‘The value of working in partnership to develop pastoral care within schools’

Posted on: 03 Jun 2020

Robin Southwell-Sander, director of partnerships at Abingdon School, explores how staff and students from both sectors have benefited from an innovative peer mentoring scheme.

A chance discussion between myself and a colleague from John Mason School (one of our local partner schools) has led to the creation of the Abingdon School in Partnership cross-town peer support programme. The programme uses partnerships to help enhance the existing provision of pastoral care in senior schools across the town. Sixth form students from Abingdon, St Helen and St Katharine, Larkmead, John Mason and Fitzharrys School are selected and trained to mentor Key Stage 3 and 4 students in their own schools. Lower sixth students apply to become Peer Support Leads (PSLs) at the end of term four, with numbers ranging from 10-15 per school. A rigorous application and interview process (this year mostly via Zoom) follows and once selection has taken place, training occurs with the help and expertise of Debbie Lee, a trained counsellor and mentor of the late Nick Luxmoore, who was instrumental in helping us set up the scheme.

Putting students from different schools together and forcing them to confront challenging scenarios in front of strangers is invariably the making of them, and this training helps them to form bonds and friendships. The fact that students come from a variety of different schools and backgrounds ensures the experience is both varied and invaluable, as the mentors explore techniques around non-judgemental listening and counselling skills. These skills help to embed peer mentoring within school life across the whole town, while working with colleagues and students from other institutions provides the opportunity to learn from others. In addition, it is worth noting:

“Well-managed peer supporters will do good work with specific individuals and groups but their greater contribution to a school will be subversive, making it normal for friendly relationships to be happening everywhere, regardless of age and other differences between people.” (Luxmoore, 2000)

Once trained, the PSLs become an integral part of their own school's pastoral support network. PSLs perfect the skill of ‘creative loitering’ where they hang around at key locations during the school day, slowly building rapport with younger students. This patient relationship building is crucial for younger students to feel confident enough to open up as and when necessary. Throughout the year, PSLs reunite for twilight training sessions, where they compare experiences, understand how to spot signs of mental health issues and identify appropriate support strategies. To get a better understanding of the wide ranging and holistic benefits of this unique scheme, here are some testimonies from those involved:

Natalie Uzzell, deputy head of sixth at John Mason School: ‘Since the Peer Support Scheme was launched we have had over 47 students from Years 7-10 who have accessed the programme, which alone speaks volumes for the success of the project. The 19 PSLs have dealt with and nurtured younger students so professionally, that we have had several success stories where students have come full circle and no longer feel the need for additional support. As a result of such success, the Peer Support Scheme has now become embedded within the whole school pastoral system at John Mason School, after being recognised as a vital support system for both students and staff.

An instrumental part of the project has been the partnership element. First and foremost having the opportunity to participate within the scheme alongside Abingdon School, and being able to offer training to students at JMF6 has proved to be an integral part of their education and development within sixth form. The partnership has allowed myself as a member of staff to learn and develop practice, and it has also allowed students to interact and form valuable relationships, letting individuals share ideas and experiences of the Peer Support Scheme; I feel that this has not only developed their training and experience, but also been vital for their wellbeing. The success of this project has been immeasurable for students at JMS and I am excited to see how the new cohort continue to benefit from this invaluable scheme.’

The impact of mentoring on younger students can be particularly valuable. A Year 11 student from Abingdon said:

‘The chat with my PSL really helped me as he gave me a clear understanding of what I should be doing over Easter and into the run in to my exams. I think his words were especially helpful as he is a fellow student who did his GCSEs relatively recently and thus his experience was relatable and the advice he gave was relevant and appropriate for the situation.’

A Year 7 pupil from John Mason School added:

‘Having a PSL to meet and talk to has made me feel like I have someone at school to help me and tell things that I might not find easy to tell a teacher or friend. My PSL helped me settle into JMS and worked on my reading with me as well as talk about friendships and other things I found difficult. We were also allowed to walk Rory the school therapy dog, which I always looked forward to because it made our meetings feel less serious and allowed me to talk to my support lead without getting embarrassed.’

The Peer Support Leads themselves have also gained hugely from the experience. An Abingdon upper sixth pupil said:

‘The programme has been a huge benefit to me during my last year of school. I have learned life skills such as listening skills and counselling skills that I know will come into use at university and later in life. It was great to work with other schools in Abingdon and get a grasp of the different problems we all encounter. I am extremely grateful for the whole experience.’

An upper sixth student from John Mason School added:

‘Being a PSL has made such a difference to my outlook on not only sixth form but also school. It was something I would have really valued as a younger student so I was so glad to be a part of it and get trained up to help other students. To begin with it was hard to go into unknown situations and discuss sensitive issues with young students, however with the training from Nick and meeting the other PSLs it really helped me gain confidence in knowing what to say and when not to say anything and just listen. From a self-development aspect, it really improved and helped my confidence skills as well as my time management of having to organise time for studies and younger students, as well as my listening skills. I think the project has been a really beneficial part of our school as we were so busy and lots of students engaged within the project - I hope it carries on and continues to help younger students, just as we did during our time as PSLs.’

Having surveyed the outgoing Peer Support Leads, 100% found the experience worthwhile and enjoyable and would recommend it to a peer. The number of applicants for the role has increased from less than 40 in year one across five schools to over 70 in year two, laying the foundations for what will hopefully be a sustainable and beneficial cross-town mentoring scheme for years to come.

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A PSL from Abingdon School mentoring Year 11 students as they approach their GCSE mocks, helping them with time management and supporting those with anxiety and concerns

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An upper sixth student sharing their experience and offering advice to their peers on developing leadership and communication skills

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About Robin Southwell-Sander

Robin Southwell-Sander is director of partnerships at Abingdon School.