Three pastoral challenges: What would you do?

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
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Inclusion expert Daniel Sobel outlines three common pastoral challenges that he comes across in schools and discusses how he would approach each situation in order to achieve positive outcomes

In my role I get asked for advice on situations by headteachers on a daily basis and I want to share with you three recurring issues from recent months. The questions came from both primary and secondary mainstream schools as well as from multi-academy trusts and local authorities.

Parental demands

The challenge: "I have some parents who are demanding (on the verge of abusive) about their child’s SEN, asking for an ever-increasing provision beyond what we can afford or what is reasonable. Although we are praised for our SEN provision by Ofsted, we are accused of discriminating against their children. This issue is blowing out of all proportion and has spread to social media.”

There is an inherent problem with the way we think about SEN which is based on a deficit model: your child has identified needs and the school is the designated provider of the solution. This type of thinking leads to an inevitable clash between the "needer" and "provider".

Ultimately, the way the SEN system is set up is leading to these arguments. The way out of this vicious cycle is to rethink the whole relationship between parent and school around the student need.

You may need to do a bit of a restorative practice with some parents to help end the war and move on. Then try a different conversation. Try saying something like: “Your Charlie has many strengths and has some additional needs as well. How can we (together) best promote his independence?"

I say this, because what every child in mainstream schools needs as a rule is to become independent. By that I refer to finding ways of successfully navigating through or working with their additional need.

The common solution of using a teaching assistant "velcroed" to the child is the precise opposite of this idea. Fostering independence necessitates supporting the student to find ways of becoming self-able and reliant, and leaning on an adult will never achieve this.

This does not mean that a teaching assistant is not necessary, but that the notion of a teaching assistant sitting next to a child for a whole lesson is something that should be avoided.

In your conversation with the parents, write the words "promoting independence" down on the paper and try and answer the question of what an independent Charlie means. Any and all suggestions of interventions should be framed around this, considering carefully not what the provisions should be necessarily but what the impact of any provision might be on the goal of fostering his independence.


The challenge: "If a child brings in a knife to school should we permanently exclude them?"

There is of course a legal responsibility for you to ensure staff and students' safety and that means considering whether the student in question is a danger to themselves and/or others.

After any incident, you need to ask this question in the forum of a meeting and get it on the record. I am assuming you will have informed and spoken with the police and the home.

However, let us assume that this student is not the top dog in the local gang or wanted by Interpol, but a fairly average student who did something utterly stupid and out of character. You feel sure that they will never do this again. In this case, do you exclude?

I am no fan of exclusions even in the most challenging circumstances. The best schools I know do not exclude. They do not need to because their atmosphere is inclusive.

How to create an inclusive school is an article in itself, but an inclusive ethos often comes from the little things that create this atmosphere, like teachers standing in the hallways between lessons to help catch the eye of students and express care. It also comes from adapting the curriculum, pedagogy and classrooms to meet the needs of students, and through outstanding inclusive teaching and not withdrawing for "additional interventions".

I can tell you that if you exclude this student it will not be the deterrent to others that you might believe. Furthermore, expelling this student will not solve any of the reasons why they brought a knife into school in the first place. If anything, it may make them worse. So, the question I have for you is: how can you best "include" this student?

What does it take for you and your school to be the solution rather than part of the problem (kicking him down the road into someone else’s responsibility)? And by "include", I mean how can you address their needs? Well let’s find out…

Why did he bring a knife into school? Is there anything we can do to address his lack of security, his need to “fit in”, his cry for help, his idiocy for thinking it was “cool”, or whatever other reason surfaces for this act? Can we support this child to continue to be a child, under the safety of your umbrella?

And if someone on challenges this course of action with the question: would you be happy if your child was in the same school as him?

Well I would happier if this student had not been quickly vilified and sent down a conveyor belt of punitive attitudes and practices that leads them to the point where carrying a knife with intent is a logical step for them. I would rather my child was part of their solution, in the safety net of your caring school.

Interventions: Where do we begin?

The challenge: “There is so much (Pupil Premium or SEN or pastoral) work to do in changing the school, just where do we start? What do we prioritise? There is an anxiety to get all grades and issues to change in time for the next judgement or exam cycle. How do we do this firmly and calmly and yet get some quick wins?”

It is a bit like asking where the circle starts. There’s no obvious place: systems, information-sharing, understanding students and their needs, meeting their needs, finding the right provision, pedagogy, classroom management, teacher and parent attitudes and engagement, and so on. These are all interdependent and each aspect is only as good as the other factors in that list.

In a way, once you get going then the steps are easy to work out and involve refining and reviewing. It is getting started that can be the conundrum. Below are some rules to hekp you, following the "plan-do-review" cycle. Use these to kick-off any SEN, narrowing the gap or related project.

  • Identify a percentage of the cohort to work with rather than going for broke and trying to address all needs at once. Look at your hard data gaps and identify 30 per cent of that cohort by considering which of those students you have the best chance of success with and also by divvying up the numbers fairly to your best teachers. Think about having two to three students per class (or your best five to 10 teachers) and you should hit a significant percentage already.
  • Go and speak to those students and get your teachers and teaching assistants to do likewise. Ensure you know what their needs are. Make sure all SEN is identified and that the teachers and support staff are fully aware of these needs.
  • Make sure each student has a bespoke motivation. When it comes to rewarding and motivating your most challenging pupils, they will need something bespoke – something they come up with. You may be surprised when they tell you what motivates them.
  • Tackle the basics: where are they sitting in class, is the work at the right level, is the differentiation bespoke enough? Make sure teachers are fully supported in meeting the needs of this cohort. Is there specific CPD required to support your staff in tweaking their classroom practice? Can you change practices to ensure a better focus on these students? For example, just having these students' names live on the weekly agenda will begin to change things.
  • Call home every week with praise for these students. No, a generic text or email is simply not the same.
  • Give the student a role in the class and generate as much praise and encouragement as possible for the student. Ensure that all staff speak positively and encouragingly to this student. You want the student to feel like this is a time of blossoming and change for the best.
  • Support, encourage, scrutinise and praise staff regularly for their work with this particular cohort or individual students.


Interestingly, there is a theme in all of the key points above: relationships. I know this may seem obvious but sometimes it is worth restating that an organisation is made up of people and your school is only as good as the relationships you foster and ultimately harness.

The other central factor in all of the above is, of course, you – the headteacher. Your mental health and emotional availability is central to an atmosphere of success. Aloof autocrats can only get away with fear as a motivating factor for so long before you see the cracks and the ultimate demise (which usually takes the form of off-rolling and unofficial exclusions). Take care of yourself and your staff and you will be helping your students and their families at the same time.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. Daniel’s second book – Leading on Pastoral Care – is published by Bloomsbury Press. You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via

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