Vertical Tutoring Principles

Author: Peter Barnard

The key changes, themes and inherent principles of Vertical Tutoring:

1. Enhance Human Relationships

Vertical Tutoring is actually about Schools as Organisations and the way schools operate. It is a means of changing the organisational culture of schools into what they always wanted to be: places where learning is centrally placed and where all stakeholders (students, staff, parents and the wider community) can contribute more equally to the learning and support process. It is in fact a contribution to Systems Thinking and the philosophy of organisations which places people at the heart of all decisions and where the ownership of learning is better shared. The principle here is to ensure that all partners involved in learning play their part. This changes the way the school operates and reveals current ‘partnerships’ to be superficial and even negative. Vertical tutoring ensures that students have time and support to be the citizens we need them to be by ensuring that they are an integral part of the communications conduit and are valued for their input (co-construction). At the heart of all organisations are conversations between creative people. Vertical Tutoring as a concept attempts to encourage, capture and nurture these ‘affective learning relationships’ and build new management structures around them (transformation) that effectively changes macro bureaucracies into micro systems. Contained in these relationships is the notion that schools can greatly support family life, raise self-esteem and ensure that every child matters.

2. Enhance Creative Use of Data and information

Variation prevents quality from being built into processes so its management is critical. Learning is informed by data and information. Data is comparative and statistical in form and requires other information sources from parents, teachers and others to be effective and to make sure that there is the best possible oversight and support for ‘the whole’ child. Data on its own is deeply flawed and can alienate students and parents (undermine quality). Vertical Tutoring without good data and information capture misses the organisational and operational point of partnership. Learning conversations raise important questions about data and place high value on parent, student and tutor input. That discussion (‘deep’ conversation or academic tutorial) uses data creatively to better plan the learning process and the learning journey. Parents and students have stories to tell and VT ensures that time is invested to listen (manage variation). Information lights the way forward. This is the real heart of ‘student voice’. Data is not a series of numbers and letters but must include stories of learning and full teacher comments so that the right questions can be asked and good answers sought. Without these, there is no humanity in the learning relationships we need. This establishes an information market around ‘front offices’ and new (transformational) management support structures.

3. Enhance Personal Curriculum

It is the discussion between the many voices involved in the learning processes, including subject teachers, tutors, students and parents which should define and shape a more personalised curriculum and allow individual human potential (not just that of the student but of staff and parents too) to develop. It is the many stories of the many journeys by so many students and their parents that should be the main drivers of learning. However, schools must listen to parental and student learning stories and be able to respond. It is these stories of learning that should inspire curriculum development alongside a national learning and achievement framework. Again, there is a need to transform management as learning rightly becomes more bespoke. The notion of ‘breadth and balance’ was always a strange idea as was the falsehood of ‘entitlement’: both need individualised definition. However, it begins with teaching kids to read and do sums over and above any access to some perceived curriculum programme.

4. Enhance Teaching and Learning

VT and Systems Thinking indicate that our current view of teaching and learning has become narrowly focused around the classroom. Teachers have been isolated from the system and have been wrongly led to believe that their performance and student outcomes are entirely down to them. Parents, tutors, other students and staff are all teachers and all have a responsibility for performance. A VT school changes the culture by ensuring that learning is an operational process that recognises and supports all of the characters involved. It joins the school up by establishing the importance of ‘front office’ thinking and the critical role of tutor, parents and peers. By re-gearing the organisation, students feel more equipped to engage in learning and teaching is better facilitated and improves. As things stand teachers face the challenge of building learning relationships against a background of time pressure, coverage and support systems that are upside down.

5.Enhance Care

There was never a time when ‘every child did not matter!’ What has been a fault was a ‘soft’ and simplistic view of care (pastoral) in schools that is too often separated from learning; a safety net to catch those who fall. Vertical Tutoring seeks to redefine ‘care’ in a deeper sense. It goes beyond bolt-on structural fixes. VT ensures that the wider ‘village’ sees care holistically and especially in support for learning. Effectively, pastoral and academic bureaucracies are replaced by a learning synergy whereby deep care is implicit. To do this the tutor must return to being an active advocate and mentor. Learning and care in a vertically tutored school go hand in hand. Indeed all descriptors move from abused semantics and assumptions to reality, and this too should transform management.

