February 2012


  • Fathoming governance
    Guidelines designed for college principals on how best to work with their self-governing boards may also offer useful insights for school leaders grappling with new-found independence, as John Smith explains. More
  • Vertigo
    The atmosphere is calmer, behaviour has improved, even results are up – Dorothy Lepkowska examines schools which have found that moving to mixed age or ‘vertical’ tutor groups has had a profound effect on school life. More
  • A healthier break
    Relying on snacks, cigarettes and alcohol to get you through another arduous working day? Susie Kearley has a better recipe for coping with stress. More
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The atmosphere is calmer, behaviour has improved, even results are up – Dorothy Lepkowska examines schools which have found that moving to mixed age or ‘vertical’ tutor groups has had a profound effect on school life.


The influx of 260 or so year 7 pupils every September creates the usual upheaval at Washwood Heath Technology College, Birmingham. As at any secondary school, the new intake has to adjust to the daily workings of a new school, cope with being the youngest and smallest, and adapt to changes of classrooms and teachers for every lesson.

But for the past three years, instead of grouping pupils by age in form groups for registration, the school has introduced vertical tutoring with tutor groups of around 20 students drawn from all years, with the result that the first few weeks have been calmer and smoother.

The structure is being employed by an increasing number of schools to improve pastoral care, offer greater responsibility to pupils and instil a sense of belonging among the student community.

Bev Mabey, head of Washwood Heath, says: “The main reason we introduced it was to improve student leadership. We organised the pupils into five houses, each of which has 13 tutor groups, with roughly four pupils from each year and occasionally a sixth former, led by a head of house. We have reduced the number of pupils per teacher to around 20 rather than 30 by every member of staff becoming a form tutor, including support staff.”

Siblings are always members of the same house but not the same tutor group. For parents it means liaising with one head of house rather than several different heads of year under the previous system.

“The heads of house know all the pupils so they know there is someone in the school apart from their form tutor who is looking out for them, and knows all about them and their strengths and weaknesses.”

Student role models

Bev admits there was some resistance to the changes among staff to begin with but it was managed by involving everyone in the development of the new structure, including sending them on visits to other schools where vertical tutoring had already been successfully implemented.

“They came back and reported the benefits they had seen,” she says. “We convinced everyone of the merits by focusing on the benefits it would bring in terms of student leadership. We have worked very hard on targeting students as role models, while at the same time the tutors put mentoring into an academic framework because they know about each student.”

Every tutor has an hour of contact time every week with four students in their group on a rotation basis. It means each student gets 15 minutes’ individual attention every half-term to discuss important issues such as their progress.

“This regular dialogue has helped to raise aspirations because students know where they are and where they need to be heading with their work,” says Bev. “They know there is nowhere to hide and, crucially, that there is a point of reference for them and support through thick and thin, whether academic, social or pastoral. Year 7s settle in very quickly now as the older pupils act as buddies.”

The school environment is now calmer and there has been a reduction in behaviour problems.

Says Bev: “Our fixed-term exclusions have gone down by two-thirds and this is because there is now a sense of belonging in the school and people looking out for you. In truth, it is quite difficult to find anything negative about vertical tutoring.”

Sworn to secrecy

Sean Hayes, head of St John Fisher School, in Peterborough agrees. The school reorganised last June following the departure of years 11 and 13, so that the structure was up and running efficiently for September.

“As a Catholic school we prided ourselves on the pastoral side already but we wanted to make it better,” he says. “We spent a great deal of time looking into it as a school and planning until we were absolutely sure we were going down the right road.”

The process took about six months in all, during which students and staff visited other schools where it was in place and reported back with suggestions of what might and would not work at St John Fisher. “In the end it was difficult to see any negative so we went with it,” says Sean.

The school was organised into four houses, each of which has a head of house and nine vertical tutor groups of about 20 students, split roughly equally from years 7 to 13.

Crucially, much of the planning stage was spent deciding which child should be in which house and tutor group. Each has a balance of pupils of academic ability, aptitude in fields such as sport, drama and music and special needs to ensure equity. Some children were separated from friends, while others were kept together – depending on what was best for them.

“We posted up pupils’ names for the staff to see and to allow changes to be made if necessary,” Sean says. “The staff were sworn to secrecy so that no pupil found out before any other which house or group they were in.”

In June last year, year 10s met their new tutor and over the next week each year group was absorbed into the new structure, including the incoming year 6 pupils who would be arriving in September.

“We began with year 10 as they were the ones most affected by the changes,” Sean says. “They were in established tutor and friendship groups so if it was going to be difficult for anyone it would be that cohort.

“We stressed their role was key to the process working effectively. They were the senior students to which others would look for guidance and support. The messages got through. There were no objections from the staff, probably because by the time we got to implementation everyone was convinced we were doing the right thing. A key point for us came when we had a staff meeting to discuss the changes and no one could find a single negative thing to say about vertical tutoring.”

Dramatic changes

The changes brought about by vertical tutoring at St John Fisher have been “dramatic”, he says. “There is a completely different atmosphere in the school and instead of groups of year 9s, for example, wandering around the school dragging their heels, mixed age groups encourage everyone to be present and on time. The school is quieter and more ordered, and behaviour has improved. There are now far fewer detentions and suspensions.

“Overall, the students have been very positive. We have had one or two complaints about spending less time with their friends but fewer than we thought.”

At all-girls Whalley Range School, in Manchester, year 7s have been among the main beneficiaries of vertical tutoring, according to Patsy Kane, the headteacher. But the system has also helped staff manage their workload.

“It allows the tutor to focus on different age groups, so for example, they have only five or six year 11s worrying about their mocks, rather than 30. It makes the pastoral care slightly easier and students get a more personalised approach.

“Similarly, on the first day of the new school year tutors get to know their year 7s very quickly as there is only a handful of them. Normally it might have taken most of the term for them to get to know everyone but having fewer learners of this age makes it easier as this responsibility is shared across the staff. The older girls take the younger ones around the school to show them where everything is and help to settle them in.

“We have found that year 7s are not so daunted by the prospect of a new school so they settle quickly and generally it makes the whole school a friendlier and more caring community. For older girls it provides opportunities for leadership and as a school you do need to provide these. You often hear the older girls saying how sweet the new cohort is, which provides a completely different dynamic in the school, of older students looking out for and befriending the younger ones.”

Sense of community

Vertical tutoring was implemented to create a greater sense of community within the school, where every girl felt wanted, nurtured and cared for.

“We wanted to create a warmer feeling, and we now get fewer instances of older pupils lording it over younger ones,” says Patsy. “We also have a house system and each is named after an influential female role model.

“When we get visitors from other schools they comment how friendly our school is.”

She admits that some were initially resistant to the changes and reluctant to give up a tutor group they had got to know and love over many years, but all have now come round. And she attributes, at least in part, improvements in GCSE results to the new school structure.

“Attendance has improved and the more caring environment means students want to come to school and take responsibility for themselves and others,” she adds.

“This system has also been good for staff who might otherwise only have taught Key Stage 4 and 5, as they now know students from lower down the school.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.