2.6.2 Pastoral care and its importance

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

To understand the principles of pastoral care;

Reflect on your role in pastoral care, including its limits; and

Think about how pastoral care influences your teaching.

The origins of pastoral care

Much of the history of education is linked with the history of religion - churches funded schools and set their own curriculum, with an emphasis on learning to read the bible. Those who could not afford private schooling could attend charity schools set up by the church, which was also the sole provider of teacher education. It was only as recently as 1870, with the passing of the Elementary Education Act ("Forster Act"), that education was provided for free by the state - and even then, only to primary level. It was not until the passing of the 1902 Education Act (the "Balfour Act") that the state provided any real competition to church schools.

A good summary of the traditional ideals of pastoral education is given by Hunter (1994), who include "self-reflection, self-watchfulness, self-discipline, moral indignation at having done wrong, and ethical self-development". This focus on the individual development of pupils offered a broad interpretation, and overall emphasised building a child's capacity to make ethical choices for themselves. This later took on a subtle shift into preparing pupils for a role in society, which expanded pastoral care to considering health and wellbeing. Gradually, the emphasis has changed from caring for a child's soul to promoting ethical living and, most recently, to promoting emotional wellbeing as part of healthy living, so it is possible to see how a contemporary promotion of mental health has its roots in the ambition to provide salvation.

National context

The principles of pastoral care described in the previous section show how care has traditionally focused on individuals. Ethical development, often defined either explicitly or implicitly as religious ethics and moral codes, was often determined at school-level or even by individual teachers. More recently, the focus has shifted to pastoral care promoting health and wellbeing (particularly mental and emotional health). With less guidance from religion in this area, attempts have been made to determine best practice and deliver a more consistent form of pastoral care.

One area of confusion is the wide range of terminology used. For example, the most common phrases used in recent UK policies are Personal and Social Education (PSE), Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), Personal, Social and Health Education and Citizenship (PSHEC) or Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHEE). However, pastoral care might also include religious education, careers education, mindfulness, sex education, relationship education, and many more. An attempt to give a complete list is made in Best (2002, p.37), but new terms, such as Spiritual, Moral and Cultural Development (SMCD), have since come into use.

Pastoral care is frequently discussed in the academic literature in Britain, and the Journal of Pastoral Care is a good indication of the depth of research and scholarship in this area. However, it was arguably not until the New Labour government of 1997 that pastoral care became an area of national policy rather than being part of an individual school's philosophy. Government reports showed a shift in how pastoral care would be linked to national health goals, starting with Excellence in Schools (HM Government, 1997), which set the foundation for the Healthy Schools initiative from 1999. This led to a renewed emphasis on PSHE and introduced the idea of citizenship, as well as equality and diversity and safeguarding principles.

What systems do educational establishments usually have in place to support pastoral care of their pupils?

To broadly summarise the section above, pastoral care in the UK has moved on from its roots in religion to look more at how pupils learn to behave in society. Lang (2007) refers to this early aspiration of nineteenth century headteachers as promoting 'gentlemanly' conduct. At school-level, this type of pastoral support was highly personalised and could even be thought of as a type of apprenticeship. For example, Lang (2007) describes how tutors at Eton school would have an 'unbroken' connection throughout a pupil's time at the school. Pastoral care in contemporary schools often reflects the influence of these earlier examples. It is worth remembering that today's politicians and policy makers will have had pastoral experiences similar to those described above, particularly those politicians who attended traditional public schools. Many contemporary aspects of pastoral care can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to get as close as possible to these traditional ideals within the restrictions of a much larger and more competitive school system.

With more transparent recruitment processes and fewer teachers spending their entire career in the same school, such roles are significantly diminished today. Nevertheless, these original roles of the tutor can be seen in policies such as vertical tutor groups (where pupils stay with a tutor throughout their time at school, or at least keep the same tutor within each key stage), organisation of houses within schools, and form tutors being the main contact for parents. Similarly, the increased size of schools and lower ratio of teachers to students makes it more difficult for tutors to get to know pupils as well. Cane (2012) gives an interesting example of a school changing its pastoral policies so that tutor groups were replaced by "mentor groups" of 5-10, rather than 30, pupils (Cane, 2012, p.331). This is a particularly interesting example because the school achieves this smaller group size by using non-teaching staff as mentors, which implies that their policy is more focused on tutors getting to know pupils well rather than the academic aspects of the pastoral role.

Benefits of pastoral care

Taking an emotional intelligence perspective (Goleman, 1996) emphasises how pastoral care is vital for healthy development, and may even be more important than academic development. The importance of pastoral care is also highlighted in concepts such as nurturing, where healthy emotional development and feelings of security are important to prevent barriers to learning. Pastoral care can therefore interact with other policies and practices. For example, safeguarding policies include not just looking out for harm but actively promoting healthy lifestyles. More broadly, pastoral care can be thought of as the relationship between teachers and pupils within a school - it is the intangible quality which makes a school into a community. Whilst recent policies might have increased the speed with which teachers enter and leave this community, or reduced the time and effort they can give to such relationships, pastoral care in its broadest sense is how pupils come to experience the process of schooling and is therefore of utmost importance. Wider national concerns, such as building personal resilience or developing healthier lifestyles, will also often come through pastoral care, as will pupils' first contact with principles such as equality, diversity and democracy.

