Having worked in schools during my training, and after conversations with many members of staff informally, I was aware of their work with this vulnerable group of children and the gap in our knowledge about how they experience this. I was curious about it, so I interviewed eight pastoral support leads in mainstream schools and asked them to reflect on their experiences. I offered them a conversation of about an hour, and prepared some questions on the topic.
I found there were four main themes that came out of all my interviews. Firstly, pastoral support leads felt really compelled to care for the children, giving them a safe space and helping the school team to understand students’ circumstances within the limits of ‘need to know’, which differs from school to school.
“One of the things I find sad about this, is that not everybody understands how mental health works, and that outside factors can really have an effect on things like behaviour, and so [a] family [gets] labelled as the troublesome family.” – Pastoral Support Lead
Then, I found that the pastoral support leads had to journey, not just with the children, but with whole families, and with parents’ mental health varying each day, which can be really challenging. I’d had my suspicions that this was the case, but it was powerful to hear this first hand.
“Ultimately if we’re not kind of working with the parents, and they’re not willing for you to work with them, it’s detrimental for the child then isn’t it, as it has a huge impact on them.” – Pastoral Support Lead
Those interviewed also felt like there was an expectation on them to find solutions – the phrase that kept coming up was “wearing many hats”. They had to support the children emotionally and with their attainment, while also considering parental well-being, and other forms of support when services weren’t necessarily there to help. Finally, I discovered that they felt quite frustrated and fearful. Often, they felt alone in having to contain all of the difficulties this group of children experienced and there was a huge emotional toll for them. They worried that they’d missed critical safeguarding points and a sense of responsibility for the children they worked with weighed heavily. They often expressed not having had the time before these interviews to reflect on how they felt about what they were doing, highlighting a real need for staff in schools to have access to support that helps them to process their own feelings about some of these really challenging situations.
There’s a lot of scope to extend this research beyond my small sample, and it would be a really fascinating project. The critical thing to say is that there really does need to be some systemic change, nationally, from the government, if we’re to see a real difference in this area.