluctance of form tutors to encourage joint working or discussions to develop the group dynamic. In essence tutor time had become ‘free time’ for staff with little or no concerns about behaviour as each ‘cluster’ remained fairly silent. One of the side effects of this was that sixth form students decided to ‘vote with their feet’ and stopped attending.

Another confusing aspect of the arrangements was that students were in a particular community (or house) but also a year group and many had a different head of community and head of year which created anxiety, especially where staff dealt with situations in a slightly different way. Mixed messages on pastoral issues soon manifested themselves in a decline in behaviour as students took advantage of the inconsistencies.

Vertical tutoring systems do work and can have a hugely positive impact on relationships within school, encouraging a mix of year groups. Why had it not had this effect in my school? The answer was clear; it had been a unilateral decision made by a new headteacher with no discussion with staff or students. The decision had been taken in late July to start in the September, leaving no time for staff training or engagement of the student body. Planning of this nature was destined for failure.

Following lengthy discussions with staff and students, a decision was taken to revert to a horizontal system, but with a difference. Our plan was articulated by focusing on ‘relationships’ as being crucial to the success of the school. The idea of relationships was extended to parents and families as well as students.

A new system

Prior to the vertical system the school had a traditional model of horizontal year groups with heads of year rotating between years 9 to 11 with a separate head of sixth form. This system seemed to be at odds with the focus on relationships, ie after three years of supporting a particular student they are placed into a sixth form tutor group with a new tutor and head of sixth form who may or may not know them. This was particularly problematic with the advent of AS courses where the year 12 experience is fast and furious. We were concerned that ‘new pastoral staff’ may not pick up warning signs early enough and that may lead to students failing to realise their potential.

The new system sees a head of year taking their year group from year 9 through to year 13 along with as many of the form tutors as possible (or necessary). The thinking behind this was as follows:

For students and parents

  • Their key point of contact (form tutor/head of year) would remain the same throughout their time in school
  • Relationships and knowledge of the student would not be lost at the transition to sixth form study
  • Expectations would remain constant due to the stability of staffing

For staff

  • They would experience professional challenge and development through access to sixth form arrangements such as UCAS applications
  • They would benefit from seeing ‘their’ students through to year 13, enhancing the quality of relationships even further
  • Some respite from lower school issues before returning to year 9
  • They would be better informed as tutors when returning to year 9 as they would be able to articulate what was needed to be successful at advanced level study.

Students, parents, and most staff welcomed the logic of the new arrangements. Two years on and staff are wholly behind the change as well. In order to make the system work we have developed a pastoral leadership framework for each year group that outlines the key actions required at points in the year and this is a crucial document that is passed to the incoming head of year. This has supported the drive for consistency.

Another key aspect has been the effective deployment of senior leaders within the pastoral system. Each year group has a member of senior leadership team (SLT) assigned to it and they stay within that year while the head of year follows the students. This, along with the pastoral leadership framework, has supported consistent practice from year to year. For instance, the assistant headteacher who is linked to year 11 has been instrumental in developing the drive to raise standards through intervention and revision practices. He is already working with the head of year 10 to plan ahead for next year when they will be working together.

Have the arrangements made a difference to outcomes?

Although it is still early days, we have found the following:

  • Standards at year 13 have risen in line with national averages
  • Recruitment from year 11 to 12 has risen (from approximately 90 to 130)
  • Retention from year 12 to 13 has risen
  • Students dropping out of courses has reduced significantly.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland