David Cattell explores the comparative strengths of vertical and horizontal systems of pastoral care.

Ounsdale High School is a specialist arts college in Wombourne, Staffordshire with a comprehensive intake of 1,200 pupils (www.ounsdale.staffs.sch.uk). The purpose of this article is to consider the relative merits of vertical and horizontal pastoral systems with a view to restructuring the school.

Local initiative

A broadly-based voluntary working party is currently examining Ounsdale’s horizontal pastoral system, through which PSHE and citizenship are taught. It consists of an inclusion manager, year group and assistant year group leaders, tutors and teaching assistants, some of whom are also parents.

At an early stage, the working party researched national weaknesses in pastoral provision and used these publications as a template to identify and preserve Ounsdale’s strengths and address its weaknesses. In this context Supporting Pupils: A Study of Guidance and Pupil Support in Scottish Schools (www.scotland.gov.uk) and Pastoral Care and Personal-Social Education by Ron Best (www.bera.ac.uk/pdfs/BEST-PastoralCare&PSE.pdf) were very useful and their findings are outlined below.

National weaknesses

  • Lack of quality tutor time results in pupils lacking the confidence to approach their tutor for help.
  • Structural weaknesses impact on provision of differentiated academic and vocational support for pupils.
  • Pastoral systems are often associated with ‘problem’ pupils rather than with the provision of a core service.
  • Pupils value the content of many PSHE courses but are disenchanted with poor resources and teaching.
    Inadequate management systems fail to address the corrosive effect of disaffected staff and pupils.
  • The continuing pastoral-curriculum divide negatively influences the education of the whole child.

Vertical and horizontal systems

Having ascertained national weaknesses, further research helped us to compare and contrast a horizontal year system with a vertical house system. Using different stakeholder perspectives, the working party collated the following data (see boxes) and is now deciding whether to recommend a move to a house system.

Working party outcomes

  • The introduction of long registration and assembly periods to begin the day will provide tutors with regular quality time. A withdrawal system involving all staff will enable small group interview sessions to focus upon monitoring progress, problem solving and relationship building.
  • Reworked job descriptions will place greater emphasis on pupils’ personal development and whole-person monitoring.
  • KS3 pupils will benefit from integrated PSHE and citizenship lessons taught by specialist staff in a fixed period.
  • KS4 pupils will receive PSHE and work-related learning integrated with GCSE citizenship taught by specialist staff.
  • Impact Days will continue to include theatre-in-education productions such as Trust which offers a rich SRE learning experience (www.fastforwardtheatre.co.uk).

Ounsdale High School’s working party welcomes hard evidence from schools detailing where change between vertical and horizontal systems has produced real improvements in the quality of pastoral care.



  • makes forming relationships with others of similar ability and interests possible
  • weakens older-to-younger bullying culture
  • offers opportunities for mixed age cooperative work, which underpins the ‘family’ concept
  • creates leadership roles for older pupils.


  • increases potential for same-age friendships
  • provides opportunities for cooperative work, which can support specific curriculum areas
  • allows equal leadership prospects across the age range
  • reduces the potential of disaffected older pupils to subvert younger pupils.



  • enables easier management of tutor groups as older adolescents are less concentrated
  • spreads age-related reports throughout the year
  • increases tutors’ skills and understanding of managing a wide


  • allows tutors to specialise by age
  • creates ‘quiet’ periods to counterbalance age-related peak demands
  • aids effective delivery of PSHE schemes of work
  • facilitates efficient use of resources across a narrow age-range.

School management


  • improves longitudinal monitoring of pupils because of same tutor and head of house for five years
  • affects a smaller number of same-age pupils if pastoral management is weak
  • creates cultural change possibilities such as personalisation of learning agenda
  • extends opportunities for competition including inter-house sport.


  • assists longitudinal monitoring depending upon rotation systems of tutor and head of year
  • facilitates consistency of crisis management and academic monitoring through use of smaller team
  • enables easier management of whole-year issues, such as examination performance follow up
  • offers opportunities for peer-group cooperation and competition.

David Cattell is deputy headteacher (inclusion) at Ounsdale High School and chairs the school’s working party on pastoral care

This article first appeared in – May 2006