We know that student wellbeing is an integral component to student achievement, but are we taking it seriously? JUDE BARBACK asks where the school’s role begins and ends?

So much in education is focused on measurable outcomes, lifting achievement, and rightly so, but with such an emphasis on results, schools can sometimes lose sight of the journey to get there, lose track of the ingredients that are needed in addition to curriculum, resources, and assessment to get where they want to be.

It is important to nurture and look after students along the way. The Ministry of Education’s Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students makes sure that the wellbeing of overseas students is ensured during their stay here. But are we doing enough to ensure the wellbeing of New Zealand students?

Pastoral care

Pastoral care, in an educational context, can play a vital role in students’ education. But research shows that pastoral care in schools is often poorly understood and inadequately supported.

Unitec’s Kiely Murphy found in her 2011 study of pastoral care middle leadership in New Zealand secondary schools that the traditional pastoral care middle leader role was evolving from that of ‘disciplinarian’ to a more holistic role with a focus on improving student outcomes. Pastoral care now appears to be more about supporting learning, bridging the gap between pastoral care and academic issues for improved student outcomes.

Murphy believes there needs to be more professional development and targeted leadership training to address this multifaceted role, which has become increasingly important, yet still flies somewhat under the radar. There appears to be a tendency to focus on curriculum leadership and to neglect the pastoral care element.

Murphy found the demands on pastoral care middle leadership to be “increasingly complex” with increasing pastoral demands coupled with the challenges that come with working across existing silo subject departmental structures.

Different schools take different approaches to overcome some of these sorts of challenges.

Dunstan High School in Alexandra, for example, is very proud of its pastoral care programme, which makes use of its house system to provide support and guidance to students. Vertically-integrated tutor groups are assigned to one of four houses, with each house led by two deans; one is responsible for the pastoral care of students, and one is responsible for their academic progress. The deans work together with tutor teachers to provide a web of monitoring, support, discipline, and fun for the students of their house. They meet as a house group once each week to discuss student support needs – and this allows all staff to be involved in the support and guidance of students in their house and tutor groups. This group also makes and monitors referrals to specialist support staff.

Diocesan School for Girls also has a pastoral care network in operation. Led by the deputy principal, the network includes the assistant principal pastoral care, year level deans and tutors, a counsellor, an international dean, the careers staff, the chaplaincy team, Centre for Enhanced Learning staff, and the school nurses.

The New Zealand Catholic Education Office published a document that emphasised that pastoral care is led by the principal but extends to the wider school community.

“The spirituality, personality, and philosophy of the principal tend to shape the pastoral atmosphere of the school since leadership in this matter is fundamental. Pastoral care is the particular responsibility of those in leadership positions. However, it also emanates from the attitudes, spirituality, philosophy, and personality of all the adults in the school. Everyone in the school community has some responsibility for the pastoral care of others in the community.”

Interestingly, the document also discussed the importance of a school pastoral care policy that outlines exactly what is entailed and expected. It states that “a great deal that happens in pastoral care is not written down, but is a very real part of the process”, which could help explain some of the complexities of pastoral care leadership as identified by Murphy.

It is a common misconception that pastoral care is the domain of faith-based schools only, and certainly, there is usually a strong emphasis on pastoral care in such schools. However, it is not a term confined to faith-based schools.

Service Learning

Marcus Edwards of Australia’s CSM Attend, is an advocate for service learning, an approach that can be adapted to fit the agenda of both faith-based and state schools.

Service learning is all about uniting pedagogical objectives with social responsibility. As Edwards describes, “Service learning pays attention not only to a circumstance or situation of need, through practical action and relational engagement, but seeks also to develop an understanding of why these situations of need exist.”

Edwards believes that combining the experience of being with others with academic engagement results in greater participation and richer learning for students.

He gives the example of a school trip to visit people who live in subsistence conditions in Manila, where numerous curriculum links could be developed – the geography of the Philippines, for example, its socio-economic and political dimensions, the challenges of international aid, the study of a literary work with origins in this context, and so on.

Service learning programmes can be informed by clear pedagogical objectives. As Edwards describes, “That is, an understanding of education that appreciates that fundamental principles such as justice, inequality, and access to resources cannot be understood in purely abstract terms but must be experienced through participation, engagement, and practice.”

Programmes can also emanate from a school’s foundational purpose – a faith tradition, for example, or perhaps the ethical commitment of the school. Or a programme can be motivated simply by a desire to be a “good corporate citizen”.

The driving reason behind the service learning programme helps give direction to strategies for implementation.

“A compelling reason based on the faith tradition of the school will have different implementation strategies to one based on pedagogical reasons. However, both will have their own integrity.”

A faith-based school might draw on the teaching of a Church or the traditions of Chapel, whereas a school embarking on a programme with the “good corporate citizen” motivation might see assemblies, classroom curriculum linkages, professional, philanthropic, and corporate speakers as more appropriate strategies.

Social workers in schools

The Social Workers in Schools (SWiS) initiative does what it says on the tin: it is a school-based social work service, aimed at bringing together a young person’s home and school life. The free and completely voluntary service provides assistance and intervention to students when social or family circumstances are creating a barrier to their education, health or social development.

SWiS social workers are employed by NGO social service providers and work in partnership with school staff as part of the school community usually in low-decile primary and intermediate schools.

The first results based accountability survey of students, parents and teachers in November 2011 by Family Works Northern (a significant SWiS provider with 52 SWiS in over 70 schools), found that children’s wellbeing and engagement with school increased. Teachers also reported that it allowed them to concentrate on teaching.

Overlap with health

The SWiS programme is significant as it begins to bridge the gap between education and health. The recent initiatives around providing food in low decile schools fall into the same category.

The Green Party’s recent proposal to put a nurse in every low decile primary and intermediate school in New Zealand takes this one step further.

However, Health Minister Tony Ryall says public health nurses already spend significant time at low-decile primary schools around the country, with district health boards funding the equivalent of 280 full-time public health nurses to work in primaries and intermediates. Plans are also in place to increase the number of nurses in decile 3 secondary schools.

Some low-decile schools feel the current allocation isn’t enough, with many students failing to get the proper medical attention, resulting in a lack of engagement, attendance, and underachievement.

Otahuhu College, a decile one secondary school in South Auckland, found success in improving coordination between pastoral care and health systems. According to the Ministry of Education’s website, the school developed a health and wellness centre on-site for students and families to access health care, social workers, pastoral care, and career counsellors. The school also initiated an assessment of year 9 students in 2009 covering their home environment and health issues. This identified a number of issues that were not known to teachers such as poverty, overcrowding, gang links, mental health issues and general health issues. This helped the school to understand the wider issues facing its students and work constructively towards better student engagement.

The question, not just for politicians, is where does the school’s role begin and end with regards to the health and wellbeing of its students? It is certainly not a new dilemma, and every school will have its own culture and policies on these sorts of decisions. However, most tend to agree that unless students are physically, emotionally, and socially healthy, they are unlikely to engage with what they are being taught in the classroom. Pastoral and health care are important issues for young people and a school’s provision and attitude towards these aspects will no doubt reflect in the levels of student engagement and academic achievement outcomes.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here