Review by Sam Sheedy

Assistant head for behaviour, Thomas Tallis School

31 Mar 2019, 5:00


Leading on Pastoral Care

By Daniel Sobel



I have to admit to being annoyed that I didn’t write this book… or, even better, that I wasn’t able to read it earlier in my career. It would have saved me a huge amount of time over the 13 years I’ve spent teaching.

The author starts by making a clear social justice argument supported by research and statistics, giving school leaders the tools to make an economic case for spending on pastoral care.

He also sets out his ideological position early, and statements such as “children’s ‘misbehaviour’ is nearly always caused by an adult” may put off champions of the no-excuses approach, which is a shame as there is a lot of value in  the research-based content of this book.

One big plus-point is the way it champions pastoral work, offering the kind of morale boost that these staff sorely need. Every chapter ends with a box called “Looking after yourself”, offering practical suggestions such as how to protect yourself against unfounded accusations of inappropriate conduct; when you might need to debrief with a colleague; where to set your limits (do you buy food for a hungry child? If you’re doing a house visit to a young carer and the house is unhygienic, do you help them clean up?).

Another useful feature is the “reflective question” boxes. They include all kinds of questions relevant to each chapter, such as: “How often are parents invited to take part in the school’s decision-making forum?” or “How clear are your school’s guidelines around SEN?” Whether intentional or not, the book models the coaching-based approach pastoral leaders need to deploy, which is intelligent and adds depth.

Examples are given of the type of paperwork, meetings and differentiation approaches pastoral leaders may encounter, and although some content will appear common sense for the more experienced reader, the range covered means there will be something for everyone.

The rise of the “omniteacher” as a solution for society’s failings means all staff need to understand behaviour as a language of communication. “It is essential to avoid confusing ‘need’ for ‘challenging behaviour’,” Sobel says, “as trying to get certain behaviours to stop without providing for the child’s underlying needs is a recipe for disaster.”

The book clearly frames an approach that I have previously learned as “trauma-informed practice”, where dialogue and restorative work are at the heart of everything. Here they are broken down in a way that lends itself to designing whole-school inset training. The clear structure is a great timesaver.

In short, the book is a good tool for those who want to engender progress in their charges. There is a careful balance to be struck with behaviour management, however, and I disagree with the author’s views on the use of internal exclusion.

Schools are models for society and students need to have a clear and multi-staged consequence mechanism. There is a place for isolation in schools; the author suggests there isn’t. We have an internal exclusion room. Needs are met and the completion rate is high; our fixed-term exclusions are half the national average for secondary schools, despite serving a challenging community. I don’t disagree with the author that these arrangements may not be beneficial for all, but schools run on perception. There are 1,900 young people in our building and having clear consequences for actions keeps them safe.

I line-manage six fantastic pastoral leaders (“first class” according to Ofsted) and have learned many aspects addressed in the book as a result of being part of an excellent leadership team.

Ensuring student needs are met is the most important thing a school can do – meeting these needs by hook or by crook is the essence of pastoral care. The book provides tactics and strategy in abundance, although – as the author himself states in chapter one – the issue will surely be whether a pastoral lead has the time to read it.

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