Sunday, 1 December 2013

Seeking evidence for the effectiveness of the role of the form tutor

At every secondary school I’ve taught at, there has been some kind of ‘form tutor’ teacher role. The form tutor normally sees a class of children for 5-10 mins each morning to take the roll and deal with administrative matters such as permission slips, daily notices and the like. They’re often responsible for delivering some kind of pastoral programme.

In every school, the form tutor has been presented as being a first point of contact for the child/parents/teachers, for having a special overview of the child’s achievement in all subjects, and having a deep rapport and personal relationship with the child without having the pressures of an academic subject get in the way, as is the case for classroom teachers.

Leaving my experience aside, I am aware of no evidence for these assertions, and do not believe that they are obviously true enough to be exempt from requiring evidence. I am not saying they’re incorrect either, and the purpose of this post is to show why I have doubts, and invite evidence either way.

How did this form tutor role first arise? In primary school, children are taught by the same teacher for most subjects, and my understanding is that it is felt that children of this age benefit from the continuity and stability of having the same teacher, against the tradeoff of reduced specialist expertise in each subject. So it would be fairly obviously true that the primary school teacher would have a genuine overview of the child as a whole, from the day-in, day-out experience and repeated interactions. It seems plausible that the form tutor is designed to follow this role through to provide the same benefit. But how is the secondary form tutor supposed to get the same level of knowledge? They read report comments and see summative grades, granted, but these do not provide a particularly detailed (or even, at times, reliably accurate) picture. Maybe they talk to the child about academic subjects during the ten minutes in the morning, but (a) they will only get the child’s perspective, which may be quite different to the classroom teacher’s, and (b) it seems unrealistic that the form tutor will use this short period of time each day to systematically cover every child in every subject, so at best the form tutor will have a very fragmented picture. So they might know that Jack never gets his mathematics homework in on time, or is repeatedly rude and defiant to the music teacher, but it’s unlikely they’d know that Tina, though being basically very competent in English, doesn’t quite understand how commas work, and so needs to do some specific practice to bring this particular area up to scratch. Nor would they necessarily be able to help even if they did. Some schools organise cohort meetings to discuss all students in a particular group, but again these will only provide limited, fragmented information as teachers tend to focus on the more problematic cases, and it’s hard to see how the benefits gained for children from these meetings are worth the massive amounts of time involved, which could be spent e.g. planning better lessons. More generally, one could ask, why is it necessarily beneficial for one teacher to have an overview of each academic area for a particular child? Does having a synthesis of this knowledge enable better decisions to be made and advice to be given?

I also wonder how deep a rapport a teacher is supposed to develop with students during ten minutes of administrative business in the morning. Most of my relationships with adults are based on having something in common - either a shared interest/hobby, or a shared purpose (e.g. both being teachers.) It’s easy, then, to develop relationships in a classroom, because you both have the shared purpose of understanding and enjoying the content being taught. But that doesn’t exist so obviously for the form tutor. You often have the shared purpose of a pastoral programme, but in my experience, children do not value these programmes nearly as highly as they do their academic subjects. They are usually designed by people who do not have the same level of expertise in this area as they do for their main teaching subject (for which they have a degree and a teaching certification). So that leaves shared interests, and it’s unlikely that I have the same interests as all of a group of thirty children. We all know what it’s like when you are sat with someone for twenty minutes whom you don’t really have much in common with; I can feign an interest in golf for a little while, but it’s not going to be the basis for a strong relationship.

What remains, then, of the need for a form tutor, is the administrative work. But these days with electronic student management systems, there is no reason that the roll can’t be marked by the first teacher of the day, who would also read out any pertinent notices, with the added flexibility of being able to do so at any point during the lesson. I’ve heard the argument that the ‘roll call’ session provides stability, getting children settled and prepared for the day, but again this does not necessarily follow; one could hypothesise that starting the day with ten minutes where nothing is really achieved does not provide a particularly purposeful start to the day. As a classroom teacher I feel justified at expressing dissatisfaction at children arriving late, because they disrupt their own learning and/or that of their peers, but I can’t honestly get annoyed at a child who arrives eight minutes into a ten minute roll call, and hence misses the announcement about orchestra rehearsal for a select group of children that evening. So it’s easier for children to get away with being late in the morning, which again does not set the right tone, in my view.

So there’s my case for requiring evidence for the benefits of the role of the form tutor. I’ve also, at times, come across difficulties which I think may be directly attributable to the existence of a form tutor role. We’ve all had times where parents are concerned about either their child’s progress in your class in general, or a specific incident where, let’s say, you give a child a detention, and the child told his parents he wasn’t doing anything wrong. In both of those cases, I would like the parent to believe that the first point of contact is the classroom teacher. If you think I’m not teaching your child well enough, explain your concerns to me and we can have a constructive conversation. If your child told you I gave him a detention for no reason, I will happily explain my side of the story to you. In either case, if you are dissatisfied with my response, there is someone else you can escalate your concerns to. This all sounds perfectly reasonable to me, and every head of department I have worked for has directed parents to first raise any teaching concerns with the classroom teacher.

