Vertical Tutoring: The Life Of A Deputy Headteacher

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How can a form tutor become the key person at school for each student and offer a deeper level of support for everyone?

This year, our school moved to vertical tutoring (VT) as a pastoral system, and for the first time in eight years I have become a form tutor again. Something I will blog about tomorrow. There are many reasons for our school moving towards the system, and if you’re not familiar with it, VT is well researched and advocated by Peter A. Barnard. In this post I share a brief overview of our research, rationale and how we have made the move.

School managers think that the change to VT is a skills problem limited to tutors. But what really has to change is the thinking of school leaders and managers. This is because it is the system in use that requires attention. Instead of leading from above, VT requires schools to be able to lead from the edge where the real value work is done. Peter A. Barnard.

Although it is too early to see the significance and improvements in academic progress, pastoral care and guidance, we can already see some shift in school culture and general behaviour. Form tutors now say tutor time is a pleasure, and students are increasingly managing – peer-led and peer-reviewing – one another. I have to say, it is a joy to watch, feel and hear on the corridors. You can ‘hear a pin drop’ and classroom doors are open …


My colleague and deputy headteacher, first floated the idea back in September 2014 when we both started working together at the school. Throughout the past 18 months, results have improved year on year and the VT ‘seed was sown’ (and sometimes joked about). Gradually, the concept was discussed in more and more depth.

Some of the conclusions we developed were:

  • How can we become a school with a strong sense of community amongst the whole student body?
  • How can the tutor become the key person at school for each student, and offer a deeper level of support for everyone?
  • How can students play a much more significant role in the day-to-day life of the school?

Students are educated in batches, according to age, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. Sir Ken Robinson

It was only in March/April 2016 when we initially launched the idea to senior leaders and heads of year formally. The meeting was a moment to remember to say the least! Two or three weeks later, we presented the vision to governors and staff, sharing concerns and the logistics of how it would all work. Finally, students and parents were informed in June 2016 and VT was now in full-motion. At all levels and at every stage along the way, timelines, concerns and research was well-documented and presented at a level of detail I have never, ever seen before. For this, our headteacher is second-to-none.

Behind the scenes, the pastoral staff carefully began the process of dividing the students into groups that were to be called ‘communities’. Community is one of our key values which again transpired from lengthy consultation 3+ years ago at all levels. Tutor groups were designed around the most vulnerable, siblings and looked-after children to name a few, then academic progress, behaviour and so on. All staff had a say and were regularly asked to comment on students and/or groups.

I was even concerned about the short turnaround to get ready and have everyone on board. Our school ties had to be re-designed and other communications needed updating in handbooks and on the school website. But, I should never have worried.

From the start, ‘vertical tutoring will enable a deeper connection between students and the school and with each other’. Almost one month in, we can now see the school becoming one community and we know the real test will be the results of our efforts in November and February when the ‘silly season’ in school starts to offer slippage. I spoke with a senior teacher this week, and we both agreed that this is perhaps one of the most significant moments in our career, albeit the first time we have both been part of this seismic shift.


Over time, we hope that students will increasingly self-regulate their choices, begin to converse in communities and groups – not defined by their age – with relationships being at the heart of our pastoral system, supported by our strong school values. ‘There are already excellent examples of mixed-age experiences such as the whole-school production, the residential trip and extra-curricular clubs.’ When students from different year groups get together they enjoy these opportunities, the school culture thrives and students model the school’s values to an exemplary standard.

So, why can we not have this in everything we do?

The way we are currently organised is insufficiently conducive to developing a sense of whole school community. In effect we have at least seven separate and linear schools as each year group is organised separately in both curriculum and pastoral terms.

Our behaviour for learning policy continues to support whatever structures we have in place, but with our curriculum being re-designed from the bottom-up and our student surveys highlighting the need for our students to be made ‘more aware’ of who they can go to for help, our internal data suggested we needed to do something differently. All staff have received training and our year 11s have taken part in leadership and mentoring training. Our support staff are also being looked after and our aim is to re-visit ‘vertical tutoring’ as a professional development theme throughout the year.


In every year group there are approximately 220 students. Across the school, these students are divided in 5 communities, named after well-known streets in London, voted by the students through a number of polls. The school pastoral system is set up in the following way:

Communities Vertical Tutoring

  • 5 communities
  • 5 heads of community
  • 1 or 2 pastoral assistants to each head of community
  • 55 form tutors.
  • 11 form tutors in one community
  • 55 co-tutors, made up from senior teachers, support, admin. catering and cleaning support staff.
  • 11 co-tutors in each community, attached to every form tutor.
  • 20 – 22 students in each form class, each with 4 students from each year group (years 7 – 11)

Want to know more?

If you are interested in what, why and how we are going about this, then leave your thoughts in the comment section below. I will then collate all the emails into one place and contact you with a number of potential dates you may wish to visit the school to see it all in action. This may be something we offer in the summer of 2017.


18 thoughts on “Vertical Tutoring: The Life Of A Deputy Headteacher

  1. Great to see! VT is a no brainer when the theme of community is espoused within a schools ethos and values. It offers so many opportunities for young people and staff to develop strong, trusting and lasting relationships. It also lends itself to peer to peer support systems which can effectively act as an additional filter of student’s problems (which, in turn clog up pastoral staff time) but also creates a powerful additional early warning system.

    There are many other benefits you are clearly well aware of but it’s important to highlight the easiest win-wins such as transition support, buddying of vulnerable, peer mentoring, study buddies, community activities, …. the list just goes on and on.

    Looking forward to updates!

      1. Hi…there are no flaws! What there is are implementation problems caused by an unwillingness to ask. Training and advice is free but few schools take advantage to learn more especially about the systems thinking and psychology underpinning VT. Schools that mess-up try do so because they ASSUME VT is just mixing up the kids and staff!

      1. Hi
        You shared a post on a website
        Assuming you’ve seen this Ross?
        Please could I see this link
        In process of introducing vertical tutor groups to our school in South Africa. Thank you

  2. I worked in a school with VT, and really enjoyed it. I’m assuming that your school has quite a stable intake numbers, but the only problem we had was related to pupil numbers. In a non-VT school if there are only enough pupils to fill 8 tutor groups instead of the 9 that you’d normally have, that’s what you do, and you then have a ‘spare’ member of staff. Our school’s numbers started going down, but we still had to split the smaller numbers between the VT groups, having 2 or 3 year 7s instead of 4/5. There was no reduction in staff needed (even though we were going through redundancies to make the workforce smaller). This also made the VT unbalanced, and it started to not work as well.
    Another thing I also wanted to do with my VT when I had it, was introduce some ‘nurture group’ type activities: toast and juice in the morning around a table talking about what they’d done at the weekend etc. I don’t know if Nurture groups are like Brain Gym that are out of fashion, but some of what they seemed to be teaching were ‘old fashioned family/British values’!
    Hope it works really well for you. I certainly enjoyed being a tutor for one!

  3. Really pleased to read this. I am always happy to talk to and advise schools that wish to understand VT is a deeper systems sense. Don’t hesitate to get in touch…most of what I do is free of charge nowadays.

  4. Having always taught in year groups, the idea of VT and the impact on student behaviour really interests me. How have the year leaders, now heads of community found the transition?

  5. Pingback: Teacher Punishment
  6. Hi,

    I am not sure if you as the author are still on here and working in a VT school, this being some years on. We have started to have conversations around VT and I have read a lot about them. I love the community element and the idea of developing leadership skills. I just have queries over practicalities such as how you work with Y9 on options choices and keep Y7 engaged in activities at the same time. Do you end up with multiple activities ongoing for the different year groups?

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