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Monty Python: the gurus of pastoral care?

Published on 24/02/14

My teacher-training mentor used to say that 95% of what happens in the classroom is nothing to do with what happens in the classroom. This was before I’d heard the expression ‘88% of statistics are made up on the spot’, so I believed it.
We could quibble about the maths but I still agree with his basic sentiment: my fascinating lesson on irregular verbs will mean little to the student who’s lost in worry because his parents had a massive row last night or who doesn’t know why her best friend’s not talking to him or her.

That’s why pastoral care is crucial – it’s the 95% (ish) of life that’s nothing to do with the lesson. It’s the ‘whole child’. That’s no surprise.

Few teachers’ stated aim would be to impart factual knowledge with the goal of a string of top grades. Caring about people is a key reason why teachers become teachers. We work with young people in schools precisely because we want do the best for them, supporting them through the tough times, even just with something as low-key as a quiet “Are you okay?” or noticing friendship shifts reflected in a subtle re-arrangement of the desks.

We’re there to spot the clues and ask the questions. Who’s always standing on the edge of the playground watching? Is the same child always left out when a friendship group of three has to work in pairs? Why has somebody who was always full of bounce stopped putting their hand up in class? Pastoral care works precisely because students aren’t just anonymous faces in a corridor; we know their character, strengths, weaknesses, needs and fears.

And this is why, unintended though it was as a mantra for pastoral care, the Python team in ‘Life of Brian’ was right: “We are all individual”. It’s a useful health warning: ‘broad brush’ discussion in the media of current issues in children’s lives overlooks the fact that they may not collectively apply to any one individual at all. Generalisations about ‘the teenage years’ or ‘young people today’ suggest a uniformity that clearly doesn’t exist and which in fact runs counter to the whole ethos of pastoral care, with the well-being of each individual student at its heart. There isn’t one single pastoral journey from birth to 18 but, rather, as many routes through childhood and the transition to adulthood as there are students in a school.

My other health warning: it’s easy for discussion of well-being to focus on its opposite: issues and concerns.

But pastoral care isn’t all about combating problems. Its ‘flip side’ positive dimension is helping students to develop the qualities and skills needed for the next stage in their lives and education. It’s about deepening their independence and resilience, their self-belief and self-knowledge, so that they are both ready for the challenges and inspired by the opportunities that lie ahead.