The polarised debates in education

I am fascinated by the sudden awareness of whole new worlds that I didn’t realise existed until I fell into them. I distinctly remember the time when, at the age of 21, I bought my first car. It was a yellow mini and I called it Lemon Pie (do people still name their cars these days?). As soon as I got behind the wheel I started noticing yellow minis everywhere – and they started noticing me. I was part of a club; and one that clearly had always been there, but that I had never been aware of before. I felt a bit guilty as my membership had been bestowed upon me accidentally really – it just happened to be the car that I bought. Other members were obviously completely committed, and had probably striven hard to join. Was I really a bona fide yellow mini owner? Did I really deserve to belong? I would wave back, of course, albeit tentatively, but I never waved first. Furthermore I had no idea where yellow minis stood in the pecking order of other car clubs on the road at the time….who was looking down on me and who was looking up?

I feel a bit like that with #edutwitter. Suddenly I am privy to a constant and, at times, raging debate regarding practices in education that I had no idea existed. Questions and dilemmas that have fascinated me on and off for years are playing out tweet by tweet. There are strong and often polarised views; and antagonism between positions and, dare I say, factions. I am often taken aback by the tone of criticism from some strong and influential voices; and it is not a place I would like to find myself were I a newly qualified teacher finding my own way in the profession. Indeed the conviction that there is a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way seems very present. As a child psychologist with over 25 years experience in mental health services  I know where I stand on some of the issues discussed; and others leave me lunging between outraged, perplexed, relieved and awe inspired by a profession I hugely admire. I have resisted getting involved as I know I don’t really belong. Indeed I have heard others like myself described as ‘arm chair experts’ because they have never ‘walked the walk’ and taught a class; and particularly a challenging class. Or, in that particular pecking order of credibility, those who have never ‘turned around’ a ‘failing school’. I get that.

But then again I am passionate about what happens in all aspects of children’s lives – as a child psychologist, as a parent, and as a citizen. Also, I have a view shaped by many years of studying and working with children as a clinician; and managing a service that provides psychological interventions to children from a wide range of backgrounds; and experiencing often very severe difficulties. Most importantly, I am passionate about partnership work and I believe wholeheartedly that schools should not be on their own in addressing the issues facing our children and young people, particularly when it comes to mental health. And let me be very clear, I consider behaviour to be mental health, or at least one window onto a child’s emotional world. We are all in this together. It is down to this belief that I have stumbled into #edutwitter, a bit like I stumbled into being a yellow mini owner – only this time I am daring to wave first; and I have no idea if anyone will wave back, or indeed make any sort of hand gesture….

My first reflection is that, at the heart of the debate lies an age old dichotomy I have observed time and time again in both my professional, and indeed, my personal life. Extreme views on how things should be done when it comes to bringing up children. Most frequently in my clinical work it is a divide between two parents and their respective parenting styles (gentle/firm, permissive/restrictive, liberal/authoritarian – call it what you will) although this often plays out in teams and across services too. Children are, inevitably, caught in the middle and suffering as a result. In these situations, having been invited in, my role is to listen very hard to both perspectives, establish their origins and intentions, and help both move towards a middle ground that focuses on the child at the centre; and drawing on the strengths of the respective positions. It gets more complicated when there are sibling groups because, of course, children are unique and need different things. There is nothing more flummoxing for parents than when, for example, what worked brilliantly for one child fails miserably when number two comes along. No wonder it gets exponentially more complex when we are talking about educating an entire nation of children, from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds, and in a system that assumes they can all be treated the same. Surely this means there has to be much more nuance in this debate; and a need for much more collaborative and flexible solutions?

