Getting the balance right.
On Monday I spoke at an event organised by a leading BME Charity , Sharing Voices Bradford, an organisation I once had the privilege of chairing. The event titled "Dignity in Mental Health" was to mark World Mental Health Day.
Only a week ago yesterday in my constituency was the funeral of 11-year-old Asad Khan. Asad had taken his own life.
His tragic death has touched people far and wide and it has led to many discussions about the issues and pressure facing our young people. I could write a whole article on just social media and its role alone, but for now I'd like to share some conversations and thoughts about the role of our schools and education system.
We often reflect nostalgically for our childhood days, memories perhaps coloured by rose-tinted spectacles, a yearning for a time when our lives were worry free. But the death of 11-year-old Asad Khan has left all of us pondering just what has become of childhood, or more pertinently , what have we as adults done to "the best years of our lives".
We don't know the details of what was troubling Asad so much that he felt unable to discuss it with his family or friends. But what can be in little doubt is that it overwhelmed him and left him with a sense of hopelessness and despair. A sense of mental anguish that statistics from mental health charities suggest is afflicting increasing numbers of children and young people in our society.
Research seems to indicate that family life and friendships are still the place where children derive their strongest sense of self validation and happiness but there does appear to be a real issue around how our school systems are impacting on child mental health. Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of social policy at York University and co-author of Children's Worlds: An international survey of children's well-being commented:
"I think schools in Britain really need to be friendlier places, more concerned with social relationships and less focused on attainment. It's interesting that Norwegians are much happier at school than we are..but they are perhaps not as successful in achieving attainment outcomes - there's a bit of a trade-off there. We perhaps haven't got the balance right."
So the important questions for me are: how did we get here, and what do we do to get the balance right?
It is easier for us to blame the schools and the teachers, but the real responsibility of turning our school system into the exam factories they have come to resemble lies elsewhere. We should not point the finger at those professionals who work tirelessly in under resourced schools to improve the life chances of their pupils but the politicians who create the parameters and objectives by which they are judged. Things can and must be different.
In 1999, the Labour Government introduced the 'Excellence in Cities' (EiC) programme for urban schools introducing Learning Mentors and Parental Involvement Workers into the school workforce. The rationale was to improve schools ability to respond appropriately to both the social and emotional issues that increasing numbers of children faced and to involve parents much more closely in to the fabric and life of the school. Sure Start and the Extended Schools Programme developed this further with concerted efforts to embed the school as the centre of the community.
If it takes a 'village to raise a child' then EIC was a distinctly modernist attempt to recreate that holistic view of child development. To reach beyond the classroom both in terms of curriculum and pedagogy. To reassert that kids are not simply empty vessels to be filled with 'facts' but complex and complicated individual people who have their own unique history, knowledge, relationships and experiences. The success of EIC in terms of re-imagining what going to school should mean and and should feel like also produced significant improvements to academic outcomes. Listening to kids, their needs and concerns works!
But, paradoxically an approach which produced statistically observable improvements to attainment based on humanising the school experience and empowering children has been under relentless assault by those who believe we should push and work children harder, keep them at their desks longer and test them more; make nursery age children 'school ready', school age children 'work ready' and working age young people 'employer ready'.
One of my constituency staff, a governor at a local Bradford School, told me how the head teacher at his school had felt so brow beaten by the fear of Ofsted inspection that he had proposed shortening the lunch hour to thirty minutes so that his pupils could experience more 'quality' teaching time. The idea that the one aspect of the school day where children enjoyed some autonomy and the opportunity to 'play' freely might have had any role in the development of physically healthy and intellectually functioning young people had apparently become completely obscured. This is important. It really matters.
In a context of a physical environment where cars make 'playing out' after-school too dangerous, 'stranger danger' defines 'outside' as 'out of bounds' and our attitude to learning means schools demand that homework is done every night and play is either no longer what it meant to our generation, play is now iPad, video games or a luxury that can wait, that thing called 'childhood 'is getting squeezed.
Could it not just be that schools actually have a moral and intellectual role to defend the necessities of childhood?
If we can't support our Head Teachers and brilliant classroom teachers in doing this then to whom else can we entrust it. I have never met a teacher who didn't believe that play was not at the heart of all good learning and development, that a school which valued all children was not the best kind.
As the Government propose the re-introduction of Grammar schools and the segregation of our kids from their brothers, sisters and friends at the age of eleven and on the basis of one specific, under-developed human characteristic I wonder if we haven't just added one more nail in to the coffin of what were once the 'best years of our lives'.
It is time to get the balance right!