Teachwire Logo

What do Heads of Year actually do?

Most secondary schools have them, but it’s not always clear as to what a head of year’s pastoral responsibilities should involve, says Stephen Lane...

  • What do Heads of Year actually do?

I love being a head of year (HoY), fraught though it is with the emotional carnage of childhood or, in my Key Stage 3 context, that vicious twilight zone of the emergent teenager.

It’s difficult to list all the things that we actually do in pastoral leadership roles – to precisely articulate the nuance of the situations that might arise, to catalogue the multitudinous decisions we have to make on a daily basis, to index the infinite complexities of the endless variations in social, emotional and mental wellbeing that our students experience.

And then there’s the school context. Whilst there are, no doubt, a hundred commonalities across diverse school communities, there are surely thousands of context-dependent needs and demands that form tutors, heads of year and pastoral leaders must try to understand and negotiate in order to best serve those in our care.

Nevertheless, there’s obviously a need to define the role of HoY (or pastoral leader), if only in order that such posts can be advertised and qualified in job descriptions.

So how would you do it? If you were to write the job description for a HoY role, what would you include? And, perhaps more interestingly, what would you omit?

Sloganised managerialism

Perusing the job adverts and accompanying descriptions on the Tes website is revealing. Many reflect a desire to find someone who can ‘motivate’ people; who shows ‘enthusiasm, sensitivity, resilience and strong interpersonal skills’; who is ‘inspirational’.

Of course, they must also be ‘an outstanding and talented practitioner’ because everyone must be ‘outstanding’. It’s a word which has probably done more harm to the teaching profession than any other.

The problem with this kind of language – or jargon – as it appears in many of these adverts is that it’s a form of sloganised managerialism full of clichés so cold they’ve been rendered ultimately meaningless. Search for the term ‘passion’ in teaching job adverts and behold the banality.

This kind of wording says nothing about the job. Sure, it presents a kind of idealised set of aims, including the desire to improve ‘Young people’s life chances’, but there’s nothing much there in terms of specifics.

Job descriptions will further often include a lot of ‘coordination’, ensuring ‘student progress’ and reviewing attendance data. Whilst these tasks are perfectly reasonable and important, it strikes me that they’re somewhat… administrative, managerial, dry.

There’s also nothing there about commitment to professional growth or learning, and nothing at all about developing research, or evidence-informed policy or practice.

‘Wiping noses and kicking butts’

It could be argued that such job descriptions perpetuate what Caroline Lodge described in 2008 as “dysfunctional interpretations” of the role of HoY, “using the system for administration, as a watered-down welfare service, or for behaviour management.”

Lodge goes on to present a phrase used by a group of headteachers with whom she was working which she claims “poignantly captures two of these distortions – ‘wiping noses and kicking butts’”.

Lodge articulates frustration at the notion of the HoY role being about behaviour management, and the notion that we perhaps ought to be moving beyond a view of the pastoral as simply ‘wiping noses and kicking butts’ is one I can support.

Despite the vastness of all that ‘the pastoral’ encompasses, it’s nonetheless valuable to draw out some of these strands in an attempt to define what a pastoral leadership role might involve.

I’d recommend periodically writing a list of what your role entails – this is a useful grounding exercise that can help to refocus your priorities during hectic periods and identify any areas where you might legitimately ask for support or delegate to others, such as form tutors.

Better still, producing such a list in conjunction with colleagues might help foster a collegial approach to pastoral work that would likely benefit the team and, most importantly, the children in your care. (See ‘My pastoral list’ for mine.)

Helpfully, the National Association for Pastoral Care in Education (NAPCE) has composed its own guidance for pastoral support in the form of a long list.

The NAPCE does a decent job of encapsulating the plethora of particulars involved. It also succeeds, I think, in traversing the potential false dichotomy between the pastoral and the academic. It should be fairly obvious to most teachers that there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two.

There’s also a strong emphasis in the NAPCE guidelines on personal development. It’s worth noting, of course, that Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework includes very specific references to learners’ personal development. Indeed, personal development is one of the four key areas against which inspectors will make judgements.

Navigating the ocean

The pastoral is a vast ocean of sometimes perilous waters, and having a set of guidelines such as those offered by the NAPCE can help us navigate them. However, it’s also useful to have a macro view – an overriding sense of the purpose of any pastoral role.

In his 2019 book Leading on Pastoral Care, Daniel Sobel writes, “Whether you are a middle leader, working as a head of year or head of key stage or are a senior leader responsible for pastoral care across your school, the main focus of your role is to provide effective care for the welfare, wellbeing and overall success of the students in your school.”

Sobel goes on to provide this rather neat key takeaway: “The most important aspect of the pastoral leadership role is to enable students to participate. No matter what your job description says, this is your fundamental purpose and your key to success, and can only be achieved through understanding”.

Like ‘form tutor’, the term ‘head of year’ yields little in searches of the academic literature.

I think this probably reflects the varied nature of the role, but it’s interesting to note that there hasn’t been much work done to explore the nature, purpose and impact of this ubiquitous role.

Every secondary school has heads of year, even allowing for variations in nomenclature, such as ‘year team leader’.

Some schools use ‘vertical’ tutoring, with form groups made up of students from different year groups.

This structure is intended to encourage social cohesion across age groups, enable older students to act as mentors and role models for younger students, and reduce workload for teachers when it comes to report cycles.

Schools have reported that vertical tutoring has reduced instances of bullying, amongst other positive effects.

In my own experience, however, this system creates mini-cliques or enclaves within form groups, with Y7 students all sitting together and so on.

And far from reducing workload, it meant I had far more mental plates to spin with regard to the differing demands of the year groups, such as options for Y9 and GCSE revision sessions for Year 11.

In my current setting, year groups are relatively small so the HoY role in fact covers multiple year groups. We have a head of Y5–6, a head of Y7–9, a head of Y10–11 and a head of sixth form.

These are middle leadership roles, the nomenclature for which is ‘operational leadership’. Whatever this role is called in your school, it’s important to develop a clear idea about what pastoral leadership entails within your context.

Once you’ve established this, you can begin to think about how you might develop an informed approach to each of the aspects involved.

My pastoral list

  • Safeguarding
  • Academic performance
  • Behaviour
  • Wellbeing
  • PSHE education
  • Assemblies
  • Counselling
  • Mentoring
  • Safeguarding

No, that’s not an error. I spent some time mithering over whether ‘safeguarding’ should be the first thing on my list or the last, and decided it should probably be both. Everyone who works with children should have safeguarding as their first and last thought.

Stephen Lane has worked in education for over two decades in both subject leadership and pastoral leadership roles. Follow him at @sputniksteve. This article is based on an edited extract from his book Beyond Wiping Noses: Building an informed approach to pastoral leadership in schools (Crown House Publishing, £16.99).

Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Make sure your assessment is effective with these expert insights.

Find out more here >