My second reflection is that every teacher is as unique as the children they teach. That’s how it works – children grow up into adults after all; and some of them go on to work in education. What this means is that every teacher’s way of relating to children is unique too. Surely there is not one way of teaching, just as there is not one way of being a parent or being a psychologist for that matter? Of course, there are some guiding principles and values, and key tools and strategies that are required to get the job done, but everyone has a different style. We celebrate this in our psychology team, recognising that beyond their core role, every psychologist brings unique and hugely valuable differences. We are dealing with the complexity of the human condition after all. I hear the importance of this in respect of teachers from my own children frequently – they like different teachers for different reasons; and they bring the best out of them in different ways. It is definitely not always about being ‘down with the kids’. I remember once having a discussion about a teacher I found to be a bit cold and intimidating. “Mum you just don’t get it; she only cares about us. She doesn’t care what the parents think of her.” Oh. That told me; and tells me that teachers have to be celebrated for their differences.

Linked to that is my third reflection, which is about authenticity. It was one of the strongest messages that came out of a piece of work our Community Psychology service has recently undertaken asking young people about what helps give them a sense of belonging in their school. Kids spot it a mile off when teachers are not being themselves; and what they value most is a personal connection that feels genuine. It makes me think about a discussion we had in our service meeting about the new trend on You Tube for the way teachers greet their class members at the beginning of the day. It started with examples of elaborate, high five-ing, fist pumping rituals unique to every child; and then there were examples where children could choose the welcome they wanted by pointing to a sign on the wall, including hugs and more low key waves to suit the individual. This felt like a really nice development that recognised each child was different. One of our team, who had herself been a teacher for many years, commented on how intimidated this whole approach would have made her feel, despite being passionate that a warm greeting is a key priority. “There is no way I could have done that – it just wouldn’t feel comfortable”. My point is that that is absolutely fine, and doing it self-consciously because it was seen as something everyone should do would be worse than not doing it at all. I know for certain she would have greeted every child in a welcoming way – just not that way.

My fourth reflection is around the concept of intention – something I believe is essential to establish in any strategy that is employed in a school. Let’s take as an example, the intention of ‘silent corridors’, something I have to say I was shocked by when I saw it in a headline (which, of course, is the point of headlines). However, when I dug a bit deeper there is a rational that makes a lot of sense in some contexts. Corridors can feel the scariest place in schools for some young people, especially those who are anxious or sensitive to noise and crowds ( I have heard this from many young people over the years) and transitions can be the hardest part of the school day. If the intention is to create a safe and relaxed space for children to get from A to B then that is very different to a dogma that children should be seen and not heard. Of course, silence is extreme, and impossible to achieve for some of our more impulsive and often more vulnerable children, but if it is explained and encouraged with a warm and smiling face, and acknowledged that it can be hard, then that is very different to failure being punished with an inflexible consequence. Indeed, the intention of any strategy needs to be reviewed if children are consistently failing, especially if it is the same children who are consistently failing. Also, what are the unintended consequences and who is impacted by these the most? In ‘zero tolerance’ environments it will be our most vulnerable kids who don’t have the support at home to have the perfectly turned out uniform, or equipment or who are regularly distracted by worries outside of the classroom.

To conclude my first tentative wave at #edutwitter, there are, of course, far better qualified people who are bona fide members of the club, and who have written far more extensively and eloquently about the essential qualities of psychologically minded schools than I ever can. However, for what it is worth, my top three would include a feeling of belonging for everyone (students, staff, parents), a feeling of efficacy for everyone, and a feeling of autonomy for everyone. If these are in place then the rest will follow; including the holy grail of achievement. This draws on the growing evidence base that we cannot think and learn unless we feel safe; and we cannot feel safe unless we feel valued and of value. For this to be achieved in something as big and diverse as a school; especially a secondary school, needs strong leadership.  This leadership can take many forms, but in my opinion it needs to acknowledge nuance, embrace difference, model and celebrate authenticity; and have at it’s heart a belief in the power of relationships to make a difference. Most importantly it has to be reflective; recognising that sometimes there are unintended consequences despite the best of intentions. Talking of which, I hope that my reflections will be received in the way that they were intended – as a supportive guest member of the #edutwitter club.

Disclaimer: the blogs and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect Platfform’s own views – some are provided by external parties.