Blow the bloody doors off!


A great many of those involved in education state their aim as being to aid social mobility.

Regardless of whether you see yourself as part of any particular group or ideology, this aim is often brought up to explain or justify beliefs, values or actions. In fact, it may be the only thing that unites those most unhelpfully applied terms “prog” and “trad” and indeed a raft of education secretaries.

The idea of social mobility has jarred in my thinking with Baudelaire’s notion of education as cultural reproduction, since it was first suggested to me as a question to put to E D Hirsch when Inspiration Trust hosted him in 2016. Most recently it has resurfaced when reading Sonia Blandford’s book, Born to Fail in which she raises the question posed by Freire among others, as to whether we are genuinely enabling social mobility if we are simply suggesting that those who are currently disadvantaged can become more socially mobile and in some way ‘bettered’ by mirroring a different social group or class – most likely our own.

Blandford challenges us to ensure that we are making mutuality a focus for our attempts at developing this mobility. She stresses that this is not “middle class people dipping their toe into a life of disadvantage and then going away feeling that they understand enough to call the shots.” It is about “valuing them [the disadvantaged in society] and allowing them to develop their own way, where they are now, or where they want to be.” Not about rescuing but valuing. It is this that she says is genuine social justice.

Dialogue, and its importance in the development of others is also part of the Haltung philosophy of Janusz Korczak and echoed through the work of Gert Biesta and his “Beautiful Risk of Education.” Korczak, a Polish Jew who ran orphanages in the 1930s, was offered the chance to avoid the gas chambers but chose instead to go with his children to Auschwitz. He said of young people that “the unknown person in each of them is the hope for the future” and that “if you want to be a pedagogue you have to learn to talk with children instead of to them. You have to learn to trust their capabilities and possibilities.”

This notion of self determination is linked to wellbeing by the work of Ryan and Deci who wrote in 2000 that “by failing to provide supports for competency, autonomy and relatedness, not only of children but also of students, employees, patients, and athletes, socialising agents and organisations contribute to alienation and ill-being”.

It is of course, not always the case that those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds will suffer from low self esteem but  for those of us who work in these communities the correlation is hard to miss. In my town of Great Yarmouth for example, we have four times the national average proportion of families open to children’s services. We are 15% below the national average for people with Level 2 qualifications and have half the average for Level 4.

To rely on extrinsic motivation without the development of intrinsic motivation through competency, autonomy and relatedness in these circumstances is unlikely to raise aspirations.

The use of the curriculum to raise the chances of social mobility is a common and well-supported approach. Some suggest that the adage of knowing what the people in the club know is ignorant of the knowledge that these communities already hold, and as such stands to alienate rather than include. Others suggest that while these interventions may be alien they are entirely necessary for enabling a different sort of opportunity. I wonder though, if there is a danger of these interventions reinforcing differences and divisions for those who aren’t able to access this curriculum. This may stem from obstacles to learning such as literacy, or because we have behaviour systems that assume their lack of engagement is a choice to reject what is being offered, and as such lead them to be excluded from this curricular access.

In his editorial for a recent issue of Impact, the journal of the Chartered College, Michael Young reflected on the introduction of a curriculum of the kind most commonly associated with independent schools in the state sector commenting that, “schools could be (or already may be) forced to adopt forms of discipline and pedagogy that bear little relationship to those found in the schools on which their curriculum is modelled.”  He was talking about the lack of resources in state schools in comparison to their independent equivalents but I think there are also points to be made here that link to Blandford when she says that, “we would be wise to recognise that social mobility shouldn’t be seen as migrating to a different class, but about life chances for everyone.”

It’s simply not enough to assume that the curriculum can deliver everything. Alongside this we must consider a wider interpretation of resources such as the resourcefulness within the students, and the self regulation and self esteem that are almost taken for granted among students in the independent sector. When we make this assumption about the power of a curriculum to transcend where these may be lacking among our students we may be leading them to fall foul of the forms of discipline that Young appears to refer to. Without considering what else we need for students with different needs, the enabling opportunities of this curriculum are only available to those without the barriers that are prevalent among those who need mobility and justice the most.

This in itself is based on the assumption that the dominant curriculum is indeed the most effective one for supporting social mobility. Recently there has been a good degree of comment around the importance of religious education in terms of understanding large amounts of the rest of the curriculum. From a society that has for centuries been dominated by religious doctrine or relationships with it, this is hardly surprising. We shouldn’t forget though that one of the reasons for this was a church that maintained power over the lay through the fact that they ‘knew’ what others didn’t and as such were to be listened to and obeyed. This raises two important questions.

Firstly, if we continue to reinforce the importance of this doctrine (albeit through the context it gives to other information) without question or challenge around why it is so influential, are we not giving it a high status and perpetuating the position of dominance and control by this set of beliefs and values? And secondly, if we are teaching any sort of knowledge without the potential to challenge, question and subvert, are we not leading to knowledge and the possession of it being seen as authority and the source of power in a rather unhealthy way? Unhealthy, because the relationship between teacher and student is based around one knowing what the other does not and can not, unless I chose to share it. As such, the authority and power of the teacher comes from this. When the knowledge is questioned then the authority too becomes questioned and the student then becomes a challenge to not just the idea, but the teacher, leading to the employment of disciplinary measures of the sort that Michael Young was referring to.

In these situations, where the fragility of the teacher’s authority is based around being the smartest one in the room then the powerful knowledge isn’t being delivered in a way to enable or in a way that will do any more than reinforce existing positions and keep those that we aim to emancipate in  subjugated positions. I want you to develop and show your potential – as long as it doesn’t start to exceed my own achievements or definitions.

If we don’t encourage, or even allow, challenge and question in our classrooms then we are never going to use powerful knowledge as an enabler of social mobility, and we will indeed be simply encouraging social reproduction. At its most extreme when learning what the teacher is saying and repeating it without question or interrogation (and as such limited understanding) we are in greater danger of not even reproducing the culture, but merely imitating it through pedagogical methods that produce a proxy for learning. As with the disciplinary approach already mentioned, this could not be further from the approach of the independent schools which we cite as being the best examples and are seemingly aiming to recreate – which of course has its own issues in terms of genuine social mobility. If “memory is the residue of thought” then some thinking must be taking place.

None of this is to question the vitality of a curriculum that enables others through powerful knowledge. Rather to suggest that there is a need for something more alongside this. In his Learning to be Human lecture delivered in 1958 John MacMurray talked of how schools as communities needed to do more to teach children how to interact successfully and develop as individuals, something reiterated by Read in 2000 who stated that “having the capacity to care and to attune to individual children has now become the responsibility of care-giving settings beyond the family.” It’s simply not enough to say ‘I’m a teacher not a social worker’. If we as teachers are committed to social mobility and ensuring that all students in our care receive the education we say they are entitled to, then we must think about how we overcome barriers, be they learning or relational based and commit ourselves to whole child development and education. If this isn’t done then there is little point in investing in a high quality curriculum.

And if we genuinely want to use that powerful knowledge to enable social mobility then we should be prepared to do more than replicate what has gone before. We must resist pushing our frameworks of what success means on those that we are intending to liberate – even if that means once they have learnt from us they choose to remain. As Hirsch said in response to the cultural reproduction question: “It’s not enough to get them in the club by telling them what the people in club know. Once they get in there we should be encouraging them to use this to blow the doors off the club and build a new one.”

Go well



A (nearly) New Approach – Or Part Two!

