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The contribution of the tutor

Margaret Roberts

At the time of writing children and young people are returning to schools and colleges and students are anticipating the start of the university year. It should be a time of hope and optimism and for many it is. They have the confidence to cope with whatever comes their way and their self esteem is high. Definitions of self esteem vary in their breadth and sophistication but all agree that it involves appreciation of self and personal worth. High self esteem gives rise to a positive outlook and a confidence in ability to succeed.

When driving past schools recently I have been struck by how many of them have banners publishing their percentage of grades A*-C passes in this year’s GCSE examinations. “Best in borough”, “double last year’s pass rate” they proudly proclaim.

I visited one such school which only two years ago was described as a “sink school” with falling rolls. Since then they have doubled their A*-C pass rate, including English and maths, and are oversubscribed. When I enquired what had changed I was told “now the teachers can teach. Parents and pupils know that we are serious about our sanctions and realise that exclusion is a realistic outcome should their child continue to cause problems”. Their main deterrent seems to involve a series of detentions culminating in a Saturday detention of five hours. The school which claims to be “best in borough” is not popular with a large group of parents who feel that the staff are unapproachable and don’t make much effort to resolve problems. In contrast when talking to Anna who has just started in year 7 in a high school she was thrilled with everything including the lunch time clubs, the teachers, her new friends and her tutor who was lovely. Her school certainly didn’t have a banner outside but it had done an excellent job in making an anxious new pupil feel confident about her future at the school.

Pastoral systems occasionally get banner headlines when schools quote extracts from an Ofsted report “The school provides outstanding care, guidance and support for its students” but too often their contribution is overlooked. This was highlighted for me by a researcher who recently sent an enquiry to NAPCE asking for information about the role of the tutor. She writes

I am currently researching on the role and function of the tutor in Pastoral care in UK secondary schools. I have found a dearth of published material lately, apart from your journal, and wonder if members think that the whole area of Pastoral Care is a dying one, or if a revival will be on its way once the government realise that the academic curriculum cannot be delivered without a support system for the whole developing adolescent.

Are UK secondary schools so good at Pastoral Care now that the tutor role is null and void? Has what has replaced it worked? Where is it going? I realize how busy you all are, but I am aghast at the low priority given to the area of education that I consider the most vital!

The role of the tutor certainly continues to evolve and in some instances is scarcely recognisable as such. The time that teachers spend with their tutor groups should be an important element of any day. Despite the fact that the role is still clearly defined in many school handbooks and teachers are accountable for their performance in such a role, it is clear that commitment to the role of form/house tutor varies greatly from person to person. Some thrive on the chance it offers to get to know a group of pupils well and to support their development, while for others it’s an unwelcome intrusion into their subject specific work and is a stressful time for both themselves and their unfortunate tutees. In turn, the values form tutors exhibit will be reflected in the conduct, demeanour and sense of well-being of their form.

At best the tutor will provide a positive role model to the tutees, will have expert knowledge of the pupil’s social as well as academic experience and can access help as needed. As Michael Marland frequently stated “A Form Tutor is a teacher whose subject is the pupil herself”. Pupils will achieve best when they have high self esteem, feel part of a community that cares for them and feel that they can relate to someone who will, if needed, help them overcome barriers to learning consequent on their social or personal situation. The role of the tutor, therefore, remains critical in ensuring that a pupil’s school experience is successful however that may be defined.

The researcher has set us a challenge! What is the state of tutoring in your school? If you are willing to respond and give her a realistic appraisal of the tutor role in your institution please do so by sending your comments in an email to NAPCE at and your comments will be forwarded.

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