A greater emphasis on pastoral care to remove barriers to learning has increased attainment at a 1,600-pupil academy

Student welfare is a hot topic. January started with worrying reports of young people suffering from poor mental health and the think-tank, 2020health, has recently suggested that heads of well-being may help schools to combat poor physical and mental health among students.

Since I became principal of Neale-Wade in September 2011, many positive changes have lead to increased attainment. I attribute the majority of these results to the emphasis and importance placed on pastoral care.

I’m a firm believer that an academy or school’s pastoral system should be aligned with what happens in the classroom, and that it should focus on the progress that students are making. The purpose of such a system is to remove barriers to learning, so that academic development can be made by all. All of our intervention work is an attempt to create and maintain a supportive environment that encourages and stimulates learning.

One of our first major changes was to replace our vertical tutoring system with a horizontal system that has clear lines of accountability. Heads of year, or progress leaders as they are known, are responsible for the wellbeing of their year group as well as tracking the academic progress of the 300 students under their care. They are supported by pastoral assistants, who aren’t part of the teaching staff and are therefore readily available to meet with students and parents. They are local people with a good understanding of Neale-Wade’s community.

A dedicated team overseen by the vice-principal and director of student wellbeing ensures that student welfare and wellbeing remains high on our agenda and they work tirelessly to remove any potential barriers to learning.

Pastoral care should remove any barriers to learning

As far as lessons are concerned, no time that could be spent learning is wasted. This extends to tutor periods, where all year groups have time to work on issues highlighted in a plan that is updated weekly. Years 11 and 12 have an IT room as their tutor base whenever possible, allowing them to spend tutor periods completing UCAS applications. It’s also a good base for our “core carousel” in which time is spent on English, mathematics and science. Subject-specific tutor group teachers ensure that learning is maximised.

Year 11 also takes part in revision sessions, which start at 8:15am. Surprisingly, these are very popular – perhaps it’s the free breakfast! Staff also teach on Saturday and Sunday mornings for additional support, and we have found residential experiences during school holidays particularly useful. These happen on Fridays and Saturdays at a hotel. The students study hard during the day, usually finishing at 6:30pm, before being taken to the cinema or bowling before lights out.

It’s all very well talking about initiatives and how they are well received, but we all know that much of an individual school or academy’s output is measured in facts and figures. Since 2011 attendance has risen from 91.8 to 95.4 per cent. In 2014 there were also highly significant improvements in core subjects, with a 76 per cent pass rate at A*-C in English and 70 per cent A*-C in maths. Fifty-eight per cent of students passed five GCSEs,
including maths and English, with A*-C, putting the academy in the top 25 per cent of similar schools nationally. All this bears even greater weight when considering that 2014 was a year in which attainment in these core subjects was in decline.

Of course, many of these great results are attributable to the students too, so rewards feature highly in our daily work. Staff can award students for the effort that they are making within a lesson or a series of lessons. These are recorded on our data system, and a text message is sent to parents. A small reward at school can lead to much bigger ones at home. One student recently said: “It is great when I get an SLT star as my mum will text me on the way home to tell me that she loves me.” Whilst that may not be an Ofsted-approved way to measure success, it’s definitely good enough for me.

(www.neale-wade.org, www.activelearningtrust.org).