Who owns the child?

“As teachers and school leaders I have always thought we have two priorities; one is the health and safety of the child, and the second is the academic wellbeing of the child.”

Tom Bennett

It always helps to simplify ideas down to the simplest terms, stripping away the noise from the signal. Tom Bennett, interviewed by John Tomsett and included in his new book, does that in the quote above.

I doubt there are many teachers or school leaders who would argue with the basics of Tom Bennett’s point. When I was a fulltime teacher, and now as a headteacher, a large proportion of my time is spent working on issues around student welfare and student learning. The two are inescapably linked. Whether one ascribes to the details or not, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs clearly shows how making sure students feel safe and loved is essential if we want to be successful in the main part of our mission, which is to educate them. The how of this varies and it is in the how that the debate really lies.

9781785831683One of the reasons I enjoyed Tomsett’s book so much is because he is reluctant either declare there is no crisis or accept the argument that there is an ongoing mental health crisis in our schools. The book is interspersed with a series of interviews with educators, mental health experts and researchers who offer differing persepctives of the topic. As Tomsett writes himself, more than once, as you think on the views presented it is easy to move from feeling everything is overblown to feeling there really is a crisis, and then back again. As one of the interviewees says, ‘everybody has a mental health‘. Once we recognise this it becomes an imperative to put in place school wide systems to ensure both support for the majority and attention for those who really are suffering from something more real, more painful and potentially more harmful than just the normal ups and downs of life.

There are some broad points where I felt myself agreeing with. At various points Tomsett writes about how one of our goals has to be to help students learn and understand that life does have its ups and downs, and that sometimes the best thing is to push through challenges and give the tasks at hand our best effort. Some might argues this is the puritan work ethic in diguise (or just the British stiff upper lip), supressing feelings in an attempt to ignore them and thereby doing harm in the longer term. But I tend to agree with Tomsett. The truth is that as students rise through school the stakes naturally get higher. The reality of grades and examinations is inescapable. I often tell our Upper Sixth students that the final year of school is a little like climbing a mountain up until Christmas, with each completed and submitted internal assessment another step on the way to the summit. Sadly though there is really no time to admire the view at that point, as once January arrives it pretty much is a downhill ride towards examinations and graduation. The key to success is to try and enjoy the ride, while methodically  making sure you keep ahead of the game and all the commitments. It is only when the student gets to the end and look sup at the mountain he or she climbed that you get the satifaction of knowing they did it.

The book is a mixture of three threads woven into a whole. Tomsett reflects on some key moments in his life at points in the book; these never feel forced and certainly they help us sympathise with his thinking. The second thread are the interviews. The final thread, and probably the most interesting to me, is putting ideas into practice in the context of a school. The later chapters are particulrly strong. Who owns the child? (chapter 27) left me with both food for thought and an urge to take some of the systems from Huntington School and apply them to our context. I have asked a few times in meetings the very question, ‘Who owns the child?’ and it seems to me this is the essential question in any school system that claims to be student-centered. All students need somebody they can lean on, and every school needs a system for making sure students are supported and encouraged, while also serving as a way to identify quickly students who are having difficulties. With ownership comes a sense of responsibility, which the best tutors have towards their tutees.

In this area there are two fascinating ideas that Tomsett describes. The first is simplicity itself – clarity in describing how the role of the tutor works. It sounds obvious but it is important that in any tutorial (or pastoral) system there are some givens and consistent practices. Of course, in an ideal world, every tutor would be passionate about their students and be always present as a cheer leader, a motivator and as a first responder. In the real world teachers come in all shapes and sizes; some seem to be natural tutors, while others put the role a very distant second to teaching a subject. It is understandable; we are after all talking about educators with different levels of passion for the many facets of the role – they are just as varied a group as any other collection of human beings might be. So in oder to have some quality control, some consistency, it is important to make sure some basics are followed consistently. Tomsett is generous enough to share some of these details, including the basic functions of tutors in his own school, and their Goals-Resilience-Effort-Attitude-Tools (GREAT) model, designed to support student developmentand wellbeing.

The secondly and equally valuable idea came to Tomsett after reading about the development of the Apgar test for newborn babies. The Apgar test is a quick method to check the health of a new born, combining  5 indicators on a scale of 1 or 2, with a total possible score of 10. (I remember when my own son was born in 2010 seeing the attending nurse score Max as a 9 out of 10 – a score which calmed me down no end!) Tomsett has developed his own version of the Apgar test designed to help tutors spot students whose mental health may potentially be at risk. Again, it is a simple idea, easy to implement and provides a basis for discussion in school.

