Should We Be Worrying About The Worrying?

Never have concerns over children’s mental health been so prominent in the news – and rightly so. Statistics for both adults and children regarding both mental health diagnoses and funding undoubtedly need our attention. In January 2016, NHS Digital began to collect figures regarding the number of under-19s in contact with mental health services; in June, number stood at 235,189. That’s 1 in 50 young people. That figure alone is shocking – on average, that’s at least one student in every other class, and at least several students in every year group in a school. What’s more frightening than that, though, is the unspoken statistics. 1 in 50 only begins to tell the true story: having the confidence, appropriate environment or support network is already a huge step for many young people, who continue to suffer in silence, remaining undetected by such data collections and yet still in need of help.
Whilst there has always been a need to increase the focus and funding on the mental health provision for young people, it has become a particularly pressing issues in recent years, with mounting evidence regarding the increasing pressures that young people face. Not only have the pressures being placed on schools and teachers trickled through to the attitudes of students, but the very climate of our society has changed. With economic inequalities and pressures, tense and unbalanced political and global situations and a range of uncertainties about what our children’s future will actually look like, it is no wonder that so many school-age students are suffering as a consequence.
The symptoms of some common mental health issues amongst both young people and adults (including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders to name but a few of the most diagnosed examples) are hitting the headlines regularly now. Whilst some of the stigma attached to discussing mental and emotional issues has decreased through the brilliant work of organisations such as MIND, it still remains a marginalised health point compared to more tangible or physical issues – partly because to discuss mental health is still seen as a ‘weakness’ (particularly but far from exclusively with males) but also because it is inevitably harder to explain or talk through compared to a tangible problem such as a broken limb or physical illness. Although a £250 million annual funding increase for children and adolescent mental health services was announced before the election, in 2015-16 this was not fully met, and this is most certainly a contributing factor to the fact that discussing and tackling mental health is still such a pressing matter.
Nevertheless, despite ongoing financial battles with government funding and budget cuts (which must continue to be fought), it is imperative we begin to change approaches and attitudes towards mental health in schools regardless of broken money promises, both giving more time and significance to its teaching and creating more open, accepting atmospheres in educational settings in which issues can be raised. One of the biggest issues still in dealing with mental health issues is the inevitable stigma attached to having negative or perceived ‘weak’ feelings, as well as having the language with which to articulate anxiety, damaging thought processes or any challenging emotions in the first place. This must be a focus of PSCHE and pastoral time in primary and secondary education, but it can also be a driving force behind lessons. When teaching Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for instance, I shared a link to a MIND resource regarding split personality disorders, and current research into some forms of mental health issues that were even more stigmatised by Victorian society than they are today; it led to an incredibly vibrant class discussion, and narrowed the gap between learning and real life. By promoting Young Adult reading for pleasure and opening dialogue about some of the issues discussed, too, we can continue to normalise mental health issues and make students aware that they come in all shapes and sizes, and anyone can be affected. Having hit the big screens earlier this year, I read and promoted amongst students the brilliant ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness, which deals with anxiety, dealing with trauma and the very idea that we can all be visited by “monsters” in our minds; what we need to focus on is not pretending those demons don’t exist, but how they best be managed.
So that is my main message, I think. With more reports this week of the increased anxiety that students face (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-38861155), it is imperative that all educational and social avenues become standard forums for the articulation of any mind-related matters. The more opportunities we find to normalise discussions around mental health, the better.

Posted in Uncategorized

Top Trumps

One educational story to hit the headlines this week has trumped all others; the children’s word of the year is, concerningly but perhaps not unsurprisingly, ‘trump’.
This slightly frightening fact is drawn from research by Oxford University Press, who analysed the literacy of BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words Story Competition. (For the full article, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40277819). Taking into account the work of over 130,000 children, the word ‘trump’ took the undeniable lead. Although this included many unusual variations on the root word (‘Trumplestilskin’ is a personal favourite), it undoubtedly shows how much our current political climate influences the marvellous – and malleable – minds of the next generation.
Now, we could see this research in a darkly humorous way and enjoy the endless punning potential that accompanies a surname like Trump. We could also see this revelation in a positive way and celebrate the fact this this shows a level of youth engagement with global, cultural and societal issues – or at least, an awareness of the biggest names and news stories. We could also see this result in a worrying way, of course and reflect on the irreversible impact of having a controversial (to put it mildly) world leader with controversial (to put it mildly) beliefs and controversial (to put it mildly) suggestions for the future or our politics and our planet.
Of course, his name (and face) have been endlessly splashed across our screens this year, so it’s no wonder that he has featured so highly in children’s story ideas. What does it say about the impact of our media’s political focus if the president’s policies and personality are so overpowering that his name has overtaken some of the other most frequently used words, such as “super”, the onomatopoeic “arrrghhh” and… and Snapchat.
Yes. The totalitarian triumph of Trump is not the only concern to emerge from the data crunching of this children’s competition; it is not only the announcement of the winning word that shows the new and uncertain world that young people today are growing up in. The emerging trends of children’s most widely used vocabulary is an interesting gateway into our new society, skewed by social media and changed by technology. Now, I would not wish to suggest that our online-driven identities are a wholly a negative issue – with the advancements of communication channels such as Skype, the accessibility and informative potential of the world wide web, as well as the scientific possibilities of technology in industries such as medicine, I would never wish to give a blanket condemnation of our digital developments. (There is a whole new article waiting to be written about the positive impact of technological advancements – watch this space).
However, for me, the dystopian face of technology has led to some of the most damaging changes in the UK and the fact that new proper nouns like Snapchat and Instagram were some of the most popular words in the children’s competition is telling of the troubles that technology can cause: a selfie culture encouraging narcissism and negative self-image, a media mania that influences opinions and twists the truth, and a greater widening of our already frightening social mobility gaps, since technology can be used both constructively, to learn new skills and actively engage with the world, or detrimentally, to waste time and lead social skills to shrink.
The shining light here, of course, is that competitions like this are still running. Perhaps that should be our takeaway message here: children must be encouraged to keep reading (fictions as well as non-fictions and news stories) and to keep entering such competitions, which promote independence and imagination as well as a constructive, creative use of free time – far more constructive and creative, let’s say, than a few lost hours ‘snapchatting’, ‘instagramming’, ‘facebooking’, or whatever else-ing the latest technological trends dictate. Don’t let Trump permanently ‘trump’ the more extensive visions and vocabularies that our children deserve to have.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Return of Reading Models