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Here is the second of my posts on my thoughts around the Solihull Approach. As with my previous blog I am indebted to Jo and Louise of Break in Norwich for introducing me to the concepts and ideas.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has an entry on containment that links it to a foreign policy adopted by the United States during the Cold War. It includes a quotation from George F Kennan a diplomat and state department adviser who wrote about a, “long term, patient, but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” It’s suggested that the hope was that the Russians would either mellow or collapse.

It may seem strange to compare the actions of a child to that of a powerful state but the suggestion of a, “patient but firm and vigilant containment,” while looking for things to mellow isn’t an unfitting way to consider the first feature of the triumvirate structure of the Solihull Approach.

Beginning with a very obvious and physical containment in the womb where the unborn baby is warm, secure, and physically held, the approach suggests we move from the physical precursor of holding a child to emotional containment. This is, “like feeling full of a problem, telling someone who listens and understands and then feeling that the problem is in perspective rather than going round and round in your head.” In an approach similar to some coaching models and things like the listening wheel used by Samaritans, the role of the other person (parent, teacher, therapist etc) is not to provide answers or necessarily say anything at all. Rather, by listening and containing the emotions we can allow the person to see that the problem is not insurmountable and restore their ability to think about the situation rather than be overwhelmed by it.

The young children or adolescents exemplified in my previous post are going through rapid developmental changes in their brain and are regularly having their ability to think things through rationally hijacked by the amygdala and its instinctive emotional response.

In ‘The Whole Brain Child,’ Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson use the example of an “upstairs and downstairs brain” where the ‘downstairs’ brain of the amygdala has placed a baby gate across the stairs to prevent access to the ‘upstairs’ brain of the prefrontal cortex. In this situation, motivated by fear, anger or other emotion the child is literally out of control and unable to act differently and needs help to slow things down and gain access to more rational thought. An angry or punitive response from an adult at this point will merely heighten the emotion and lead to more of the same or worse, as well as reinforcing the notion that these emotions – and by implication the child – cannot be controlled.

An approach based around containment enables these feelings and emotions to be shared with the parent or professional who can hold them and make sense of them. This then conveys to the child that these emotions don’t need to take over and that the powerful emotions and both manageable and tolerable – as is the child itself. Repeated occasions of this, coupled with some redirection and conversation used at the right moment, enable the child to be able to tolerate the feelings themselves. Taken further they can recognise the feelings, organise them and develop the ability to self regulate.

What’s crucial in terms of this in a school context is that at no point does the approach suggest that just because we understand where the behaviours are coming from we shouldn’t be dealing with them. This is not a case of a child saying, “I’ve got anger issues,” and then being allowed to do what they like without challenge. In fact a child who is able to lucidly encapsulate what is going on by linking back to conversations that they have been part of or overheard and throw them back as justification for behaviour is very much having an “upstairs’ outburst and should be dealt with accordingly!

Siegel and Payne Bryson suggest that when it is evident that the behaviours stem from an amygdala driven response what they term as, “command and demand,” should be replaced with, “connect and redirect.” By this they mean talking about the origin of the behaviour and responding to this in order to diffuse it. We might let the child know that we can see something is making them angry or upset (“I can see you find it hard in that class. Lots going on must make things tough for you?”), then use some reassurance, (“We want to get the best for you though and for you to feel safe and happy.”), before starting to engage with the more logical (“Maybe when things are a bit calmer we can have a chat about how to help you cope?”).

It may of course be the case that the behaviours being displayed are so outrageous and dangerous that they need to be worked through and no amount of “connect and redirect” is going to work – at least not at that point. In these situations children may well need to be removed or items taken away etc until the time is right for someone to intervene but the need to contain will still be there.

Solihull encourages us to appreciate that until we have responded to the emotional needs we are unlikely to be able to engage the logical, and that the process of attunement whereby we connect and allow the child to “feel felt” provides us with a stronger platform to do so later. It also means choosing a time to reinforce expectations and boundaries when you have a greater chance of success rather than adding more emotion and stress to an already taut situation.

The image of a baby being physically held is a useful one when we move from physical to emotional and the work of containment can be summarised as enabling another person to ‘hold it together’. A parent – or teacher – that responds in an emotional way can be interpreted as anxious or panicky and unable to manage which in turn reinforces a child’s own perception that they cannot manage and that, as nobody else can, the world is a dangerous and frightening place.

Winnicott’s three tasks of mothering are useful when considering where interventions might be needed and I think it’s clear how these ideas can be transposed from the physical to the emotional, and from the familial to the educational;

  • Holding – How is the infant held?
  • Handling – How is the infant handled?
  • Object presentation – How is the world presented to the infant and how is the infant presented to the world?

 The third task relating to presentation is one that might cast new light on the effect of parental comments about, and to children. Consider parents that use negative language about their children in meetings at school or tell you in front of the child that, “He’ll be a trouble maker. I was and he’s just like me. You’ll have no end of problems with him I can tell you. It’s just the way it is.”

In response to these three tasks someone adopting a Solihull Approach might first look to listen and be receptive to feelings. Then they could take the feelings and the person in and experience what is referred to as the ‘quality’ of them. This equates to the holding task suggested by Winnicott. In trying to name the emotions and give theme meaning and validation we are in a way handling them, and then by responding in a way that makes the feelings tolerable and meaningful we engage in the process of object presentation.

Linking to my first post on this subject, containment is a key part in supporting brain development as it can help to move the control from the limbic brain to the cortex which promotes neural connections. If the process doesn’t happen then impaired development will lead to an impaired ability to self regulate. It is about helping someone with difficult muddled feelings to think about and understand them rather than be ruled by them. High levels of emotional arousal disrupt thinking and by lowering these levels we enable someone to take a problem that is buzzing around their head (even if the puzzle is as seemingly simple as, “Why can’t I have that toy right now?” or “I bloody hate my History teacher today.”) and help them to think about rather than be overwhelmed by it.

Once the basis of the relationship is established through containment then a relationship can be developed further through reciprocity.

Dr. Thomas Berry Brazelton was president of the Society for Research in Child Development and the National Centre for Clinical Infant Programs and wrote over two hundred research papers and twenty four books with a primary focus on child development. He described Reciprocity as a, “sophisticated interaction between a baby and an adult where both are involved in the initiation, regulation and termination of the interaction.”

Reciprocity is described using the metaphor of a dance and is seen to go through seven stages (Initiation, Orientation, State of Attention, Acceleration, Peak of Excitement, Deceleration and Withdrawal). When the dance is being performed at its most effective it produces a feeling of attunement with the other person and has a smooth rhythm of giving and receiving, signaling and receiving, and control and dependency.

All senses are involved in the dance and the outcome of a repeated dance conducted in an appropriate way enables regulation stemming from the to and fro of the interaction, as well as developing a working model of a predictable and manageable world. This enables healthy attachments based on reciprocal contributions and receipt and an understanding of how others are similar and different to ourselves, leading to skills in social interaction and relationship building.

For reciprocity to be truly effective it requires the caregiver to be truly present and available throughout the interaction and to be sure not to give too much stimulus as this can lead to early withdrawal. There are numerous reasons why an infant may fail to get appropriate and effective reciprocity including parental depression, drug or alcohol abuse, traumatic events or a parent with their own unresolved emotional issues from childhood. Sadly these are prominent issues in a number of the towns and cities we may find our schools in and also will have a huge impact on the developing child. The clip below shows the impact on a child when a parent stops engaging reciprocally for a matter of minutes so consider the implications for a child where this is the repeated pattern.

