The Importance of Pastoral Care

Amidst all the anxiety caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is refreshing to hear so much talk about the importance of pastoral care. We’ve always talked about it alongside our core business of teaching and learning, but it feels good that we are giving it priority in our discourse.

Step forward our pastoral leaders – those who have been working tirelessly in the background all these years. Their ‘bread and butter’ has always been about positioning relationships and student welfare at the heart of the school experience. This new focus for the rest of us, then, is perhaps nothing new for them.

When we consider the challenges ahead of us as a profession, perhaps we should be looking to our Heads of Year and pastoral leaders for guidance.  The role pastoral leaders could play in post-COVID recovery should not be underestimated: they are expert at providing practical and emotional support. They are used to working with the most vulnerable; they are used to connecting with the local community; they understand that every child’s unique set of circumstances determines the kind of experience they have at school. This is the very fabric of the stuff that they spend all their time doing in the background. It’s a wealth of knowledge that is now more important than ever.

Although no one would argue that pastoral leadership was unimportant, now is the time to acknowledge that Heads of Year/House (or whatever you call them) have been dealt a bit of a bad hand in the past. We talk about ‘middle leadership’ as a catch-all for both academic and pastoral leaders: we assume that Heads of Department and Heads of Year have similar roles and operate on the same level. And yet, when we look closely, it is clear to see that this is rarely the case.

Having done both roles in my teaching career, I talk from first-hand experience. As a Head of Department, I loved the satisfaction of striking off the jobs on my daily ‘to do’ list – a luxury that I wasn’t afforded as a pastoral leader. As a Head of Year, the job is never done; kids and families are never ‘sorted’.  As a Head of Department, all my work on curriculum planning and student feedback was put in place and shared with my team. The work of a pastoral leader is often invisible and therefore much harder to evidence.  As a Head of Department, I was always focused on the quality of learning, never really thinking about the groundwork pastoral leaders were doing to ensure that students arrived at lessons ready to learn.

It strikes me that although we liken Heads of Year to Heads of Department under the banner of ‘middle leadership’, the two roles are so completely different. If anything, I would say that the pastoral leader’s role is more akin to that of the leadership team because day-in day-out they are dealing with safeguarding.

So, I think it is worth exploring the following two contradictions:

  1. Pastoral leadership is important but there is hardly any educational research on it.
  2. Pastoral leadership is important but the debate about middle leadership concentrates almost exclusively on Heads of Department.

I think the implications of this are quite serious.  The growth of research-informed practice in education is fantastic, but it tends to focus on instruction, cognition, curriculum or assessment. Pastoral leaders have nothing equivalent to draw upon. This means that all they can do is their best, using their judgement and hoping that it works out well. At best, this is a really noble thing to do; at worst, this is a massive risk for the school and the community it serves.

The second implication is equally worrying. Middle leadership courses are always designed with the Head of Department or curriculum leader in mind. If you have a look at the modules in the NPQML for example, they are all geared towards the subject leader: focusing on leadership of the curriculum, research on teaching, etc. There are some elements of the course that pastoral leaders might find useful like the analysis of data, building partnerships, considering communication strategies, etc; but the assessment brief says that the school improvement project must aim to improve student outcomes. Although the work of the pastoral team undoubtedly improves student outcomes, there is no way to measurably prove this.

So, while pastoral leaders may complete middle leadership courses to ‘get the badge,’ they don’t represent meaningful professional learning experiences for them. In fact, I would go as far as to say that they are actually excluded from the debate about educational leadership because of this. How do we expect our pastoral leaders to become more evidence-informed if there is very little evidence to consider? How do we expect them to develop their knowledge and understanding if middle leadership courses are designed with a different audience in mind?

Despite the lack of research and the dearth of domain-specific professional development opportunities, pastoral leaders have a great deal to teach us – particularly at a time like this.

First of all, pastoral leaders show us the importance of context and knowing your school really well. In his book ‘Leaders with Substance’ Headteacher Matthew Evans urges school leaders to:

Be a student of your school. Come to know its people, ethos, foibles, peculiarities, cultural norms, hidden spaces, dark secrets, harboured dreams, storage cupboards, social dynamics, potted history, defining moments, reputation, uniqueness and dullness. Let your leadership grow in the rich soil of the school.

I can honestly say that in my experience of over a decade of senior leadership, the people who really understood what it was like to be a student of the school were the pastoral leaders. While SLT were writing the SIP and preparing for governors’ meetings,  the Heads of Year were talking to kids, contacting parents, dealing with outside agencies, managing behaviour, taking witness statements and regularly going above and beyond the call of duty. The Heads of Year knew the school and saw it through the eyes of the students.