With the upcoming General Election on the lips of every paper and programme, one word in particular has been a star of the rhetoric show. Hypocrisy. It is a tried and tested stereotype, of course, that politicians say many words we want to hear, making emphatic promises and advocating certain morals and values in their manifestos, and yet act in completely different and less beneficial ways once elected.
Politicians are not alone in facing the hypocrisy label, however. Our current political turmoil has highlighted just how hypocritical many parts of our society can be. (I highly recommend investigating the work of Katie Bonna, a female comedian who produced fabulous show on ‘The Lies We Tell Ourselves’, and the hypocrisies humans and societies are capable of). It seems to me that this could be applied to many adult behaviours, where we actively encourage children to behave in certain ways or condemn behaviours we see as wrong or wasteful, and yet continue to act incongruously with our own beliefs. One such example, which is undoubtedly a long term societal concern, is reading for pleasure.
The worrying decline in reading amongst both adults and children is not only a concern for society in general, but for our ever increasing educational divides in particular. The topic was certainly enough to inspire this week’s Secret Teacher blog in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/may/20/secret-teacher-were-not-reading-so-why-do-we-assume-children-will. Cognitive dissonance (a key focus on Katie Bonna’s show) couldn’t be any more relevantly applied to the too-often repeated phrase, “I wish I had time to read, but I simply don’t…”
“I didn’t have time to…”. “I would have, but I ran out of time.” “If only I had time for…”
Cognitive dissonance, or the lies we tell ourselves, has become more and more prevalent in our technology driven, madly busy society. More than anything, perhaps, we must change our perception of time, and how much of it we actually do have. With our attention constantly diverted by unstoppable notifications, overly addictive social media, and demands on our in-person and online time, it can be very easy to fall into the “I simply don’t have time to” trap. This certainly applies to teachers, who actively tell students to read and yet who, anecdotally, do far too little themselves; this was the impetus behind this week’s Secret Teacher blog. We often teach bits of books and disparate extracts (particularly with the new curriculum’s Unseen Papers, where students will be given bits of texts but there is never the time to contextualise and read the whole books, encouraging students’ enjoyment, cultural capital and literacy and contextual knowledge); combined with 60+ hour weeks, extra marking and revision sessions and ever demanding job descriptions, adults in schools are fast becoming the antonyms of reading role models.
I am biased, of course, as an absolute lover of reading and someone who obsessively now ‘books’ time to my day to read– even if it’s just 20 minutes whilst walking to school or before sleep. It’s easy for us to roll our eyes at the overplayed reasons why reading for pleasure is important. Not only does it improve our vocabulary and literacy skills, but it improves our ability to concentrate, remember and reflect (skills fast becoming extinct in the stress of our modern climate!), as well as to understand and appreciate different cultures and varied points of view. We have heard these before, but it still hasn’t catalysed change in the reading climate. Many school reading schemes – such as Drop Everything And Read, Accelerated Reading, allocated form reading time – are designed to be effective but often can just pay lip service to changing perceptions.
We need, more than anything, to challenge perceptions not through telling but through showing. We cannot reclaim a culture of readers amongst children and young adults if adults themselves make no time to read. What does this signal, other than the obvious suggestion that reading is not as important as checking that email, or updating Facebook, or scanning an article or two?
Changing attitudes to reading, I firmly believe, will have a life-changing impact on creating a more equal society and improving social mobility. If we –parents, teachers, tube travellers, fellow coffee shop dwellers, indeed, any form of adult – do not show the importance of reading by habitually doing so ourselves, how can we expect the next generation to give technological distractions a miss and pick up a real (or even digital!) book?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Call for Change