 Even in this short clip we can see the potential for a child without effective reciprocity during development to become either hyper aroused to try and gain attention or withdrawn. The clip below looks at how a child will modify behaviour in order to avoid anger from an adult. Once again the child learns this incredibly quickly, so consider a child in a home where there is domestic violence and the impact that repeated experiences like this would have. By the time they enter into school this would be how the child understands the world and anything different would be difficult to reconcile. No matter how supportive and caring the intention it just isn’t how they see things to be.

Reciprocity is a key part of developing communication and early years specialists will often comment on the numbers of children who show an inability or impairment in communication and then have behaviour issues as they move through their primary years. If we consider behaviour as communication (what else was the child in the first video without language doing apart from trying to communicate?) then these are children who have not developed an understanding of appropriate and acceptable methods of communication so are doing their best with what they’ve got. If this is met with further negative responses or, having had years of being repeatedly unable to access reciprocity from a caregiver, they are again dismissed as difficult by their teacher and potentially removed from their class, then we will serve only to reinforce their confused world view and negative self view. Ultimately for a child in this position this doesn’t even serve our own ends as we only continue to perpetuate the situation as they try and try again to communicate in the only way they know how and receive repeated and greater sanctions.

If this continues, as is likely, without being addressed through containment and reciprocity into secondary school we will find ourselves with an adolescent who is going through rewiring and just getting the same experiences that they had first time around.

 If the child is fortunate, and rather than moving them through a punitive behaviour management system some attempts are made to address what is really going on, then some schools may use strategies such as social stories to try and explore what is going on. Even this though can have limited success unless we go backwards in order to go forwards. Crucial to the Solihull Approach is the need to start from where the child is. If there has not been sufficient containment then a movement to reciprocity is going to be limited in what it can achieve. Similarly further work such as social stories will be unlikely to deliver significant results if a child doesn’t have the emotional language needed to be part of the dialogue.

Instead of rewiring for renovation and improvement all we get is an identical rebuild of a house that nobody would choose to live in.

As highlighted before the aim of Solihull is to enable children to self regulate. There is no suggestion that routines or boundaries aren’t important or that a child should be allowed to do what they like because of previous experiences or trauma. Far from it – the approach is designed to help students who have not had appropriate development to be able to function within the same boundaries that those who have are comfortably living and working.

Behaviour management in Solihull comes after the two previous strands because it is believed that they are the key to achieving it. In well functioning families children go through containing and reciprocal processes without anyone necessarily being conscious of it or needing to study or name it. This is normal development and enables a child who has internalised restraints and satisfactions of attention and other rewards to participate in society. These students work within the parameters of a school behaviour system designed to create a safe, positive environment for learning because they understand this and recognise it from their own experience.

When a child has developmental experiences that contradict with what is regarded as normal it will be unable to engage in the community of the school. For s child in this position Solihull practitioners would suggest that there is little to be gained from behaviour management without the foundations provided by containment and regulation. Equally when there has been sufficient Containment and regulation then the systems and routines that most schools seek to put in place will be perfectly sufficient to ensure good behaviour and high levels of learning.

My focus over these two posts has predominantly been on those students with the greatest level of need – those with the most difficulties not the most difficult – and obviously these are the students most likely to have missed out on the developmental processes that the Solihull Approach seeks to address. Everyone though goes through these processes at different rates and levels of intensity throughout their lives; everyone has stressful and emotionally charged times. So perhaps the scope suggested by practitioners for the approach to be used for a whole range of relationships is worthy of greater consideration.

Go well

A New Approach

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This is the first of two posts stemming from an excellent day I spent with Jo Shepherd and Louise Willoughby at Break in Norwich exploring the Solihull Approach to relationships and development. While I’ve focused here on the most vulnerable children and young people, the approach has implications for a wide range of relationships and systems. In this post I’ll explore the background and rationale and then in my second post I’ll attempt to outline the approach. I’m grateful to Jo and Louise for the introduction to what will be a fantastically useful and important concept going forward.


A newborn child will follow movement instinctively. The primitive brain does so in order to maintain security and the child has absolutely no control over it. If it had the words to do so it could not tell you why it moves its head, it just does – up until the sixth to tenth week when the cortex is developed enough for gaze control.

Imagine now a student in year seven who hasn’t had the appropriate developmental interactions growing up, who is now in the middle of the second exponential cortex growth period where the limbic brain is again prominent. Consider her behaviours; asking where Miss X is constantly, looking out into the corridor over and over during a lesson, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and out loud, singing songs with no apparent point of origin or relevance, running down corridors. Now consider her response when she is pulled up for these behaviours and, if she is in a more supportive environment, asked why she is acting the way she is. She most likely can’t explain why – if she can remember what she has done at all – and yet after a long conversation where she may show signs of accepting what she has done as wrong she will go back and do it all again. She may even have an emotional response, weeping and becoming withdrawn yet still repeating the behaviours later. The response will most likely become more punitive, moving through levels of sanctions, meetings, plans, exclusions none of which seem to do anything to modify or improve her behaviours. Perhaps we need to consider her in a different way.

It’s this sort of student that was in my thinking when exchanging a couple of tweets with Mark Finnis, director of L30 Relational Systems, around the topic of language, particularly in relation to “difficult students.” Mark commented on how different things might be if we used the phrase, “students with the most difficulties” instead and it made me consider the difference between students that struggle in subjects (I’ve never heard a child referred who struggled with maths referred to as “difficult” but rather as “having difficulties” with maths) and students that struggle with behaviour and relationships. I worked with a head who used to regularly paraphrase Samuel Beckett on failure, encouraging students to “fail better” but I imagine in most cases this is limited to academic failings not emotional or behavioural ones.

The Solihull Approach is named after its place of origin and has three main strands or features; containment, reciprocity and behaviour management. These all work together and are interdependent with the first two, if being done appropriately, meaning less of a need for the third. Indeed, where children have had the first two parts of the package delivered effectively, then they should be able to respond to the sort of routines, consistency and simple behaviour management that most schools aim to create without need for further intervention. What the approach allows us to focus on though, are those students for whom this does not work, why this might be, and how we can approach them differently to enable them to engage successfully in the frameworks that other students work within every day.

Solihull is complementary to a range of other ideas and approaches such as attachment theory, gentle parenting and the work of social pedagogues but is seen to provide a workable and accessible framework that crucially can be used at all levels where relationships are vital ranging from parent and child to the policy and management level of an institution.

In 1999 The Child Psychotherapy Trust exploring relationships and attachments stated that, “Children who do not have secure relationships early in life are at greater risk of significant mental health problems, education difficulties or conduct disorders.”

A number of the most vulnerable students that we work with in later years may well have missed out on these essential stages in development and as such are unable to form a comprehensive and secure sense of self. Even in the secure and safe environment that we work to provide for them, and the ordered schools provided by routines and clear expectations, these students have immense difficulty in reconciling their developmental experiences with what they are currently experiencing.

This can then lead us to situations where students are unable to see the world as a safe place the challenges of which they can see a way through, and as such display behaviours that clash with the perfectly acceptable rules and boundaries that have been put in place. If we seek to manage the behaviours without addressing and meeting the underlying needs then we will most likely be faced with withdrawal or an escalation in conflict (mirrored by an escalation of consequence and sanction) stemming not from a conscious defiance but a genuine place of confusion and need for survival.

