Watch a small child take every opportunity to explore their world – reaching out, watching, listening, experimenting, asking questions, playing with ideas. They are learning fast, making new neural connections at the rate of 700 to 1000 every second. This small human being is a sponge for information and a dynamo for creativity. Along with this learning often comes the life-enhancing emotions of curiosity, excitement, wonder, fascination and delight *
And then they go to school.
I have wanted to write this article for weeks now – ever since I returned from Australia back to London. I know I need to be rational and measured because people don’t take any notice of a rant – but how do I convey the sense of rage and despair I feel about what is happening for our children in UK education.
This was illustrated yesterday in a conversation with a friend. She had been playing with a six-year-old on the beach at the weekend, making up a game of discovery and adventure. “This would make a great story”, she suggested to the little boy, “perhaps you can write it at school”. “We don’t write stories at school” he replied, “we just write what the teacher tells us”.
I know that in some schools children have a great experience with caring, supportive teachers who value creativity and encourage experimentation, thinking skills, friendship and inclusion. They construct happy classrooms where learning continues to be a joy. It is often why they wanted to become teachers in the first place. But they do this despite government policy not because of it. The wellbeing of the whole child and every child is currently not on the educational agenda.
Teachers are increasingly judged by the scores pupils achieve. Teaching takes place in a curriculum straightjacket where constructing a positive emotional climate for learning, or going with ‘teachable moments’, do not figure. There’s no time to develop positive relationships, even though John Hattie’s meta-analysis of effective education (2009) says it is the quality of the teacher-student relationship that makes the most difference to student learning. What is meaningful gets discarded in the overriding focus on what can be measured. A ‘good’ teacher is not one whose welcoming smile and flexibility makes a child feel they belong and that they matter – but one who can cram facts into pupils who are then able to regurgitate these at the appropriate moment. And lots of kids simply can’t do this. These are the children who struggle with adversity. School may be the only place in their lives where they might find consistency, care and a feeling of being valued. But when they lower the grade average in a school that measures excellence by scores alone – or present with time demanding challenges – these pupils may find themselves shuffled off to somewhere ‘more appropriate’ to their needs. We increasingly have an education system where only some children matter. **
© Nic Watts
What is happening in schools is actively damaging healthy development for all children. During the recent mental health week, the papers were full of stories related to rising levels of anxiety, self-harm and depression. The facts are startling: three children in every class will be experiencing mental health difficulties and every teacher has tales to tell of young people who are so pressured to achieve that they are a bundle of nerves, scared to make a mistake, terrified of being positioned as a ‘loser’. Play and free time are regarded as a ‘waste’ rather than a critical part of developing social skills, empathy and imagination. The curriculum is so narrow that children who do not have high academic ability have nowhere to shine. And even those who can get good scores are missing out on the fundamental knowledge and skills that enable them to flourish and thrive in their lives: to become resilient in the face of challenges, establish and maintain positive relationships and become responsible contributors to their communities. Neither happiness nor social cohesion lie in qualifications alone.
In the Supreme Court in Westminster there is an exhibition that includes work from pupils from Years 10 to 13 on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carter. These young people were from both state and independent schools. They voted on six clauses to include in a contemporary Bill of Rights. This is number one:
To increase the stability and fairness of the education system and to appoint an expert panel for education to oversee the government’s key proposals for reform
The Positive Schools conferences in Australia have been full in four cities for about seven years now but the inaugural one that was to be held in Cambridge in July has been cancelled because of low registrations. This is dispiriting, because UK education badly needs a refocus on the value of each and every child, where ministers make decisions based on educational evidence rather than aberrant ideology, where teachers are valued, wellbeing is centre stage and learning becomes a joy once more. Are you with me?
* Intro to Roffey. S. “Whole Child, Whole School Wellbeing” in L.Bormans (ed) World Book of Happiness. (in press)
**Roffey. S. (2016) Building a case for whole-child, whole-school wellbeing in challenging contexts. Educational and Child Psychology 33(2) 30-42
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning, a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.