APGAR3

Apgar test: 5 Criteria (thenurselockerroom, 2013)

APGAR4

Apgar Scores (thenurselockerroom, 2013)

While the various experts may not agree on everything, one common conclusion is that schools can only really raise concerns. It is not their place or wothin their expertise to diagnose real mental illness. This is something that resonates with me, as at various points throughout my career colleagues have come to me to discuss students and share their personal views of why a student is the way they are. A smaller subset are those who classify anything beyond the usual by identifying a student as ‘lazy’ or ‘difficult’. In those cases my immediate reaction, which I work hard to hide, is to think it says more about the teacher than the student, but until we leanr more any judgement is rash. Just as dangerous are the times colleagues have intervened in ways that only make the situation worse. Always it is withn good intentions, but it is important for all of us as teachers to remember that we are not psychologists or therapists, so what support and advice we do give is both general and pragmatic. And as Tomsett and Bennett both say in their own ways, sometimes the best advice is to encourage a student to see the task through to the best of their ability. Whether successsful or not, trying to do our best in any given situation is the greatest challenge we can set ourselves. You never know, we may surprise ourselves.

Tomsett, J (2017). This Much I Know about Mind Over Matter… Improving Mental Health in Our Schools. Crown House Publishing Limited, Wales.

Apgar Score [online image], (2013). Retrieved March 19, 2017 from http://www.thenurseslockerroom.com/2013/02/pedia-notes-apgar-score.html

Some thoughts about diversity and inclusion in schools

It is a sorry admission to make but after 25 years working in schools I often still spend time considering the question, ‘What is the purpose of education?’  When I talk to colleagues or read opinions online I always feel a little inadequate because there is such a degree of certainty in how many answer the question. For me, every time I think I have narrowed down to a satisfactory answer, doubt comes into my mind. Perhaps one general answer would be that the purpose of education is to make the world a better place. Who can object to that?

Over the last few days I have been reading about the history of human rights. This is because as a school community we have been exploring the issue of human rights this academic year. In February we are planning to hold four evening debates focussing on current human rights issues and what more our school can do to promote and model human rights for our students. My hope is that as a school we will be able to identify issues and actions that we want to take next academic year to strengthen our commitment to promoting human rights, in line with our school’s values and philosophy.

In reading Andrew Clapham’s short book I was struck by a section on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (page 152):

The principles of the present Convention shall be:

  1. Respect for the inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one’s own choices, and independence of persons;
  2. Non-discrimination;
  3. Full and effective participation and inclusion in society;
  4. Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity;
  5. Equality of opportunity;
  6. Accessibility;
  7. Equality between men and women;
  8. Respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the rights of children with disabilities to preserve their identities.

As a school we have always sought to be as inclusive a school as we can be, within the constraints of facilities, finance and expertise. We want our student body to reflect the diversity of society, and we want all of our students to recognise the richness that comes from embracing diversity without fear. I think we do a pretty good job in that regard and I think we can be proud of what we have in place already.

But could we do more? The pragmatist in me will say we are limited by finance, by facilities and by expertise. The idealist looks at the eight principles above and thinks we could and should do more. On one level it is about giving all our students the best chance to grow as individuals. On another level it is about the broader message we send – that what we do should, in a small way, be an example of how the world can be a better place, more accepting of diversity and more able to recognise that everybody has something to contribute. And we also need to recognise that it will always be an unfinished pursuit.

In my previous school and now here I have been lucky enough to work with qualified educational psychologists who are on the staff. When I started my career as a classroom teacher at a state primary the idea of having psychologists on the staff would not have occurred to me. My experience over the last few years now leaves me convinced that they are an essential part of any school staff. Having that capacity within a school strengthens the quality of provision we can give to students, and provides support to teachers and families who want advice, reassurance and expertise. It is a fact that if your school really does believe in inclusion then you have to be willing to commit resources, both people and time. Some people ay think this level of in-house expertise if a luxury, but I would argue it is an essential service.

How a school approaches issues of inclusion and diversity has an impact for all the community. I can see on a daily basis, in talking to staff and students, that our constant action in embracing diversity does help shape attitudes that hopefully our students take with them. Certainly, when I talk to alumni or current students, one frequent comment is that one of the big take-aways from their time in the school is a respect for the diversity of people and recognise there are always commonalities between us.

 

Reference:

Clapham, A. (2015). Human Rights: a very short introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.