Beginning with infant neurology the Solihull approach requires an understanding of the way our brains develop, how this impacts on our understanding of the world and, in relation to our work with children, how this is affected by a lack of appropriate and helpful stimulation or attachments as we develop.

An eighteen week old foetus has one to two billion brain cells, most of which are unconnected. Where connections are made these are in the primitive brain designed to support survival and alarm. After birth the process of wiring begins and the connections made here are in response to the environment and our experiences. This process continues up until death with un-stimulated synapses withering or being ‘pruned’ by the brain. There are however two points where the growth and pruning, and therefore implications for development is exponentially accelerated; a period that begins in the twelfth to fourteenth week after birth going through to the second year, and a period that begins with adolescence. During these periods there is a literal ‘hard wiring’ based on experience as the brain cements connections in place with a layer of fat to protect the valuable ones as others are pruned and wither.

Prior to this period a child is still being governed by the primitive brain so is looking for the food, warmth and security that it lost when removed from the womb. There is some development in the cortex over things like gaze control and as this starts to develop further we start to make decisions about the world and our place in it. It is a myth held by some that children who lack language lack the capacity to understand and as such won’t be greatly affected by their experiences such as loud noises, violent television or video games, domestic violence or arguments etc. Regardless of language or lack of early memories strongly emotional experiences are not dependent on conscious processes. A child’s senses are ‘mingled’ at this point to the degree that they ‘see’ sound because it causes vibrations on their vision so the correct stimulus, lack of stimulus, or over stimulation, will already be having impact on the development of the child. Early exposure to negative experiences limits long term ability to regulate feelings and resilience to potentially traumatic experiences in later life.

As Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Ronald Kotulak puts it, “The brain gobbles up its external environment in bits and chunks through it’s sensory system: vision, hearing smell and taste…trillions of cells … are constantly growing or dying, or becoming stronger or weaker, depending on the richness of the banquet.”

As a simple example of the impact of the relationship and stimulation a crying child who is looking for food is doing so instinctively and at that point is linking their hunger to death so has a heightened sense of fear. If this fear is eased by feeding in a supportive environment the child feels more comfortable and less stressed so has the fears contained and can engage in a reciprocal relationship with the care giver. They will steal feel hunger, the fear and link to survival will still be present but they can cope with it. If, on the other hand, the child is not fed it can either cry longer and louder or not cry at all as there is no benefit to be gained from doing so. During this process the world view and view of self is beginning to be formed where a child does not feel safe. The developing brain bypasses the cortex in times of threat or stress and relies on the limbic brain. A lack of reinforcement of the connections in the cortex due to chronic threat and stress, keeps the limbic brain at the forefront of decision making and leads to hyperarousal or dissociation that is hard to change later.

Interestingly though what we might consider as being a perfect situation where these fears are never allowed to develop is in itself not enough. A child who doesn’t learn that fears are natural but can be contained and dealt with, will also be found wanting in the future. In a paper entitled ‘The Circle of Security project’ looking at attachment and interventions Robert Marvin et al noted positively the fact that smooth interactions are often disrupted and need to be repaired. Indeed the notion of disruption and repair is seen as vital within the Solihull approach as, “it is this ability to repair a disruption that is the essence of a secure attachment, not the lack of disruptions.” (Marvin et al, 2002)

Ever tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again

The dominance of the limbic brain is vital to our understanding as we come to look at the behaviours of these children as they become students in our schools. Behaviour management systems are prevaricated on the belief and assumption that the behaviours being displayed are coming from a place of cognition and are therefore decided and controlled, and for a lot of students this is the case. If however, students are acting in a primitive fashion based on survival instincts in an environment that they don’t see as safe, or see themselves as being part of, then how can we expect a punitive system that will inevitably reinforce these feelings to deliver improvements in behaviour?

Think back to the year seven girl I opened with. I’ll explore both containment and reciprocity in more detail in my next post but it’s likely that a Solihull practitioner would suggest that her early development – for whatever reason – was lacking in both. She is now in the second period of greatest development of the cortex while having had insufficient development during the first.

The adolescent brain goes through a growth and pruning of synapses of a similar nature to that of the younger child and is similarly a period when decision making uses the more primitive part of the brain. The area of the brain noticing pleasure and reward is very well developed and of particular interest when considering the interaction between adults and children at this point is that they are relying on completely different parts of the brain for reading emotion and making decisions. In a manner reminiscent of Oscar Wilde commenting on mothers, it has been suggested by the psychologist Raj Persuad that the biggest obstacle to children is that they think about the next five minutes while having no regard for the next five years, while the greatest flaw in adults is a pre-occupation with the next five years that prevents them being able to take full advantage of what the next five minutes may have to offer!

All of the features described here are normal parts of adolescent brain development and all children will go through them. Where they will differ is their ability to activate the cognitive part of the brain at crucial times, the times when they are faced with heightened emotions or stress. If we consider things like what can be high stakes external examinations, transitions from primary to secondary schools, the development of fledgling romantic relationships and – exceedingly intense in some cases – friendships and peer group changes, it is an difficult time for a child who we may consider to have a good balance, let alone one that has had earlier confusions instilled and reinforced through poor attachments. And this is without the added complications of round the clock communication, youtubers and social media constantly bombarding them with messages, at times wildly exaggerated and inappropriate and often contradictory. It’s also a time where they, like infants, need sleep to allow time for the connections to be built and be secured, making sense of the world while resting. Through early mornings, late nights or a combination of both many will not be getting this, and sadly the correlation between students who need this developmental rest the most, and families where they need to be up to look after siblings or parents, or where crowded or disrupted homes mean sleep is hard to come by is all too high.

If this is taken a step further to include the children of very young parents then the picture becomes all the more complicated. The period of development that begins again in earnest at adolescence is seen to continue to some degree into the twenties and potentially further, if at a slower rate. This means that a child could be going through the first period of hardwiring and be relying on someone who is themselves going through a similar process, albeit at an older age. If the young parent in turn was not supported through the developmental process themselves as an infant then the ability to support another through becomes yet more reduced and the need for external support becomes far more acute. If these situations fail to be addressed then the cycle can continue ad infinitum. This may move our focus away from schools initially but the implications for us are of course significant.

As mentioned already adolescents are predisposed to act on impulse rather than consider the implications of their actions. In his book, ‘When Adults Change Everything Changes’ Paul Dix suggests that every teacher needs to learn more about the amygdala response. Dix encourages us to think about how our actions and even expressions alone can lead to positive or negative responses as the prevalent amygdala send hormones to the prefrontal cortex to block rational thought. Consider alongside this a combination of teenagers finding it more difficult to understand the emotions of others and the fact that they respond with heightened sensitivity to negative responses as they try to make sense once again of the world.

None of this is intended to suggest that there is no place or use for rules at this point or that we shouldn’t have expectations that students will follow routines or work within boundaries. Children like and seek out boundaries like the newborn child with a Moro reflex reaching out to try and find where its world ends after the security of the womb. What is offered to us through consideration of these ideas is what might be going on with those for whom it doesn’t seem to be working. For a child who hasn’t yet learned, “to live with and understand the brain its got,” and as well as not understanding themselves feels that they are not understood by anyone. Consider for these children how counter productive a behaviour system built on shaming or humiliation is. When they most likely see negativity in a neutral response one that is deliberately so will lead to nothing but conflict and flight or fight. Can we really talk about making our schools safe and secure places, or families or communities if we aren’t considering those who have the greatest need for these things when establishing how we will operate?

