Exclusion, behaviour, mental health, happiness and children – a Nightingale moment?
Emotional health in childhood ‘is the key to future happiness
A London School of Economics study “What Predicts a Successful Life? A Life-course Model of Well-being” (Economic Journal 2014) offered “a completely new perspective on which factors contribute most to a satisfying life”, namely wellbeing, challenging “the basic assumption of educational policy in recent years – that academic achievement matters more than anything else”. (Guardian Nov 18 2014)
A basic assumption? It certainly drove former education secretary Michael Gove’s instruction schools to focus on academic excellence, and away form what he termed “peripheral” issues such as children’s moral, social and cultural development. Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, pledged to reverse this approach, but despite the pledge if anything the focus since then on academic outcomes has intensified, with these other needs trailing in the dust.
A very recent article in the Guardian reported on UK Ministers piloting New-York-style problem-solving courts, in which judges review the progress of offenders after they are sentenced to try to keep them out of jail. Problem-solving courts use non-custodial punishments and repeat attendance of an offender before a judge for regular assessment. This isn’t a new idea. Michael Gove, in another role as former justice secretary for a year from 2015 to 2016, was enthusiastic about the approach after he’d met some of the US judges who run these courts, but wasn’t in post long enough to make anything happen. The new white paper also contains a plans to review how the justice system supports offenders with conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia.
From our educational perspective, people in these groups are much more likely to be permanently excluded from school and subsequently much more likely to be imprisoned than their peers. In schools we can, or we could, match the court problem-solving initiative with early help for children to reduce the chances they set off along the “pipeline to prison” by displacing exclusion as the so-called “last resort”.
Bearing these things in mind, should we, could we, will we do anything different to what we were did before Covid19?
Let’s look at exclusion from school, the ‘last resort’ punishment of typical Behaviour Management. It’s systematically deployed against children who break school rules too often or too seriously. It targets children with additional educational needs, those with disabilities such as Autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder, those from ethnic minorities such as Black teenagers and Traveller children, and children in the Care system. The same ones whom we find later in prison.
In the new world of Covid19, has ‘exclusion’ taken on a new meaning? Millions of children and young people were ‘excluded’ in March this year and have only just been allowed back, under stricter and tighter rules and regulations.
As the most severe sanction permitted in schools, we could assume that period of FTE (fixed term exclusion) paralleling “short sharp shock” judicial sentences, should be a sufficiently adverse experience to guarantee that every erring subsequently follows every rule, error-free.
But we see from school data that children can clock up repeated FTEs, demonstrating the failure of punishment to prevent re-offending in schools as in the courts, eventually getting enough marks on their scorecard to qualify for the ultimate last resort, PEX (permanent exclusion).
And surely, having experienced the apex punishment of a PEX, these errant children should become remodelled to be model citizens of school and the wide world, shouldn’t they?
Apparently not, since the many young people in jails are PEXers. PEX seems as futile as FTE as the way to teach, or coerce, children to behave in ways that keep us and them happy, safe and productive.
So how should we go about forming covid19-shaped schools?
One response to behaviour, strongly favoured by the DfE, is to put everything into the pre-pandemic box, with the routine use of punishment to control ‘bad’ behaviour, hitting children hard with exclusion as the weapon of choice if they go wrong.
A Guardian article (August 31st 2020) “Schools in England and Wales draw up new Covid19 behaviour policies” carried the DfE warning that: “It is likely that adverse experiences or lack of routines of regular attendance and classroom discipline may contribute to disengagement with education upon return to school, resulting in increased incidence of poor behaviour.”
“Schools planning to implement a list of “coronavirus red lines” included the Ark Alexandra academy in Hastings which informed parents that (crossing red lines) could result in fixed-term exclusions for pupils. Breaches would include “deliberate or malicious” coughs or sneezes, “humorous, inappropriate comments or statements” related to Covid-19 and “purposeful physical contact with any other person”.” Is it possible to sneeze deliberately? Is humour to be outlawed? Who’s to judge according, to whose standards? If the consequences of exclusion were insignificant, who cares?
But they’re not. Exclusion and associated social and emotional segregation can be life-changing, as we’re seeing in the rise in mental health issues related to Covid19.
Mental health and happiness
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, advocates a different response, in line with the LSE study’s finding that emotional health in childhood is the key to future happiness.
“A ‘Nightingale moment’ for children is needed, providing increased funding, extra training for teachers and counsellors in every school, the children’s commissioner for England has said.
Invoking the gargantuan effort taken to build Nightingale hospitals for thousands of Covid patients in a matter of weeks, and the £35bn furlough scheme to save jobs….” (the £100 billion Covid testing “Moonshot” idea dreamed up by the same person who proposed the failed garden bridge in London had yet to be announced), “ …. Anne Longfield said children’s recovery from missing months of school would take up to a year and would have a profound psychological impact. ….. children had made a huge sacrifice during the pandemic”.
Longfield urged the government to step up support for the most disadvantaged and warned that a generation could be lost without radical intervention and “called for investment in mental health support for children as schools reopen ….. and a focus on vulnerable teenagers who are at risk of never returning to education. ‘The government needs to be bold, and on the sort of scale that saw hospitals built in weeks, and workers paid in furlough, to make sure no child is left behind. If not, they risk losing a generation for good. The stakes are simply that high. Kids have not had their Nightingale moment during the crisis, but if it comes at this stage, where there’s a determination to do things differently for children and help the most disadvantaged fully in life, that would be a great Nightingale moment to have.”
Should we do the same to get the same, or being doing something different in a changing world? The ideas behind the use of punishment come from another time, when teachers could beat children into compliance, when neuroscience and neurobiology were babies, when adolescents were seen as some variety of crazed aliens, beyond reasoning. Excluding children can make things easier in school, for some people; maybe this links to the 44% increase in the exclusion of children with autism between 2011 and 2015 as reported by the charity Ambitious about Autism. But is that justification for running along the same old ruts?
It’s certainly easier in the short term to stick to habits and exclusion can be used to massage school performance figures, if that’s the key measure of school success.
But Option 1 was already running into serious trouble pre-pandemic, with the illegal off-rolling of children and growing numbers of children PEXd with no subsequent educational provision, and no signs of the mythical new wave of ‘alternative’ provision being available in the immediately.
And Option 2 is dependent on imagination and new thinking at the DfE, political will, and a huge amount of cash, none of which are likely to appear at the moment. In principle it’s sound, but it doesn’t answer the need for early help and immediate action.
Mental Health and happiness in schools, in action
Option 3 – see my next blog to find out my vision for schools at the time of Covid19. Problem-solving by not how you know it – by focusing on solutions.