The second thing we can learn is how mental models work in action. In their work at Ambition Institute, Tom Rees and colleagues have developed a refreshingly new perspective on school leadership which focuses on the domain-specific knowledge of school leaders and less on generic leadership concepts. He explains that there needs to be ‘more emphasis on what educational leaders know and are able to do (their mental model), and less emphasis on the style in which they operate or generic concepts such as leadership ‘styles’, vision or change.’

In a blog for Ambition, Matthew Evans provides a helpful definition, ‘when confronted with a problem, it is helpful if we have experienced similar situations. Our minds will learn from these experiences and build abstract mental models (or schemata) to guide future decision making. These ‘problem states’ exist in the mind as reference points and are the basis of leadership expertise.’

I really like this focus on specificity over genericism and on people rather than concepts. Again, it calls to mind what pastoral leaders do instinctively. They have become expert at building and using mental models to solve the problems they face. But how? Other than in the NAPCE journal which publishes a range of articles which might be relevant to school contexts, there is very little research or evidence to consult. Instead, pastoral leaders have built their expert mental-models from doing the job. The framework they consult when they are looking for guidance is based on their lived experience of dealing with the “rich soil of the school”.

The third thing we can learn from them is how to be responsive. In Seven Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership Revisited, Leithwood et al, stress the importance of leaders demonstrating responsiveness to their context. They say, “a leader’s main question should always be ‘under these conditions, what should I do?’” Again, when reading this, I think of the pastoral leaders in my school – who created a kind of triage system to respond to the problems that came to their door. Because they understood all those things Evans lists in the first quote above, they were able to respond in the right way, fluently making judicious selections from their mental models to plan the right course of action.

As a caveat, I want to be clear that I am not saying that other leaders in school don’t do these things; they do – of course they do. However, I think it is important to acknowledge, perhaps now more than ever, the complexity of the pastoral leader’s role particularly when they have little research to draw on and very limited professional development with which to engage.

In our current situation, as we await news about how schools might begin to transition to some kind of normality, it is interesting to see what the profession is thinking and feeling. From looking at Twitter over the last week, the keywords and phrases that come up time and time again are: relationships, connection, trust, healing, community, support, wellbeing. These are the knowledge-domains of the pastoral leader, so putting your Heads of Year at the centre of your ‘return to school’ plan would be a good move.

So, my message to pastoral leaders is this: you do an amazing job; even if people cannot see it, students and families will feel the difference it makes. It also strikes me that when we do return to school, the sands will have shifted and colleagues will be coming to you for guidance and support. So, see this as a golden opportunity: suddenly, all the stuff that was hidden will become visible. Evidence of your work will be everywhere as all teachers and leaders in school will become pastoral carers, for the students and each other. Observe this, capture it, write case studies, keep a journal and then peer review your findings – perhaps then we can begin to work towards a more evidence-informed approach.

I also think that it is time to insist upon more domain-specific leadership training experiences. The NPQs are currently being overhauled so let’s hope that we see more bespoke professional learning routes for pastoral leaders. If not, we need to demand that they are created and even design them ourselves if we have to. Pastoral leaders have as much right to be part of the educational debate about leadership as everyone else.

And finally, my message to those of you who aren’t pastoral leaders: I urge you to look afresh at the pastoral teams in your school and acknowledge all the great work they are doing. Recognise the complexity of the job and understand that it isn’t always visible.

Let me end with an anecdote: In my role as a Deputy Head of a large secondary school, my SLT colleague who was in charge of pastoral care, and oversaw all the individual Heads of House, was always fighting for time and having to defend her team. Their work always came second to curriculum, assessment, teaching and learning. At times, she would get angry and become defensive and this would sometimes create tension for the rest of us.

Since leaving that job, I have reflected deeply on the role she played in our SLT. She was the one who challenged our ‘group think’; she was the one who understood the ‘rich soil’ of our school’; she was the one who could look at things from the student or family or community’s perspective.  Her leadership and patience were second to none and I wish I had valued those things more at the time.

Esther is presenting on Pastoral Leadership at the #UkEdChat online conference 9-11 June 2020, for more details visit 


Evans, M (2019) Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership Genericism, John Catt Educational Ltd.

Rees, T. 2020: a new Perspective for School Leadership. Ambition Institute.

Evans, M. (2019) The School Leader: Using Mental models Effectively. Ambition Institute.

Kenneth Leithwood, Alma Harris & David Hopkins (2020) Seven strong claims about successful school leadership revisited, School Leadership & Management, 40:1, 5-22, DOI: 10.1080/13632434.2019.1596077

Further Reading (and strong influences on my thinking)

Sputnik Steve. Towards Pastorality – Developing a Research-Informed Approach to be a head of Year.