A child who has a lack of understanding and control over their emotions and actions can readily have these feelings reinforced by the language and actions of teachers. Referring to them as uncontrollable or unmanageable, leaving students outside of classrooms or shutting doors on them can tap into years of reinforced trauma and negative feelings at a time when they are trying once again to make sense of who they are.

Paul Dix writes on isolation saying that, “Children receive clear messages from repeated isolation. They view it as a wholly disproportionate response, a clear sign that the adults are giving up and they have run out of ideas.” At this point he is writing about more generally about students suggesting that all that comes out of repeated and extended isolation is students with greater resentment and resilience against authority.

From a Solihull perspective what has happened is that these children who feel that they are too much and their feelings are unbearable are told that this is very much the case, that they cannot be contained and are, in a very real sense, ‘bad’ children. The resilience against authority is more an enhanced state of disassociation and the other alternative of more extreme behaviour can be seen as that of the hyperaroused infant who finds themselves having to contend with the adolescent drive to take greater unassessed risks.

If our hope for these students is that we include them in the family of our schools and for them to be able to respond to the same behaviour management as others then we need to think more carefully about what they need first – and we’ll turn our attention to that next time.

Go well.

Learning to be Human…

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While sharing some ideas with my friend and educational/intellectual collaborator Giles Barrow recently, he remarked that something I had written linked for him to some of the ideas presented by Biesta, as well as the thinking of John MacMurray and his notion of Learning to be Human.

Having not come across MacMurray before, but always interested to take a look at anything Giles suggested, I thought I’d make us of my Chartered College membership and see what I could find. Below I’ve summarised what I think are the main  points of his Learning to be Human lecture.

MacMurray was born in 1891 to a deeply religious family and this influence is considered to be one of the most profound on him as a child and through his time at Aberdeen Grammar School and Robert Gordon’s College. During his first year at the University of Glasgow however, he began to explore the biblical vision of a God who is personal and relational and created a world for fellowship.

He signed up for the First World War and was awarded a Military Cross for leadership and bravery as well as writing his first piece, “Trench Religion,” in 1917 about a soldier’s image of God amid the violence of war. Stemming from this he was asked to speak at a church in London. Rather than deliver a jingoistic rally he spoke of a need for reconciliation and forgiveness that led to him being rejected by the congregation – something he saw as rejection of his views by organised religion and leading him in turn to renounce a dogmatic approach to faith.

His personal belief and commitment continued to influence his work though and he wrote in 1927 of the need for science and religion to engage in sustained dialogue and in 1929 gave a speech to the Student Christian Movement called, ‘Ye Are My Friends,’ which referenced Jesus’ shaping of discipleship in John 15. This principle of Friendship is seen as being the key to his philosophy of the Personal and his further works and explorations continued to explore the notion of philosophy as central to the human condition and the need for communitarian thought. ‘Learning to be Human’ his Moray House Annual Public Lecture also returns to these themes of what it means to fully develop as a individual and the limits of philosophy remaining a purely academic endeavour as well as the importance of community an the development of independence and further, interdependence as well as the need for sensual contemplation beyond the crude and selfish.

MacMurray begins his lecture by exploring the paradox of human nature as stated by Rousseau where man is born free but everywhere in chains as well as referencing Browning (‘A man’s reach should be beyond his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?’), and the bible when Jesus is asked by Jairus to help his daughter, “Lord, I believe: help though my unbelief.”

He then brings this poetic and philosophical (“Plato and Roussea were idealists,” he says) back to reality explaining that a child is born human and yet can only survive by having everything done for them so is very much lacking the basic elements of humanity. Dependence on others is their life and to get towards any sense of humanity the child needs to grow from dependence, to independence and then finally achieve a sense of humanity where they can give as well as receive. Interdependence is the ultimate goal of this part of learning to be human.

MacMurray builds on this notion to suggest that this learning to be human requires input from others and as such is being taught. So much so that it is the very basis of an education and must be determined and planned. If each step in this process is not thought through and planned then the failures – either of others towards the child or the developing child towards themselves – will lead to a range of flawed characteristics and a person who will without doubt, remain less fully human.

Interestingly, at this point in his lecture MacMurray then links a need for learning to be human with the needs of the time – or rather the ever changing needs of the times.  I don’t think that this was a 21st Century Skills comment (!) but it is interesting that sixty years ago there was the sense that there is something more to develop in education that learning a fixed set of points or positions as teachers were seen to be no longer preparing their students for a known world.

Rather than skills though, MacMurray talks about the fundamental nature of what it means to be human as the thing that maintains its currency. Once again as someone thinking ahead of his time and with some resonance for where we are today, he discusses this in a framework that goes beyond national, or even continental thinking or identity, and focuses purely on being human.

Another contemporary debate touched in the lecture, and a subject that is certainly at its heart, is the role of the school in educating the whole child and developing an understanding of what it is to be human. When MacMurray suggests that character education was provided by church and home and that the withering (either genuine or perceived) of these two has meant the school stepping up and filling in it is easy to see the contemporary conversations and headlines – “I’m a teacher not a social worker” etc.

MacMurray suggests that there are without doubt what he calls educational forces in the home that no school can provide and also says that the church provides training in emotions.  He espouses therefore that what we need to identify in schools are those aspects that we are able to and should be developing. He suggests that at the time of his lecture what was done in schools was moving in the right direction but not far enough.

Interestingly in comparing Scotland and England in the late 1950s he suggests that England had closed the gap on Scotland in terms of education with and was doing a better job. Referring to a speech from a peer in the House of Lords maintaining that education was a luxury that should be kept for the upper classes MacMurray reflects that boarding schools gave the English system the chance to do what Plato wanted to do in creating a great society by taking children away from their parents.  As education for everyone began to be taken seriously he states, then the acknowledgement of the importance of educating character as well as intellect and factual knowledge without the benefit of boarding houses meant the emphasis on the former was significant.

Over the subsequent sixty years I would suggest that we have seen an even greater retraction in the influence of bodies such as the church as well as the same in families abilities, or confidence in those abilities, combined with most recently more contracted children’s services and other agencies. I imagine MacMurray would suggest with this being the case then there is now an even greater need for us to educate this part of the human being and teach these aspects than he saw at the time he delivered his lecture.

Returning to what it means to be human MacMurray states that his first principle is mutuality, quoting Confucius who said, “There can be no man until there are two men in relation.” We learn how to be human through communities and our relationships with others and we become more fully human as we move (as the child from his earlier example) from dependence and egotism to independence and more fully, interdependence. He also suggests that failures here will lead to a range of negative character traits and that all of these come through fear. Fears directed at those we stand in personal relation to and have been unable, or unsupported, to overcome. Dealing with these fears he says, is an educational problem and he also references what he calls the perversity of educators using fear as a strategy. It is he says a perversion and self defeating as, while it may deliver short term results, it will not secure long lasting effects as it maintains an association with fear that developing human beings will want to distance themselves from.

Again returning his own debate and one with pertinence today MacMurray acknowledges that there are some who would not see this as being the work of schools and that they should not and cannot, be expected to deliver these aspects of an education. He suggests however that the relational nature of teaching means that this work is both fundamental and inescapable. A responsible school, he says, should be aware of the needs and be responsibly concerned with these even where other agencies are doing their work effectively. This then makes it all the more pertinent today when there is a greater need.

