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The pastoral purpose of schooling

Written By: Stephen Lane
4 min read

I am going to begin this piece with a bold statement: The overall purpose of schooling is pastoral. I know that this is likely to be regarded as a controversial statement, or one that is simply wrong. Some readers will wish to problematise the obvious false dichotomy that I seem to have presented between the academic and the pastoral. Others will wish to mount a defence of the academic as the ultimate goal of schooling – to ‘make kids cleverer’ (see, for example, Didau, 2019). Others still will seek to establish that economic goals actually drive schooling.

The first point – that there is a false dichotomy at the heart of my claim – was one of the responses I gained in July 2020 when I posted a poll on Twitter that asked respondents to choose between ‘academic’ and ‘pastoral’ in relation to the ‘overriding purpose of schooling’. It was, of course, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek poll that nonetheless flagged up a couple of points I’d like to make.

Firstly, whilst the binary presented in that poll may seem divisive, the dichotomy does exist in schools. This is evident in the two main strands of management hierarchies in schools: we have heads of department and heads of year; members of senior leadership teams (SLT) who are responsible for academic aspects, and those who are responsible for pastoral aspects; even the role and responsibilities of form tutors is somehow seen as different from those of classroom teachers. Whilst most schools and teachers will emphasise the braided nature of the academic and pastoral aspects of schooling, and many SLT posts will include elements of each, it remains the case that the academic and the pastoral are distinct, albeit complimentary, strands of schooling.

Secondly, the results of the poll clearly show that the vast majority of respondents – 85.8 per cent in fact – feel that (between the two) the overriding purpose of schooling is academic. This would seem to make sense given the ultimate, measurable, outcomes of the schooling process: exam results. This prominence of the academic, measurable purpose of schooling is evident in much of the discourses that we see in education debates. But, to draw on Martin Robinson’s (2019) analogy, seeing the purpose of schooling in these measurable terms is to worship at the feet of the machine, which demands data and regulation, while being blind to Athena – the goddess of philosophy, courage and inspiration.

I am a huge advocate of the increasing calls for teaching to develop research and evidence informed practices. Most of the time, what we see being discussed in this arena is approaches to pedagogy and matters of curriculum. These are vital. But there does seem to be a paucity of research discourse around the pastoral. And yet, when we interrogate what people really see as being the purpose of schooling we often find a pastoral outcome. We might wish young people to develop a sense of personal wellbeing, to be healthy, to be economically or financially secure, to be able to form solid relationships. We might also seek to enable children to encounter ‘the best that has been thought and said’ through a knowledge-rich curriculum – but why? Why do we want children to experience these encounters? Why do we want them to engage in the great conversations of humankind?

Ultimately, the reason is that we want to help children to grow into well-rounded individuals. One of the replies to my Twitter poll said that agency is the goal and I responded by saying this was perhaps the best expression of the aim of schooling I’ve seen. We want students to have agency. But this is, of course, a pastoral aim.

We can look to Aristotle’s eudaimonia as perhaps the earliest rendering of this pastoral aim of schooling: ‘the condition of human flourishing or of living well’. This is desirable as an end in itself, and schooling is a complex set of processes which should have this as their ultimate goal. We should realise the pastoral purpose of schooling, letting the machine serve Athena – seeking to set our students on the path to wisdom, for there lies flourishing.

This is not to diminish or sideline the academic. We must also have high academic expectations, rigour, strong pedagogy, and a knowledge-rich curriculum in order to achieve the pastoral aim of schooling. It is worth noting that the biggest experiment in social science was conducted in the field of education. The unfortunately named ‘Project Follow Through’ sought to test a range of interventions against three main measures: academic outcomes, problem-solving ability and self-esteem. The interventions aimed to improve one or more of these measures. In general, the interventions that aimed to improve academic scores did so. No surprises there. But there were two outcomes that are perhaps somewhat more surprising. Firstly, the interventions that aimed to improve academic outcomes also had a positive impact on measures of self-esteem. Secondly, interventions aimed at improving self-esteem either had no impact on that measure or, worryingly, a detrimental effect. The most resounding results were for Englemann’s Direct Instruction – a shamelessly academic intervention which had huge impacts on all three measures: academic, problem-solving and self-esteem (NIDI, n.d.). These results highlight the importance of high academic success for self-esteem – a key element of wellbeing. The upshot of this is that if we want our students to grow into confident, well-rounded adults and to have agency, then we need to ensure that we help them to experience academic success. Here we see the pastoral imperative for the academic.

In concluding, I would like to call upon Marland’s seminal 1974 book Pastoral Care which describes the ‘nature of the essentially pastoral work of a school’ while stressing that, ‘at the heart of the matter, there can be no pastoral/academic split’ (Marland, 1974, p.3). I discuss this further in my book Beyond Wiping Noses (Lane, 2020).

Key questions

  1. Is the purpose of schooling essentially pastoral or academic?
  2. What is the ultimate goal of schooling? What is it for?



Didau D (2019) Making Kids Cleverer: A Manifesto for Closing the Advantage Gap. Bancyfelin, Carmarthen, Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.

Lane S (2020) Beyond Wiping Noses: Building an Informed Approach to Pastoral Leadership in Schools. Bancyfelin, Carmarthen, Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.

Marland M (1974) Pastoral Care. London: Heinemann

NIDI (n.d.) Project Follow Through. Available from: (accessed 18 January 2020).

Robinson M (2019) Curriculum: Athena Versus the Machine. Bancyfelin, Carmarthen, Wales, UK: Crown House Publishing.


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