A Day of Contrasts

Last Wednesday I travelled with a colleague to Uxbridge to speak at the Hillingdon Designated Teachers Forum. Organised by Hillingdon’s Virtual School for Looked After Children the agenda was to explore effective and appropriate use of Pupil Premium money. KCA had been invited to share information about our work on attachment awareness in schools.

On the way there, I receive an email from our Training Director, Felicia Wood, that included this link.

The news item was that a secondary school in Brent was looking to recruit a ‘Director of Discipline’. The advert for this position included three questions:

‘Do you like order and discipline?

Do you believe in children being obedient every time?

Do you believe that allowing children to make excuses is unkind?’

As I read on my heart sank. Images started popping into my head: Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda; disturbing images of 6-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide men in combat fatigues sanctioned to abuse children in American boot camps.

With these thoughts bubbling away, I delivered my 10-minute presentation on why attachment awareness in schools is so important and how current findings from neuroscience about the neurophysiology of relationships are helping us to find new ways to think about how we respond to behaviour and close the attainment gap.

The second presentation was from Jake Curtis, the Director of Programmes and Operations at Jamie’s Farm. This wonderful charity offers a unique combination of ‘farming, family and therapy’ that aims ‘to re-engage children with educational life, and enable them to fulfil their potential both in school and the wider social setting.’ Listening to Jake’s presentation it was clear that, whilst the team at Jamie’s Farm know that the activity and the environment they provide are important factors, the key to their success is their workforce. Jake described the team at Jamie’s Farm as ‘nurturing, warm and authentic adults’. As I listened on I could have added into that ‘assertive, confident, passionate, committed…’.

The next presentation was from a primary school assistant headteacher, who I won’t name to ensure the anonymity of the young person at the centre of the case study he shared. The case study was about how he, the school staff team and other professionals around a young person in care had worked together to prevent exclusion and respond to a recent placement breakdown. He described how he, as a school leader, had given his colleagues the support they needed to stay resilient so that they could respond to the trauma-based needs presented by the young person. He explained that they had located the effort of the team around the child on supporting the new foster carer to establish herself as the young person’s primary attachment figure. He celebrated that the adults around this young person had been able to bring her back to a secure base and that she was now expected to do very well in the next round of SATs.

I was left in no doubt that the narrative this young person was being given the opportunity to build was:

‘You are a bright, strong, lovable person. There are things that have happened in your life that are very painful and would not in an ideal world happen to any child, but we can’t change those things. We can, however, determine that you will not be excluded from school and that all the adults around you are pulling together to do all we can to ensure you can get the very best out of school and your new foster placement. It is not OK for you to lash out at people or disrupt other people’s time in school, so the adults are going to ensure that this doesn’t happen and, all the while, will keep you and everyone in the school community safe.’

We are facing an emotional well-being and mental health crisis in this country that is hitting our young people hardest. We do not yet fully understand how and if this is exacerbated by digital media, the politics of envy, the experience of relative deprivation and the widening gap between the richest and poorest.

However, neuroscientific findings are helping us to have greater understanding than ever about what people need to thrive and how the relationships between people are the key to turning the curve. The link to the advert that Felicia had sent me had filled me with anxiety. Listening to the other contributors at the forum reminded me that we are blessed with a workforce of people driven by authentic, unsentimental compassion who are willing, in the face of increased levels of toxic stress in our communities, to work doggedly to bring about transformation.

This day of contrast reconfirmed my belief that focusing effort on building and maintaining the resilience of that workforce is fundamental. And that if some pupil premium is used to support and develop the workforce so that they in turn are able to effectively help children and young people to develop self-regulation, then this will be money well spent.