He also offers a second fundamental reason why schools should be concerned with the nature of community; that they are communities. And vitally the next step in understanding community relations as a child moves from the smaller community of the family into the wider societal community. It is the first time that our success and acceptance depends on our own qualities and our own efforts, and we only learn to live in community by living in one.

MacMurray next moves his attention to what he calls sensibility, stating that he would use sensuality but has concerns over the reception that might be given to that word. Senses are vital to the development of a fully rounded human being and that concern over these senses and the seeking of sensation overtaking the individual in some kind of base fashion actually hold these senses at the childish and crude level. We should rather allow the senses to be explored and dealt with and through this process support learners to gain better control over them. This moves one from looking and hearing, to seeing and listening, and into what he feels the Greek philosophers meant by a contemplative state. If we as educators don’t support learners along this process then we are likely to keep them at a crude level of sensibility, which, according to MacMurray, is barbarous.

This lack of acceptance and encouragement of sensibility also suppresses creativity, which MacMurray sees as a birthright. He argues that an education that emphasises rationalisation and calculation while neglecting contemplation may produce adults that are ready to follow routines and to do as they are told but little else – something he sees as an educational perversion.

As he moves on to discuss technical training and technologies as were developing at the time he is careful not to dismiss the need to be aware of and include this as part of an education but he resists the notion that this can be done in a way in which teaching is turned into a serious of classroom tricks. He uses the example of a man teaching poetry that does not love poetry. Saying that if we seek to reduce teaching to know-how with the illusion that if it doesn’t go right it is some form of technical approach that we have wrong, MacMurray refers again to education being perverted for misguided ends.

He leaves us with an interesting thought but also with an optimistic ending. That perhaps the worst teachers are those that work to a theory in the tick box, there must be ‘the’ way method while failing to see the key message of learning how to be human. But he is not despondent as he sees redemption in the enormous capacity for resistance that children possess.

I use the quotation in the image above by way of an introduction, as this was after all a lecture from 1958. More crucially though the notion of a spirit still being alive while the words may need to be updated and language reflected upon not only brought to mind my discussions with E.D. Hirsch blogged about previously but also stood out when idea after idea that he goes through in his lecture seemed to still be ones that are debated today.

While some of what he says is obviously very much a product of the times (the church, the role of boarding schools etc) what I think still resonates is the idea that if we are brave enough as educators we can look at the development of the human being – MacMurray’s truest purpose for education – and see that some of the things that inhibit us (such as the anxiety over sensibilities in the classroom as some sort of carnal abandonment) should not be feared as readily. In fact if we are able to see learning how to be human as a valuable and integral aim of education then we can combine the other elements of education that MacMurray may not regard as highly but certainly does not negate and make it a truly emancipatory process

Go well

What’s The Excuse This Time?

Stick with me here but there are few phrases that I find more infuriating than, “No Excuses.” Well, I suppose that, “our sort of kids,” is just as annoying. Both because they seem to be used to give excuses to the ones I think shouldn’t be able to glibly offer them. Adults.

When discussing results with the head of department at a school in town a couple of years ago I was told that the previous year (who had what made what would be regarded by even the most generous of assessors as shocking levels of progress) had done well, “for Yarmouth kids.” As a teacher who had spent nearly two decades in coastal towns with low aspiration I could almost see where this perspective had come from, but as a “Yarmouth kid” I offered to go and get my certificates and show just what we could achieve. Is it any wonder that the community has low aspirations when those that should be raising them have decided to settle for mediocrity on behalf of the children?

Equally if the curriculum we offer is designed to meet the level that we perceive children to be capable of now, or in the past, rather than what we believe they can truly achieve given the very best teaching then we are lowering aspiration and expectations for those who we should be pushing on. The accusation lazily thrown around of ‘dumbing down’ when schools seek to make sure that a curriculum meets the needs of its students can easily become justified if we are actually offering qualifications we feel students can achieve without being pushed, supported and taught to the very best of our ability. Are we looking at what they truly need or simply the lowest common denominator and using low starting points or poor educational histories to give ourselves excuses based on a less than complimentary view of, “our sort of kids.”

And yet it’s not good enough to challenge these perceptions, self or otherwise, by simply storming in with a no prisoners taken, no holds barred approach and expecting that we can just expect students, families and communities to pull up their boot straps stop making excuses and bloody well get sorted.

“No Excuses” seems to me to have been taken up as a rallying call by people with the very best of intentions but an equal dose of misunderstanding and poor application. A child who can’t manage to carry an idea with them for more than five minutes without the need to be refocused isn’t providing excuses when they drift or ask questions after the first fifteen minutes of thirty minute teacher exposition. A child who has arrived in the country sixth months ago who doesn’t know the alphabet in English so needs to ask you to write things out for them and takes longer than you’d ideally want to keep up isn’t simply using this as an excuse. A twelve year old who has just lost a parent and can’t manage to maintain focus throughout the day as a result isn’t providing excuses. What they all have is barriers. Obstacles to learning that need to be overcome.

And I do stress the idea that they need to be, and should be overcome. In the increasingly polarised educational world that we find ourselves in – the most toxic and damaging feature to have come to the fore in recent years – we find ourselves either uncaring and disinterested in the differing needs of young people, or soft hearted liberals willing to throw away education and the future of those in our care because we are too busy handing them a tissue and excusing them from science. I don’t think people are simply at either of these lazily characterised extremes – or at least I hope not. You would be neglectful if you didn’t want students to have academic success, to learn stuff during their time in school, to enable them to have the widest opportunity and life chances and choices by the time they leave. Equally, you’d have to be a pretty grim person not to see that each student in your care has their own wonderfully complex personality and not find joy in working with them and seeing these individuals bloom and engage in their education and the myriad experiences that school and life can provide.

I have no idea why we seem to look for ways to set ourselves against each other but it seems to have become the norm. Maybe insecurities in the profession have made us unable to look for ways to support and collaborate and instead see threat and attack everywhere. Ros McMullen has done an excellent job of looking at these contradictions and what we miss by throwing ourselves so heartily into the disagreements and discord created by them here. Ros is far more succinct than I could ever hope to be so, while I’ll leave you to read her rather then explore more here, I do wonder whether or not these rows are a factor in people looking at teaching and deciding it’s not for them, or others deciding to leave. It’s definitely something I’ve found to be more negative and frustrating than any curriculum change, accountability measure or student behaviour.

So what about these excuses then?

The notion of “No Excuses” first came into my world through a principal at a primary school. It was being used across a range of audiences and causing a fair bit of upset and offence in most cases. Parents weren’t used to being challenged, students thought it was unfair as they couldn’t hide behind anything and staff thought it was, well, they took the same stance as the students in a number of cases!

The phrase had come in this case from Future Leaders and it was Heath Monk, formerly the CEO of the group that made me look at it in a very different way when he said how the intention behind “No Excuses” was that it was applied far more to teachers and other adults than children. It was our excuses, the, “our sort of kids,’ excuses and, “what do you expect,” get out clauses that were intended to be challenged. This wasn’t a stick to beat children with and let everyone else off.

So what would it mean if we were to look at things from this perspective? Could we actually agree that there should be no excuses? No excuse for children from whatever background, with whatever learning or behavioural difficulty and with whatever events in their lives to fail to achieve just as much as anyone else. No excuse given by us for them not succeeding. That I can get behind.

And as someone who has here and on other occasions bemoaned polarisation it would be well within your rights to charge me at this point with taking the responsibility for all of this and laying it at the staffroom door and not the family home or child’s bedroom. To make me one of those leftie liberals allowing anarchy to reign and kids to do what they like while berating the poor teachers for having the audacity to have expectations of children and just wanting to teach them. But of course it’s not that simple.