But, instead, a child/parent makes contact with a form tutor. It’s easier to exaggerate your complaints when talking to a third person, and you’ll often complain about two or three things when really there is only one problem you’re bothered about. I think this is quite a natural, human response. For example: “Billy says you gave him a detention when he wasn’t the only one talking. He says you’re always picking on him, and that you’re not very good at teaching science anyway, and he talks because he doesn’t understand.” So this exaggerated complaint is made to a form tutor who emails the teacher, and maybe a head of department, requiring an explanation. The response is in turn relayed to the parent, but is obviously going to be less detailed and accurate as it has been passed through this extra layer that is the form tutor. Maybe a meeting is eventually set up, by which time everybody has become anxious, and a very big deal is being made out of something that could have been resolved with one phone call - “Billy wasn’t the only one talking at every given instant, but over the hour’s class he was talking far more than anyone else, and I gave him repeated warnings and made it clear that a consequence would be issued if he continued to make the wrong choices. I quite like having Billy in the class, and he’s got the potential to achieve well, if we can work together to fix this one small aspect of his behaviour.” Instead, emails go around, meaning is lost, people’s reputations are tarnished, and relationships between teachers, students and parents are damaged. All because of this extra layer of communication, which dilutes meaning and makes it easier for children to complain and hence avoid responsibility for their actions. This is a very natural thing for children to do, given the opportunity - our job is to teach them to take responsibility for their actions, because they are not born with that instinct. I’m not saying this kind of unpleasantness happens every time, of course; this is a worst case scenario. But I fail to see how having a form tutor handle such things will normally be better than having a classroom teacher deal with it in the first instance.

I should add that the situation described in the above paragraph is exacerbated further when the form tutor, and/or higher layers of pastoral managers, see it as their primary role to advocate for the children in their care, like a criminal defence lawyer. At my first school in the UK, I watched a newly-appointed Head of Year (one up from a form tutor) proclaim to the assembled 15 year olds at the start of the year: “If you have any problems with your teachers, I want you to come and tell me about it. I’m here to look out for you.” This developed a ‘complaint-reflex’ within the children, such that if I wanted to give a behaviour sanction to a child, there would be a high chance that the child would automatically “put in a complaint”, and the HoY would demand a written explanation from me, with witness statements (because my word that John told me to f**k off wasn’t good enough). The conclusion she would come to might be that, actually, I wound John up, and maybe I need to teach more kinaesthetically to make sure he can fully achieve his potential. This made the HoY massively popular with students, and given the low number of behaviour sanctions being issued to her students (because it was never worth the hassle), she looked great to senior management too. Again, worst case scenario, but not so unique that it’s not worth mentioning. More generally, we have to recognise that teachers are human beings with families to feed and, to different degrees, careers to advance, and we might be setting up a system which allows them more easily to appear to do the right thing without actually helping anyone.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m not saying the role of the form tutor is fundamentally flawed. I’d love to see evidence that shows that having the role leads to tangible increases in student wellbeing, just as much as evidence to the contrary. What I’m doing here is raising my reasons for doubts and inviting reply. All I’ve ever heard so far, though, is “I reckon… in my experience… intangible benefits”, i.e. claims which are neither verifiable nor falsifiable.

What would the alternative to the form tutor be? I’ve already mentioned that a lot of the admin work could be spread out across classroom teachers. This has been the case in one school I’ve worked in - I would read the daily notices and take the roll for the first class of the day. I could fit this in far more neatly with my lesson structure - the roll can be taken when the children start working and don’t immediately need you anyway, and notices could be read towards the end of the lesson when we need a bit of down-time. The pastoral program would need to be delivered either by specialists, or spread across classroom teachers. I imagine specialists are hard to find. If I am correct in my assumption that children value e.g. mathematics more than they value PSE (personal/social ed, or whatever else it’s called locally), it seems plausible that they would have a stronger work ethic when they come to my lessons, which I could use to more effectively deliver the occasional PSE lesson, rather than children coming to me every week as their form tutor and PSE teacher, where they will get used to having a poorer work ethic. To put it another way, I’m good enough at being a mathematics teacher that my reputation and rapport can survive the hit of the occasional PSE lesson, where my expertise and experience (and that of almost every other teacher) is significantly lower. Another advantage of doing it this way is that children could get PSE lessons from different teachers, providing a more rich and balanced pastoral programme, and involving all teachers in pastoral education in a far more genuine way.

You would probably still need the head of year, or whatever the ‘next one up’ from the form tutor is, to deal with recurring problems or problems across subjects, where more complex case management is required. They would need to have data available to spot patterns, so that if Jane doesn’t do her homework for history, this is recorded centrally rather than just dealt with by the teacher. They would need to be able to track grades and indicators to look for e.g. consistent declines. This is necessary even with the form tutor system as-is. But the HoY role would not be sold as a first point of call for parents or students; the classroom teacher is always where you begin.

So, what experiences do people have of different pastoral care systems? And has anyone come across any relevant research evidence? (I’ll continue to look and add anything relevant here.)

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