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Vertical Tutoring in schools: at last a panacea?

By Peter Barnard - posted Monday, 12 December 2011

When children enter our secondary high schools, they enter a world that can shape their lives forever. To guide them and to ensure their safe passage, schools put in place a single teacher who takes an overview of progress. In the UK this is a tutor, in the USA a home group teacher and in France, a principle teacher and so on. The child invariably joins a tutor group or home class of around 25-28 same age peers (eg Year 7s or Grade 10s).

For decades, schools have struggled to make this system work and the role of this person has been constantly changed, re-titled, re-launched and had new responsibilities attached. Many are asked to deliver a personal and social education programme; others have seen tutor time downgraded to a damage limitation exercise. At the same time we are witness to increases in gang membership, bullying, alcohol abuse, STDs, teenage pregnancies, law-breaking, depression, self harming and so forth. Kids in the UK are said to be the unhappiest in Europe and have the lowest self esteem. The role of the tutor in horizontal systems has failed in catastrophic ways and this is not the fault of tutors or schools though there is fault. 

This weighty social and learning outcome problem has not gone unnoticed by schools or governments over the last 30 years. The reaction has been to shore up a broken system with a myriad of system fixes. These include citizenship programmes, Sex Education, increases in PSHE (personal, social and health) programmes, relationship teaching, SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning) and even ‘happiness’ teaching. Any glance back on the road travelled reveals a wasteland of expensive and abandoned initiatives and failure.


Some 25 years ago, two UK Headteachers acting on gut responses and a belief that schools are service providers began to rethink the critical role of the personal tutor but it is only in the last five that a solid intellectual base to support that work has been established. Both took the old ‘House’ systems (mixed age groups) and upgraded the tutor role as the key to school improvement and the hub of the school as an organisation (front office). They began by establishing mixed-age tutor groups throughout their schools (Vertical Tutoring) and they never looked back. They established two outstanding schools. While many countries are familiar with this basic approach few understand how it works and how to make schools fly! VT now has a clear rational and in 25 years nobody has ever been able to give me a single substantive criticism as to why every school should not adopt VT practice!

The most rapidly growing organic change in the UK to the way schools operate as learning organisations is Vertical Tutoring (VT). It is estimated that in the last five years, about 800+ high schools have decided that VT holds many of the answers to the challenges and criticisms schools continue to face. It has been my joy to train 300 of these (what else do you do with retirement?). This number is increasing rapidly and will reach a tipping point within the next three years. Many schools see VT as the only real means of escape from a factory system that has dominated government thinking for too long.

VT now has a clear organisational rationale and is driven by values and management principles which, when understood by schools, can dramatically and positively affect outcomes and impact positively on the quality of teaching and learning faster and more effectively than any of the usual methods. It is this knowledge background that remains untaught to teachers and to teacher leaders. Indeed, ‘leadership’ as a concept has now been increasingly separated out from the system and this is a mistake. VT is not an area that schools can ‘make their own’ though many try. Its construction is simple and universal. To understand why this is so requires a second look at the horizontal organisation of schools (year systems).

When looked at closely through a systems thinking lens, it is easy to see that schools that operate through horizontal year systems (especially in the delivery of pastoral care) are actually built on a series of false assumptions and ideas. My in-depth work with 300+ high schools revealed the following characteristics without exception:

  • Teacher quality is not the problem we think it is; a year system that undermines teaching and learning is
  • Schools have relabelled management roles but these do not reflect what teachers / managers do
  • Schools are highly complex but there has been no workforce reform
  • Everyone is doing everyone else’s job especially in the pastoral domain
  • Schools respond to complexity by creating ‘back-office’ bureaucracies and close down ‘front office’ learning support processes (the tutor)
  • Schools have killed, not enhanced, the personal tutor: it is this that has disabled schools as organisations
  • There has never been a time when ‘every child’  has mattered less than now
  • There is no parent partnership worthy of the name in schools: parents are not partners
  • Year-based systems don’t work logistically, have never worked and cannot be made to work
  • The belief that learning  programmes are the key to changing behaviour is a false belief
  • 50% of the damage done to teaching and learning occurs during school induction processes

There is no shortage of leadership in schools and no shortage of magnificent teachers. Schools work hard and what makes them astonishing is their ability to make broken systems appear to work. But schools have become so complex with so many bolted on bits of curriculum repair and regulation that everyone seems to be doing the wrong job and job descriptions simply don’t work.  As complexity increases, staff sylos emerge and communications get tougher all round. So we add more targets, greater appraisal and more accountability: we measure and judge the wrong things in the wrong way, and so it all rolls on. Only VT offers a way managing these imposters and complexities.


What is actually missing from schools as organisations is knowledge about systems and how organisations best operate. This means that our higher education teacher and leader institutions are also doing the wrong things. Indeed, the UK has endless Leadership and Innovation Centres, think-tanks, researchers and advisors... doing and contributing what exactly? There is the same mismatch between high energy input costs and low change output! The bit in between, the system, doesn’t work. Schools spoon feed students to pass exams. Every one of the excellent Headteachers in the schools I have worked with seemed to say two things.

1. It is the relationship between staff and our young people that is important, which makes our school tick

2. Despite our superhuman efforts we don’t get the best from our students: we have to change what we do and how.

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Further reading:

‘Chaos, Culture and Third millennium Schools’ (2000)
‘Vertical Tutoring-notes on school management, learning relationships and school improvement’ (2010)

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About the Author

Peter is an ex school principal, consultant leader and widely recognised by schools as the national expert in school improvement in the UK. He has trained in China, UK, USA, and Germany.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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