If we see what are deemed excuses in some quarters as barriers and obstacles to be removed or overcome then we need to realise that everyone has to be part of the team that removes these. If we are going to genuinely claim that we have the interests of the student at heart and believe that there is more to education than a simple transmission of knowledge from one learned vessel to an empty one then we also need to acknowledge that students can’t have it all done for them. They need to step up and employ strategies to be able to overcome the barriers and not hide behind them, or be allowed to. We need to provide the ladder.

So maybe this is something that we can unify on. Rather than “No Excuses” being a way to deny that some students need different things from us or to beat staff with when they are working with those more challenging students lets see it as a challenge to us all. What are the barriers and obstacles that can be used as excuses by all of us – schools, parents and students? What needs to be done to make sure that these don’t just become excuses to hide behind? And what do each of the three parts of a successful education triad need to do to make sure that they are swept aside and our children have the greatest chances to succeed?

Even ones from Yarmouth!

Go well


We Can Have Both

Some time ago when at a teacher training recruitment event a chap interested in teaching maths asked me if we’d figured out how to do it yet. We’d been at it for a while now so surely we must have it sorted and teaching made significantly straightforward and easy by following the logical slot ‘a’ into tab ‘b’ procedure that leads to learning.

Obviously, being a more rounded and wider thinking literature graduate and English teacher, I extended sympathy towards the poor fellow and his simplistic view of life shaped by years of certain answers and equations with clear patterns and formulae. Of course there is no ‘way’ to do it. That’s what makes the job so interesting, diverse and stimulating. The human agency of teacher and student and the almost endless possibilities created by the various computations of adult and child and combinations of children in different groups for different subjects, the excitement of a subject that enthralls them, the persistence in the face of those that provide more of a challenge are what gives the variety and reward. Although thinking about it the chap at the event could perhaps have generated an algorithm to work these things out.

And yet I read more and more about different attempts to generate checklists, scripts and models that would seemingly reduce the need to take this human agency into account. I can see the appeal of these. Life would be more straightforward, no need to worry about the differing needs of different groups, no need for planning, assessment could almost run itself and a simple behavioural system generated and administered centrally would remove the need to worry about building relationships with any children.

I’m not suggesting that these materials, curricula and lessons won’t be of high quality. That descends into an either/or debate which is reductive and unhelpful. There are without doubt a range of people with huge levels of expertise in creation of subject materials or assessment (some of whom don’t even have twitter accounts – I know!) and building curriculum models who will and should be sharing this expertise and providing ideas and resources for us all. It would be petulant to not see the value in this and want to make something of it but I wonder in this era of polarization and seeking of ‘the answer’ whether this is fast becoming all we look for and value and what gets left behind in the process.

Imagine yourself at the finest restaurant, designed with architecture as classical or as modern as your heart desires with food prepared from the finest (probably locally sourced if TV chefs are to be believed) ingredients and blended into the most wonderful culinary creations you could ever contemplate. Then picture your waiter/waitress. What do you have in mind?

I’d imagine it’s someone who knows the menu inside and out, can make recommendations, wine suggestions. Someone that can answer your questions and make you feel like they are interested in you and want to make sure that you get everything possible from the meal. A full experience that goes further than the simple filling of a belly with fuel to get you through.

Someone who can do that does more than just serve food and no matter how well prepared that food is and how fantastic the ingredients simply won’t take anything from the meal – or want to return – if it’s missing.

As I’ve said already I’m not saying we shouldn’t want subject specific excellence or work to build teacher experience and expertise in whatever field it is they’ve decided to teach but let’s not leave out the more complex relational work that is essential if we want this curriculum work to have the impact that we want and need it to. Your well prepared ingredients left on the very expensive and stylish plates and dishes they were dumped on the table on.

Someone posted question on Twitter in the week asking if scripted lessons and policies could lead to a deskilling of the profession and when you combine this with funding cuts meaning schools may start to look at people other than teachers to deliver a scripted curriculum (if it’s all written for them why do you need the qualifications?) then there is a definite possibility that a certain skillset interns of relational work could well be lost and I think we and our schools will be poorer for it.

As a form teacher I can remember getting home from school and turning round to drive back to discuss with (for discuss read go ballistic at) another teacher what they’d said to a member of my form. I used to walk my form to assembly and take them for fire drills and feel they were an extension of me. I made the calls home, wanted to know where they were, why they were late etc. I felt responsibility for them and their actions and shared their hurt and their successes. As more support roles were introduced the distance between form teacher and home seemed to grow, or at least could if you let it, and while this meant greater efficiencies (they could make the calls home there and then etc) and certainly reduced workload I fear that in a number of cases it reduced the relationship and lessened the support. I remember opposing vehemently the suggestion that heads of subject shouldn’t have tutor groups – what a way to signify that pastoral roles are less valuable! When we allocate roles and jobs in school to people other than teachers we have to be vigilant for any signs that these jobs don’t lose their status and their work starts to be seen as less important as a result. If we genuinely want to educate our students and enable them to make a better world we have to look at more rounded ways to shape this future than replacing Harry Potter with Homer and thinking that will do the job. Children need help working out the world and how to be part of it and that needs to be more than being told “I know better” as this doesn’t really deliver without an understanding of why.

So let’s keep developing the subject expertise, building the curriculum and assessment models. Let’s continue to look at the range of roles we need in schools and make sure that the people with the capacity and the expertise to best support our students and ensure they are able to learn and make the most of every opportunity afforded them – I work with one of the best behaviour support mentors you could wish for. But let’s not do so at the expense of recognising the importance of, and rewards that come from, the relational work that we as classroom teachers do. To do a terrible disservice to a great work in search of a snappy finish the human agency in our classrooms might be harder to unpick and understand than criteria, and riskier to work with, but when it’s realised it can be bloody beautiful.

Go well

Don’t you know? Don’t you care? Don’t you know – about Love?

Oh Christ, he's using Freire..abandon hope all who enter here...

Oh Christ, he’s using Freire..abandon hope all who enter here…


I remember a poster appearing in the kitchen of my halls of residence some time between the warm bottle of free Labatt’s Ice we were given during fresher’s week and the point we realised that we might have to hide our U2 tapes and pretend to like Jeff Buckley if were to hope to maintain any of the mystique of cool we might have arrived with. Either that or get a telly. The poster in question was, I think, put up by the student arm of the Socialist Worker and celebrated the fact that a student at another university had been chased off the campus and been forced to leave for holding extreme right wing views. His views did seem abhorrent to my way of thinking and my approach to life but all the same it seemed to me that forcing him out of education and institutions where we should champion freedom of speech and expression was a case of using the tactics of those that were supposed to disgust his opponents to get rid of him.

This kind of extremism is always something that I’ve had trouble with and while I’ve held very firm convictions myself – and still do – I’ve tried to always be willing to listen to some of the ideas being expressed in opposition and see if there’s some way to find something in the other person’s argument that was worth taking on board. I’ve not always been very good at it I’ll admit but it’s a starting point. I’ve written and spoken before about the concept of I’m Ok, You’re Ok and always working hard to see everyone else in a positive light, somewhere, possibly deeply hidden, but somewhere. Like I say I’m not always that successful in maintaining that viewpoint but I think some of that comes from my mum who always inserts a “try to” when saying the line in The Lord’s Prayer about forgiving others for their trespasses.

