This is the text of Sue Roffey’s TEDx NorwichEd talk. The video will be online soon. When it is, we’ll add the link here.
Children are like sponges, aren’t they – naturally primed to explore, experiment and learn. You would think they couldn’t wait to get to school every day! But for some, learning stops being something to look forward to, and school becomes somewhere to be tolerated, sometimes even feared.
So, as a one-time parent, teacher, educational psychologist and researcher, I have been wondering – why on earth is our education system not more in tune with what we know about healthy child development?
It was this story that got me thinking. One Sunday my friend took 6-year-old Freddie for a day on the beach. They had a wonderful time, building sandcastles, exploring rock-pools and collecting shells. At the end of the day she said to him – what great adventures we have had today, Freddie – perhaps when you go to school tomorrow you can write about them. “Oh no”, said Freddie, “we only write what the teacher tells us to write”.
We all know there are teachers and schools doing their very best for children, often under difficult circumstances, but this model of education – that the child is an empty pot to be filled with facts and figures and tested on their memory of them – has become commonplace. Creativity, critical thinking, enjoyment, and most importantly a positive sense of self, cannot easily be measured, so don’t count in the statistics of how well a school is doing.
What we do know, though, is that many of our children are not doing so well. Poor mental health for young people has been in the headlines over and over again.
So, what if schools really were in loco parentis, and aligned with the positive parenting style that research says has the best outcomes for kids – the one that combines warmth and acceptance with high expectations, the sort of family that builds confidence, independence, relationships, and resilience in a safe and supportive environment.
What difference would this make?
Let me take you on an imaginary journey into such a school.
From the moment they are born a child needs to be able to rely on their caregivers to respond to their attempts to engage. To feel you belong and you matter is a powerful ingredient for positive growth.
So in my imaginary school everyone would be welcome, not just those who were clean, clever and spoke proper – everyone.
One primary school I worked in told me about a child who arrived on her first day behaving as they said ‘like a wild animal’. She came from a family where there was drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, neglect, the lot. But the headteacher talked with her staff, and they all agreed that between them they would give her the love and stability she had so far not had in her young life. When I visited the school, she was 11, and although there had been wobbles along the way she had attained basic skills, formed positive relationships and felt valued. Not a high-flying academic star, but not cast to the wolves either. Everyone was proud of what had been achieved and now they were worried about what might happen to her at high school.
How do you measure that kind of care and inclusion? Would OFSTED have given them an Outstanding rating? This quality of education doesn’t seem to count when the definition of success is being at the top of a league table.
Teachers rescue kids like this all the time, but these days it often happens under the radar because not only is there not enough time in the day tocare,establish relationships, or be flexible but these aspects of education are not always seen as valid, let alone valuable.
How are kids ever going to learn compassion if they do not experience being cared for? And what does this mean for who they become in the future, the relationships they have with partners, families, in the workplace-and in the community? We see a lack of compassion on our streets every day.
Another aspect of healthy child development is the drive towards independence and self-determination. Watch a small child try to do things for themselves. In fact, try and stop them! The job of responsive carers is to encourage their efforts and pick them up when they fall and fail.
So, in my imaginary school mistakes would be part of learning. Pupils would be given choices, encouraged to take risks, taught how to problem-solve and make good decisions – not just for themselves but for those around them. Rather than imposing rules, how about giving pupils responsibility for the emotional climate in their school? I have seen this happen. We under-estimate what kids can come up with when given the chance. They then learn that we are all responsible for creating the classroom we want to learn in, and perhaps the world we want to live in.
Youngsters who are developing as nature intended are curious, have bags of energy and are full of playfulness. Can you imagine a school where pupils can’t wait to get there every day, because learning is active and fun. Whereas anxiety can close down thinking, positive emotions open up cognitive pathways, problem solving and creativity. It makes sense in so many ways, including levels of engagement and academic achievement, to do everything we can to make every school a seriously enjoyable place to be.
In order to develop well, a child needs to feel safe: physically, emotionally and psychologically. Without safety, they cannot easily each out and try new things.
In my imaginary school pupils would never feel fearful or be negatively labelled, but accepted for who they are. The aim would be for each of them to be the best THEY can be – not an idealised version of the same perfect person.
Apart from anything else, we don’t need everyone to be doctors, lawyers and merchantbankers – we need people pleased to be a plumber, happy as a hairdresser, great at garbage collecting, and most importantly proud of who they are as well as what they do.
Our current model of education is not helping with the mental health crisis across the Western world, where anxiety and depression is increasing at an alarming rate. Where the overwhelming focus on ‘learning to know’ and ‘learning to do’ has swamped the equally important aspects of education: ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’, where competition is more important than collaboration and what matters most is how well you measure up against others. The greatest fear is of being a ‘loser’. It doesn’t have to be like that.
We need to look again to a different aspiration for education – one that aims for every pupil to be valued and wellbeing to be at the heart of everything that happens in every school, every policy and every practice. Not only will there be more engaged pupils but there will be fewer young people needing individual, expensive mental health support, not to mention less teacher attrition.
We need an education system that fits with what we know about healthy child development, where schools, like well-functioning families, treat all children with their unique strengths, ideas, quirkiness and even challenges as worthwhile, and when we do that, not only will more individual children flourish – but our future communities and societies will as well.