Tonight’s 15 minute forum was led by Deputy Company Leader Jane Hedger. The form tutor role is an essential one for schools. However, as teachers are employed primarily to teach their subject, the form tutor role is often seen as an after-thought, and as a result, not often the subject of much development work. Students come into school with a number of issues – academic, social and/or personal. The form tutor is at the front line with this. They are usually the first adult that students interact with each day, and in secondary schools, the only adult that they see once or twice every day.
“A Form Tutor’s role is central in both caring for students and, crucially, monitoring their progress both academically and socially; encouraging involvement, commitment, and high standards of work and behaviour. The Form Tutor should be active in looking after the interests of the “whole child”
Partnership Development Schools Programme
So it’s an essential role, but also a really demanding one! Looking after the ‘whole child’ for one student is difficult – and really difficult for about 25 at a time! This becomes even more of a challenge, when you consider that once assemblies etc are taken out, we only see students for 20 minutes, three times a day in the morning, and 10 minutes, five afternoons a week! Added to this, teachers are having to think about the four or five lessons they are due to each that day, the homework they may have to mark, being on time for duty and of course that meeting after school! Being a form tutor requires a whole new set of skills, that are different to teaching – so it’s a shame that we don’t often talk about them in schools.
Rather than thinking about the role of the form tutor in terms of a list of jobs (this can be seen in the staff handbook), it’s perhaps more important to reflect on why the role of a form tutor is so important. When we think about the why, it becomes clear that the role should be a high priority for all of us – and it becomes apparent that it involves a great deal more than taking a register and handing out letters.
“There appears to be a strong, significant and positive relationship between attendance at secondary schools in England and the role of the form tutor. In cases where the form tutor had a natural and constructive connection with their tutor group, the positive outcomes were evident in high levels of attendance. I could not always overtly state the specific activity happening, that caused this relationship, but there was always something coming from the form tutor that was having a positive effect on the students.”
Claire Elizabeth Elhaggi, Thesis on role of form tutor and attendance
So, when relationships between the form tutor and students are strong, this appears to correlate with strong attendance. Why might this be? There are many reasons why students might have poor attendance at schools, but they are often linked with anxiety about a range of issues e.g. feeling over-burdened by exam related stress and not knowing how to cope with that. A good form tutor will offer support and guidance, with this and in doing so, help to alleviate that anxiety. They will often be the member of staff who notices trends in absence and make contact with home to address the issue – or initiates somebody else making contact. This is often the catalyst for coming up with a solution.
“The role of the form tutor in secondary schools is changing rapidly and becoming increasingly central. The pupils, having more responsibility for their own learning, rely on general guidance a form tutor should provide […]. The role of the form tutor […] covers such topics as handling individuals, making and maintaining personal contact, monitoring progress, handling groups and administrative functions.”
Griffiths and Sherman, 1991
As well as supporting attendance, form tutors will help students to grow a sense of independence, as they move through secondary school. This will take a number of forms, from helping them to find their way around a large school site in Y7, getting them into the habit of having the right equipment and organising their homework diary, to picking their options in Y9. When it comes to GCSEs, the tutor will help students to plan their attendance at revision sessions, keep up to date with homework and coursework and manage the tricky terrain of exam season! This all requires careful, personalised guidance and support.
So the form tutor will encourage good attendance and help students to approach school with a growing sense of independence. Why else is the role so important?
- To be a good role model – show them the way in terms of appearance, organisation, punctuality and how to interact in large social groups.
- To make them feel safe – schools are complex places, full of lots of complex individuals. This is a daunting prospect for many teachers, so the form tutor is key to making them feel safe and secure. If something goes wrong, they are the adult who will make it OK.
- To provide a positive relationship with an authority figure and encourage mutual respect – young people have to engage with a range of adults in schools. They need to be shown how to do this and this can be modelled by the form tutor.
- To be consistent and fair, and act as a mediator for the students in the group – young people fall in and out of friendship groups all of the time…so they need support with how to deal with this.
- To listen – being a teenager is difficult and brings a range of issues, from seemingly trivial matters to more serious disclosures of a child protection nature. Fortunately the latter is rare, but the former is not! A listening ear will always help.
- To have very high expectations of the individual Tutor Group members – the form tutor sets the tone for the day and embeds the ethos of the school e.g. discussing the idea of growth mindset; ensuring immaculate school uniform etc
- To focus students’ minds on achievement through learning – at tracking points throughout the year, helping students to make sense of it all. Where are they doing well? Where are they doing not so well? What can they do to make it better?
- To discuss current affairs, address student issues (such as bullying) – we want our students to become well-informed citizens, who can discuss a range of issues. We can support this by encouraging them to discuss issues in the news, or those that occur in school e.g. look at the BBC news website and have a discussion about the headlines.
- To encourage reading for pleasure and good study skills – initiatives like DEAR (Drop Everything & Read) can provide opportunities for students to read – this might help to encourage reading for pleasure.
“The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “all children have the right to an education which develops their personality and talents to the full. This must take place in a clean, safe and nurturing environment.” Your role as a Form Tutor is an important one. You are often the first member of staff our students meet when they arrive for induction in Year Six; you are the first to greet the students in the morning and get their day off to a good start and you are the first point of contact for parents. Your primary responsibility as Form Tutor is to build positive relationships and to model behaviour that promotes respect, responsibility and resilience.”
The passage above sums up brilliantly why the form tutor role is so important. It’s about caring, supporting, encouraging and noticing. Noticing when things are not quite right with students and helping them…or finding the right person to help them.
Finally, this is how we describe a great form tutor at DHS:
“A great form tutor will build a positive relationship with each and every member of the form class. They will use tutor time to reinforce the school ethos and to inspire and encourage students. The form tutor will encourage an environment of mutual respect as well as showing personal attention to every individual as often as possible. The form tutor is a vital link between student, school and parents/carers.
When people look back on their school experience, the first person they often think of is their form tutor.”