It’s the apparent disappearance of this willingness to see any value whatsoever in the views or opinions of others that led me to duck out of Twitter for a bit. I’ve recently been reading James Hoggan’s book on the state of public discourse, “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot” and this with the backdrop of a Trump electoral campaign, itself coming hot on the heels of a referendum result that seemed to embolden a wide range of extreme views and groups, was enough to make me start to get quite agitated. Hoggan makes a quite simple point that there is no validity in describing what you do as dialogue or debate if all you are interested in doing is battering the other person until they concede that your idea or stance is the only one and abandon their own. And on twitter of late this seems to be brought about to a greater extent but calling up a group of friends (pack of wolves?!) through quoted retweet or similar. This is why I think a number of debates are stale or lame. Not because there is no merit in discussion but parties only want to carry on the debate to prove they are the ones in the right or and to satiate ego not further exploration and discovery. As Freire (and that’ll be enough to enrage some!) put it,

How can I enter into a dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never see my own? How can I enter into dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men – mere ‘its’ in whom I cannot recognise other ‘I’s? How can I enter into dialogue if I consider myself to be part of the in-group of ‘pure’ men, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ‘these people’ or ‘the great unwashed’? 

The other way this extremism has manifested is in extreme standpoints on a range of issues, all of which again remove the chances for any true dialogue and progress. I am happy to concede that there are behavioural issues that need to be addressed in almost all schools and that it is a key part of what we do to to develop better, positive behaviours in the young people we work with if they aren’t there already but I distance myself from the suggestion that schools are war zones. I am sure that there are leaders who are so focused on results and data for fear of their own vulnerable positions that they find it hard to protect staff from this leading to extra burden and workload that others have found strategies to fend off and the confidence and support to resist but I can’t subscribe to the view that senior leaders automatically transform into bastards at the moment of appointment. I am equally sure that in a number of schools there are teachers who struggle to cope with the classes they have and are disillusioned with the profession and need support and energy to enable them to see what they joined the profession for but I find it just as difficult to condemn these teachers to the scrapheap or ‘put a bomb under them’ as I do to swallow the ‘blame SLT’ mantra.

So dear reader (and I use the singular advisedly) I began to tire. I have also opened a new school and taken the lead on pastoral matters which is guaranteed to emotionally impact on you, and this coupled with the loss of my dad in the first week of term left me a little open to being scarred and as I’ve got quite an impulsive nature and can respond based on this with little recourse to thought and consideration at the best of times I decided to take a little time out to refresh and refocus.

But I’m back now…

I started my rebirth with a tweet about how everyone seems to have started to hate kids and part of my reason to return (hopefully in a reasonable state of mind) is the worry caused by lots of what I’ve read recently and what it seems to suggest about the way people are considering children. I hope I’m not right and have been overly sensitive but something makes me think I’m not when I see responses to these views being challenged.

There seems to be a pervading view that children don’t have that much to offer and bring little to the table. That they are ignorant vessels with little idea how to behave who are unworthy of interaction and dialogue. Who need to obey and bow down to the greatness of the teacher simply because we are the teacher and accept our greatness whether we demonstrate any worthiness of it or not.

At this point in most posts I’d dropping something about exaggerating for effect but this time I’m not and while I’m not quoting word for word what’s been written and have amalgamated some phrases this isn’t far off what’s been said.

Now before I wander into hypocrisy and looking like I don’t swallow my own calpol (nostalgic reference to get you back on side) raising my concerns here doesn’t mean I don’t think that students should behave (duh), or that we don’t have things to teach them. That they can all get it through Google or be left alone in a classroom to explore their way to exam success or personal development. But I certainly question that they have nothing to offer, that they have no idea how to behave or moral framework unless we impose one on them or that they need to unquestioningly obey. What concerns me (or let’s be honest starts to anger me) is that these ideas seem to be applied most readily to students in disadvantaged communities as if we have made decision as a profession that the wealthier kids will automatically behave while the poor ones need it drummed in to them and can only be saved by some sort of modern day missionary taking civilisation to the savages – very much an I’m Ok, You’re Not mentality.

I’ve spent my life and my career in disadvantaged communities and schools and my current role means I spend time with the students who are some of the most complex in times of emotional and educational need, display the most challenging behaviours and, when I work with some families in my capacity as safeguarding lead, have been involved and exposed to some of the darkest parts of human nature. Do I want them to improve behaviour? Yes. Do I want them to make greater progress academically? Yes Do I view them as lesser people because they aren’t doing these things yet? No.

Every student in my school has shown me that they can do what is asked of them and what is required for them to make a success of their time with us. There’s not one who doesn’t know what good behaviour is and hasn’t felt the glow when they get it right either in terms of actions or classroom tasks. Who hasn’t held a door, or said good morning, or please or thank you, who doesn’t stand up when an adult enters the room. And yet these would be exactly the sort of students that seem to be in the minds of those espousing this form of obedience. Self esteem and self efficacy are they keys to ensuring these students are able to demonstrate these things each and every day and, most importantly, want to do them as they see the intrinsic value and impact of their actions as something more than avoiding being told off. I know these students will respond to negative reinforcement – they get it everywhere – but I don’t think we are really offering educational excellence if we use the same methods.

I also worry about other impacts of this approach and the detrimental effect it could have on students’ feelings of safety and community, of being part of something. If we consider our students to be of lower status with views that are less valid and as someone who shouldn’t be taught to challenge and question in the safe environment of a school, with teachers comfortable enough in themselves to allow the development of true discussion and argument ,will they have the skills to question those around them with less noble motives? Think back through safeguarding training and your Prevent agenda work and consider what you went through when identifying what made students vulnerable. If we don’t develop self esteem and we look at any group of students as ‘these people’ or the ‘great unwashed’ of Freire in our classrooms then they can be in danger of starting to look elsewhere for this affirmation.

The thing is I can see the appeal of this mindset. It takes time to develop self esteem in a young person, it’s very quick to put them in their place and tell them to obey. The same can be said for enabling children to understand number, or metaphor, or to be able to analyse a source. It’s much easier and quicker to just tell them the answers and have them repeat them back. But none of these are long term approaches and all provide false comfort for a struggling or inexperienced teacher looking to gain some success and confidence, or equally to the headteacher expecting a visit from a luminary and wanting to give an appearance of order and educational advancement. Yes, the kids all stood and recited Shakespeare and were neat and tidy while you glowered and drilled it into them for the local MP or Secretary of State but how many understood the words they were saying, could remember it a month later or gave a damn about what they’d read and said afterwards? I once asked Hirsch if we were in danger of cultural reproduction but sometimes I feel we’re in danger of not even achieving that as we look for quick wins and only really manage cultural imitation. We’re not even giving these students the knowledge to join the club, we’re kidding them (and ourselves?) that we are while the doors stay firmly shut and those inside relax in their leather chairs.

I’ve documented how I came to work with The Inspiration Trust and to be in my job before but when I think back the starting point was my umbrage at the thought of someone coming along and seeming to suggest they had all of the answers to offer to us poor little Norfolk people muddling along in our confused little ways without any recognition of what he had to offer. I was wrong two years ago and am prepared to be wrong now. I hope I’m wrong now, because while I’m prepared to listen and take on board ideas and suggestions I can’t comprehend or countenance an approach to teaching huge numbers young people seemingly based around seeing them as of lesser value and a belief that they are lacking any civility.

Bet you’ve missed me…

Lots of Love