Limitations of pastoral care

The wide range of responsibilities which fall under pastoral care can create conflict. The form tutor is a clear example of this, since they often are a first contact for minor discipline points (such as performing daily uniform checks or chasing up punctuality), but also need to build positive relationships and in-depth understanding so that support can be effective for important decisions such as subject options or university choices. 

One of the key challenges is simply the wide range of pastoral issues that a teacher could be involved with. School policies have moved away from having a single person responsible for pastoral care, since this seemed to encourage teachers to simply refer pastoral matters. Instead, the importance of the relationship between teachers and students has been emphasised. For example, it is much more likely now that each member of the senior leadership group will have some pastoral duties. Similarly, each member of staff (and sometimes non-teaching staff) will also have pastoral roles. Hall (1998) argues that this places great demand on teachers alongside their curriculum responsibilities.

A related limitation is the level of skill or emotional maturity to offer this wide range of support. There is often very little training given in pastoral care, and it can often be (wrongly) assumed that teachers simply know how to provide good pastoral care. A useful concept from Goleman (1996) is emotional intelligence - a skill which needs to be learnt and developed so that emotional care and support can be offered effectively. Hall (1998) makes the case for teachers being given dedicated time for pastoral care so that they can be physically fit and relaxed enough to think sensitively.

Finally, there may be practical limitations to the pastoral care you can provide as a result of data protection policies. Workforce restructuring of pastoral staff is still in its early phases, so data protection policies might not have kept pace with change. For example, safeguarding policies would have a clearly designated point of contact with whom you can share information and concerns. However, if pastoral care is spread throughout all staff in a school rather than concentrated in a few key individuals, you may want to keep more detailed records or communicate with all of a pupil's subject teachers. A group email might be an efficient way of ensuring good communications for pastoral support, but might be too broad and insecure to meet your school's data protection policy.

Hints. tips and prompts

Pastoral care is such a broad topic that it might be better to think about it at three different levels: whole school, targeted groups, and targeted individuals (Hearn et al, 2006). At whole school and targeted group levels a school would be expected to take a proactive role in setting the agenda and identifying priorities. Targeting individuals should still try to be proactive, but might also need to be more reactive to issues as they arise, and might cross into other policy areas such as safeguarding.

It is also useful to think about priorities of pastoral care in broad categories of health, emotions, relationships, employment, and citizenship. The guidance from the Department for Education (2013) is significantly reduced from previous years, reflecting a broader aim for policies to be less prescriptive and detailed and for schools to have more choice and freedom in how they interpret and implement policies. It might therefore be worth spending some time within your school to draw out what your priority areas are for pastoral care.


Despite the emphasis on change throughout this chapter, we have also seen how pastoral care has remained broadly similar over hundreds of years, particularly in fee-paying schools. Much of the change described in this chapter can be interpreted as an attempt to stay as close as possible to the origins of pastoral care whilst coping with modern demands. It is therefore for each school community to decide on its own pastoral priorities as it responds to these changes. Individual teachers will also need to think about the type of pastoral support they offer. If they, or their pupils, are likely to be moving to different schools on a regular basis then much more emphasis will need to be placed on effective record-keeping and communication. You might also need to take some time to think about how your own personal morals affect your teaching. It would be unfair to impose your worldview on pupils, but at the same time teachers might feel hypocritical. An approach based on ideals such as equality, fairness, justice, respect and healthy living should work well in most cases, but pastoral care touches on a wide range of sensitive and complex issues: it is therefore important that teachers take time to prepare for pastoral care effectively, which may include taking time for self-care and reflection.


Best, R. (2002). Pastoral care and personal social education. Available from: http://www.bera.ac.uk/pdfs/BEST-PastoralCare&PSE.pdf.

Cane, C. (2012). Pastoral care and the role of the tutor. In: V. Brooks, I. Abbott and L. Bills [eds.], Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools, 3rd ed.. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Department for Education (2013). Personal, social, health and economic education. London: HMSO. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/personal-social-health-and-economic-education-pshe/personal-social-health-and-economic-pshe-education

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, C. (1998). Fitness for purpose: self care and the pastoral tutor. In: M. Calvert and J. Henderson [eds.], Managing Pastoral Care. London: Cassell. Pp.53-68.

Hearn, L., Campbell-Pope, R., House, J. and Cross, D. (2006). Pastoral Care in Education. Perth, Australia: Child Health Promotion Research Unit and Edith Cowan University. Available from: http://det.wa.edu.au/studentsupport/behaviourandwellbeing/detcms/cms-service/download/asset/?asset_id=8272773

HM Government. (1997). Excellence in Schools. London: HMSO. Available from: www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/wp1997/excellence-in-schools.html

Hunter, I. (1994). Rethinking the School. New South Wales, Australia: Allen and Unwin.

Lang, P. (2007). Pastoral care and the role of the tutor. In: V. Brooks, I. Abbott and L. Bills [eds.], Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools, 2nd ed.. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.