How does kindness figure in school for the 2020s?
Performance is currently the clear front runner when it comes to assessing school effectiveness. Accountability is the keyword, evidenced by exam results backed up by a consistent discipline regime. This was emphasised this month in the English education secretary’s reference to children’s behaving in ways that promote performance, “… if they choose not to do so, then they need to be held to account where appropriate for their actions.” This holds students accountable for school’s performance.
Also in the news is the emphasis teachers’ leaders are putting on student wellbeing, in how we go about supporting students’ mental health as they re-engage and move aead with studying. The new catch-up czar also has something to say about the multi-year project of supporting children badly affected by the Covid pandemic. So we have competing demands, for extrinsic and intrinsic student motivation to be generated by the learning community of school. Discipline we know about. Kindness, for engagement and rebuilding confidence, is harder to grasp, ranging from small random acts of generosity, to gratitude, to the planned and careful balancing of rules and reminders, generating discipline and self-discipline to produce wellbeing, learning, health, security and safety across the community. Robust learning, wellbeing and mental health do not come about by accident but by the intelligent combining of empathy with organisation.
Given the constant changes in Government policy towards education, we’ve seen kindness retreat and advance over the years. School systems age and mature. The sharp edges of notions from the 1970s underpinning strict discipline and zero-tolerance behaviour management can soften as they meet the realties of children’s individual lives and needs. This change gives ground for hope, supported by the growing evidence on the adverse impact of trauma, punishment and exclusion on children’s lives – unkind acts.
Exclusion is been promoted by Government as a simple, mechanical response, which sidelines the complex issue of shaping schools to meet all children’s needs while keeping school communities in good shape. Once the pathway of punishment and exclusion is taken as read, the current official strategy is to match the growing number of children excluded to expanded Alternative Provision from state or commercial sponsors. The official hope seems to be that an expanded system of alternative provision will catch up, regulate and educate the tens of thousands children pushed out of school who retain the legal right to full-time education. For it to happen would require massively increased spending on premises and continuous professional development, given that currently very few children emerge from AP with good qualifications compared to mainstream – and with enhanced life chances.
Children can benefit greatly from an alternative to mainstream school when it’s carefully matched to their needs – ‘special’ schooling to use the clumsy shorthand -as if all schools aren’t special. At this point I need to say that I’ve taught in a ‘special’ school for children moved out of mainstream for ‘emotional and behavioural difficulties’ (read that as challenging behaviour) and a Pupil Referral Unit for excluded key stage 3 children (read that as challenging behaviour too). While the children were labelled as disruptive many had disabilities, such as Fragile-X syndrome, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, sensory, communication and additional learning needs among others. This shines through clearly from a new report (https://www.wmca.org.uk/media/4678/punishing-abuse.pdf ).
In both these ‘special’ settings there was a lack of well-trained specialist teachers; I wrote about this in my 2006 PhD thesis. Additionally I’ve been to many special schools where staff deployed advanced skills and developed effective relationships with children to support their learning, for example in schools for children with a terminal illness and for children with serious learning disabilities, which often include difficulties with self-managing behaviour. In mainstream schools and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Clinic I’ve worked with many children who were at the end of the pathway to permanent exclusion and who had disabilities or experience of childhood trauma which influenced their behaviour. And given many years of my own advanced training and practice, I’ve been able to support their re-engagement and learning within mainstream provision, preventing exclusion with Solutions Focused Coaching.
In my experience exclusion leading to alternative provision is not the current last resort of well-developed professionals. Active and pro-active support and teaching for children who meet barriers, working in partnership to overcome them, not only leads to inclusion and greater achievement – it also develops life skills and the resilience all our children will need as they meet the world at large, through kind action.
An organisation called The Difference, set up to “Increase the skills of people teaching excluded children” in recognition of the often inadequate situation many children find themselves in, notes the growth in Alternative Provision;
“There was a rise of 29% between 2012 and 2018, compared to a 7% rise in pupil population. The majority of young people are moved to Pupil Referral Units, others to academy AP, free school providers or independent AP provisions. This often comes at huge cost, between £17,600 (PRUs) and £20,400 (Independent AP) per student, per year.”
This could be seen as a justified financial cost if quality, funding and specialist staffing in alternative provision to ensure raised educational and social outcomes were guaranteed. However;
“Alternative provision is facing funding challenges that threaten the continuity of education provision to excluded pupils, according to a growing number of schools.
Prominent figures within alternative provision have cited significant risks including site closures, substantial deficit budgets, and the threat of staff restructuring. Astrid Schon, Headteacher of London East Alternative Provision, indicates the likely need to send pupils offsite to study vocational courses and the use of agency staff – disruptive potential actions for pupils “who struggle with change”.”
The Difference is responding to this threat by broadening its original aim to refocus on developing the skills of mainstream staff to prevent exclusion happening in the first place. While there is no such specific refocusing evident as yet in central Government and among its close advisers on behaviour and inclusion there is the possibility of fundamental change given the claim to a ‘Beverage’ moment by the newly appointed Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza and the English Secretary of State’s March 12 speech where he emphasised “always focusing on the child and always knowing it is their interests we are all here to serve”. This is a welcome turn towards redefining the needs of children and young people who struggle in schools as educational, health and social issues and away rather than simple matter of external discipline and control. Movement is already underway in Scotland and Wales through their new curricula prioritising wellbeing and mental health in schools.
This is a moment of opportunity. Now is the time for those of us with practical solutions to step forward.
For me, the answer is in strengthening inclusion at the highest mainstream level which matches a child or young person’s educational, social and emotional needs. It’s changing our organisational, professional and practical mindset away from focusing on deficits to focusing on strengths, inclusion over exclusion. It’s encapsulated in Solutions Focused Coaching in Schools as routine pastoral provision.
Of this, there’s much more to come.