Recovering From Closure – Priority 2: The importance of Form Tutors

The trouble with schools is that the Tutor can all to easily be forgotten.

As mentioned in my last blog, for the next few blogs, I’m highlighting six areas I believe are essential if we are to recover fully from school closures.  Hopefully, attention given to these six areas will not only help schools recover, but place them in a stronger position than before the closures. 

The 6 priorities are as follows:

  1. Become Trauma Informed
  2. The Importance of Form Tutors
  3. Develop aspirations in young people
  4. Developing extended activities
  5. Focus on skills and habits of learning first
  6. Re-set/re-group; there will be gaps to close

Developing the role of the Form Tutor is my second priority for schools reopening after the Easter Break. 

Developing the role of the Tutor

During the closures I’m sure most schools utilised the role of Form Tutors to the full to ensure engagement and monitor welfare and wellbeing. For us at Eastern High, this was certainly the case.  We already had a strong pastoral team of pastoral support workers, who mentor and support our more vulnerable children.  This continued during the closures, but it was the work of the Form Tutors that ensured everyone was regularly contacted, monitored and supported. 

When we all return to the normal school day again, it will be a sad thing if the role of the Tutor is relegated back to the more common place Tutor activities such as registration, checking uniform, homework completion and taking a weekly personal & social education lesson.  This is a time and opportunity for change towards making the Form Tutor central to the running of the school. It is certainly worth considering. . .

The closures reminded me of just how critical the role of Tutors are to schools.  We didn’t do too badly when it came to looking after the needs of our students during the lock down and this was in part due to our House-based, vertically organised Tutor groups (we call them Learning Families).  These were inspired by the work of Peter Barnard (, who is definitely the guru to turn to when it comes to Vertical Tutoring (VT) and the role of Tutors in schools. 

If ever there was a time to boost the role of Tutors in school, it is now.  Young people will have great need for increased levels of pastoral and academic support and mentoring over the next year and VT is for me one of the best ways to achieve this successfully.  It takes longer than one year to fully embed into all school practices but the impact of vertical tutor groups can be felt instantly at a time when young people will need it most.  

A word of caution though, don’t rush into it.  The 13 weeks or so remaining in the school year may not be enough time to fully consult with staff and students and introduce parents to the concept.  This should involve visits to other schools who already run it (will this be possible in the current climate?) and training sessions for staff.  I’ve seen school who rush this and are met with student rebellion and/or staff apathy.  For full details and resources on what it is and how to implement VT into school refer to Peter’s website via the link above.  

Setting up VT in a school has some requirements:

  • Consult, consult, consult!
  • Organise the school into Houses rather than Year groups with House leaders
  • Every member of staff should be involved either as a Tutor (normally teachers) and Co-Tutors (Non-teaching staff as well as teachers).  This should include the senior team also!!  We have not been good at this.  If we had every member involved we would have smaller groups leading to more intensive support.  At the most only the House Leaders are not Tutors. 
  • Form your Tutor Groups (Or Learning Families as we call them) with an even distribution of ages in each.  Siblings should be in the same House.  These are advantages and disadvantages of having siblings in the same Learning Family.  One advantage is that the Tutor gets to know the family really well.  Avoid Learning Families going above 20 students
  • Organise Learning Families to meet at least once a day.  Peter recommends 20 – 30mins before first break.  We do two per day: 20mins straight after break and 25mins at the end of the day.  
  • Learning Family time should avoid taught activities.  It is about discussion, sharing experience and mentoring primarily.  Don’t put Tutors in a position where they are forcing children to do something they don’t want to do and where conflict starts.
  • All communication home, goes through the Tutors

Here is a short summary of 6 Principles of Vertical Tutoring Systems (Peter puts forward 10 principles of whicha full version can be seen in an article by Robin Cox, found in the same website (under ‘Organisation’). I have only included those most pertinent to the moment.

1. Enable and Build Learning Relationships

The Tutor places his or her students at the centre of discussions focussed on learning and progress, not only between tutor and student, but drawing and facilitating conversations with other stakeholders such as subject teachers, parents, external providers (e.g. Post 16, employers), other students in Learning family.  Time must be given for this

2. Enable Creative Use of Data and Information

The Tutor should have access to good assessment and progress information capture systems.  It requires the school to think about the ways it can collect, present and share information collaboratively with the tutor.  The tutor plays a role in collecting their own information as well as gathering information from school systems.  In this way, the tutor has a clear picture of their tutees and is able to share this information in a clear way to different audiences (e.g. the tutee, parent, class teachers, post 16 providers).   

“What these relationships do is turn targets into strategies for improvement that are supported by all key players and monitored closely by the Tutor and Co-Tutor. While the Tutor will tend to be a teacher, the Co-Tutor is either a teacher or a member of the non-teaching staff keen to move alongside young people on their holistic education journey” (Robin Cox).

3. Enhance the Academic Tutorial (Deep Learning Conversation)

During the closure we reorganised the way we carried out our parents evenings and did what we ought to have done years ago: place the tutor at the core of academic discussions.  With the help of clear data processes and systems as mentioned above, tutors were able to hold good quality academic (as well as pastoral) conversations with parents and tutees.  Peter recommends that these last between 30 and 45 mins at least once per year. Two of these are easily manageable, if these replace the normal year/subject based parent evenings.  

We didn’t have full confidence in these being accepted by all parents and so we offered subject appointments where parents, after meeting the tutor, still wanted to speak to the subject teacher.   There was very little uptake on this offer, I believe highlighted the quality of conversations taking place between tutor and parent. 

4. Enhance and Redefine Care

The Tutor and Co-Tutor take on a much ‘deeper’ level of care for their students in a VT setting, acting as learning & personal mentors, as well as being active advocates.  A holistic view is taken of the student with every facet of care being facilitated either by or through the Tutor. Peers in the group also collaborate in this care process with older students acting as mentors and advocates for younger students. 

5. Enable Leadership

Through the House and VT system leadership opportunities can be greatly enhanced. We’ve all seen how developing leaders or students with a positive influence in school is an essential activity in schools. Young people at present will be in need of moral support from their peers and the younger will look for ‘heroes’ or role models within their school or community.  Linking up young people to be mentored by older peers in their group builds confidence, raise self-esteem for both parties. “This leads to greater empathy, resiliency, reciprocity, teamwork, humility, tolerance and respect for different cultures and attitudes, as well as those virtues that improve engagement with learning. Students are, therefore, enabled and equipped with the skills to become the global citizens that the community needs them to be and most would like to become” (Robin Cox).

6. Enable and Rethink ‘Voices’

Linked to leadership is the concept of student voice.  VT is the perfect vehicle for this to take place; starting withing the learning Family, moving to the House and then onto a central student voice representing all students at all levels in the school and wider community. 

Parents voices also need to be heard especially when so many will continue to have concerns over the coming year.   Again, VT is an excellent vehicle to facilitate conversations between home and school.  It also gives a staff voice from a different perspective with added empathy for the young people in their care.  


Peter also goes on to expand the topic of academic mentoring and how this side of the Tutor’s role can begin to personalise the curriculum and enhance teaching and learning, through the greater collective understanding of the students in our care, some of which I’ll touch on in my other priorities. 

For now though, this is enough to consider.  It’s certainly a priority for us at Eastern High to improve upon.  We’ve been quite good at it but have let it go to some extent and not following it through to Peter Barnard’s full vision.   It takes courage and energy to see it fully through, but I really do believe it is worthwhile and will certainly benefit your students more than any other form of school organisation.

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