6. Enhance Leadership

Growing leaders in school is an essential activity. Paradoxically, if we concentrated far more on providing endless leadership opportunities for students, improved staff leadership would automatically follow. Thus, ‘Citizenship’ was never a ‘subject’ to be studied as such but is in essence, the way we run our schools and the way we care for and involve each other and help each other make good decisions. Leadership, almost by definition, is best developed in the safety of mixed-age groups that some call ‘family’, and vertical groupings greatly enhance leadership opportunities and trust as core human values. All students have to be given leadership opportunities and training to provide confidence and raise self-esteem. This leads to greater empathy, reciprocity and those virtues that improve engagement with learning, in order that they become the citizens that we need them to be and they want to be.

7. Enhance Student Voice

Our view of ‘student voice’ is hugely constrained in horizontal systems because organisational thinking is so inconsiderate and bureaucratic. We need to move beyond councils and the representative voice, right and proper though these may appear to be, to hearing every student’s voice. In essence, we must broaden the concept so that each individual voice is heard. Even that is not enough. Parents too need to be heard and to be engaged in the deep conversations that our complex and fast moving society ignores. Vertical Tutoring nurtures and ensures such engagement that encourages the conversations, that listens to the voices, that enables the organisation to respond. It is a virtuous circle. All voices are heard but this can only happen when time is re-invested in people. From a simple conversation, we need to re-grow and re-nurture student voice and this too transforms management. Each vertical tutor group is a perfect school council. Rather than see Student Voice as a separate representative system, it might be better developed as one that is integrated into the learning process but this means VT must be properly implemented first.

8 .Enhance the Academic Tutorial

At the heart of Vertical Tutoring is the Academic Tutorial or Deep Learning Conversation. This is when the tutor (the school) meets with parents and the tutee at a critical learning time with all the relevant information there. It is an investment in people unrestricted by bells and time constraints. Vertical tutoring without the full academic tutorials misses the whole point completely and fails students, parents and staff. It is the key that releases and enhances learning if done properly. The academic tutorial time has no time restraints in a truly vertical system because the academic calendar spreads the engagement load over the year. It is this single act at critical learning times that is the single most important conversation in the school year. It is deep, reflective, positive and even spiritual and very much life-enhancing and learner friendly.

9. Enhance ‘Family’

For a child, to be an important member of a mixed age group (where all are engaged in support, mentoring and leadership at various times) has to be sensible in an age when the family, in so many cases, is in crisis or under pressure and society, toxic. It is natural for older students to take the responsibilities we invariably deny them in horizontal systems. VT also allows the tutor to be a healer and responsibilities we invariably deny them in horizontal systems. VT also allows the tutor to be a healer and help families by supporting them through tough times using the improved communication VT offers. Students are also members of Houses and the community beyond. In family type groups, the tutors can facilitate a place for everyone. It is simply safer, more natural and more fun. It is also more ‘educational’ and more achievement orientated and learner friendly. Of course, the demands on the tutor increase but only because of the need to ‘unlearn’ one system and engage with a more natural, relaxed and professional style. The tutor is head of family in school and needs to be the person kids need him/her to be. It was always that way but somehow got lost. Perhaps this is the real antidote to the gang and to rising levels of childhood anxiety.

10. Enhance Chaos

I wrote about this many years ago in ‘Chaos, Culture and Third Millennium Schools’ (still an excellent read!). Like quantum mechanics, learning and human relationships are complex and can form and reform in an instant. The system we currently have is all about control, regulation and targets which changes behaviour for the worse. It stultifies and dulls the spirit and can never capture creative learning because learning is human and chaotic. VT recognises the chaos of learning relationships as being creative, fun, full of change and rich in information. The skill is to use, and to make sense of chaos and innovate around it. VT creates operational systems that welcome and thrive on the challenges of learning.