One new concern is ringing through society loud and clear – mobile misuse. Whilst the overuse and abuse of technology and its effects on children’s progress has been well documented, reports this week have focused not on children’s own use of mobiles and media but rather, that of their parents (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39666863). Home life is, arguably, the most influential factor in determining a child’s values and future – my experience working with children certainly points to the unquestionable influence that parents’ lifestyle, behaviour and beliefs has on those of their children. Within schools, many students quote the opinions and attitudes that they have heard at home as unquestionable fact.
It is this link that makes a recent research study focusing on parents’ addition to mobiles particularly concerning. Over a third of 2,000 secondary students questioned reported that they had asked their parents to check their phones less frequently – with 14% even reporting the use of mobiles at family meal times. This highlights the importance of listening to our children: this is not a cry for attention but an essential warning that we may be in danger of leading worryingly isolated lives, with the disintegration of family and social structures a potential reality.
What are the long term implications of this study? In the short term, of course, it is devices that will perhaps become the biggest barrier to children forming close relationships with parents and having the conversations, shared experiences and social engagements that are so formative during upbringing. On a larger scale, it will of course normalise the excessive use of gadgets for young people; if my mum texts during dinner and my dad hops onto social media mid conversation, then why shouldn’t I? In a society facing overwhelming physical and mental health problems, this is a report that we must act on with immediate effect. Parents – and all adults, in fact – must remember to be models. By using phones less and engaging in developed conversations before, both listening to their child and engaging in activities and discussions, we stand a chance of reclaiming the essential social structures that are being destroyed by spending far more time online than offline.
Indeed, this research follows reports this year on students’ sleep deprivation – often technologically driven – and obsessive use of phones after school and into the evenings, impacting performance at school, extracurricular involvement, as well as happiness and health.
Technology is an addiction. It is an addiction that threatens to throw us into a dystopia, where all our speaking happens through a screen. It’s time to take a step back: make time for loved ones in person each day, strictly ban all devices at certain times of the day, and reclaim that all important gadget-free family time during which children can be encouraged to form loving relationships, develop essential social skills, and not lose sight of life’s most important values.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Closing the Grammar Gap

Grammar Gap Number One: 1 in 6 people in the UK lives with little or no literacy. (This statistic, provided by National Literacy Trust, reminds us of our country’s shockingly divided literacy rates). The UK’s omnipresent economic and social inequalities lead, inevitably, to continued education disparity between the most privileged and the most poor, between different regions of the country, and between those students with and without educational and cultural opportunities. For all the political or social reforms that each government has introduced over recent years, we will remain an unfair society until greater economic infrastructural changes are made (addressing, for instance, salary discrepancies, societal narrow notions of success, and the funding available for society’s most vulnerable, such as care support or prison reforms).
However, this is not a blog on how to change the world and achieve a healthy, happy society. After all, no one individual or policy can overhaul all society’s inequalities. Whilst embedded economic and educational equality are battles we must continue to fight, it must be in ambitious but achievable chunks. The first step is to make every policy as impactful as possible, focused not on short term political gain but on long term educational reform, using concrete evidence of what does and does not work and putting in place clear measurements of impact.
And so, with this approach in mind, let’s turn to the government’s latest policy focus. Grammar Gap Number Two: the divided opinion on the government’s new grammar school suggestions. This week, Education Secretary Justine Greening called for a new generation of grammar schools across England which will help “ordinary” families and move away from the elitist institutions that such schools have undoubtedly become (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39584000). Greening has discussed the need for altered admissions policies for new grammar schools, suggesting that a fair intake would reflect more than counting the number of pupils eligible for free school meals, as such measures fail to take into account the full breadth of students who would benefit from the grammar school system.
Greening’s argument for the importance of increasing greater equality through a revolutionised grammar school system has inevitably been challenged by competing parties. Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow educational secretary, confirmed that the Conservative party’s grammar school ideals “do not aid social mobility”.
However, the main positive outcome from the new grammar school discussions is perhaps the focus on developing much fairer and less simplistic measures of wealth and opportunity. The Free School Meal go-to measure is unreliable and ignores some of the UK’s poorer families who either do not take up the funding or who do not fit the selection criteria but still face financial struggle, hovering just above the minimum requirement for FSM but still struggling to make ends meet.
There is not, of course, an endless pot of pennies to fund new educational schemes. To return to Grammar Gap Number One, our divided literacy rates, and the deep entrenchment of economic, social and educational inequalities, we have to be selective in how the increasingly limited educational budgets are spent – and selective schools are not, I believe, the answer. Even grammar schools that embrace widened access with improved admissions policies, actively seek a more diverse intake and research a better understanding of addressing disadvantage can have harmful effects of social mobility. Removing the most academic students from non-selective state schools has continually proven to have a negative impact on the students staying in the non-selective state system, and making the challenge of improving other state schools even greater. With proven academic successes in leading academies, particularly in London, and in well reformed non-selective state schools, we must surely focus on the provision of funding, resources and opportunity in the main state system, and concentrate on keeping top quality teachers in the profession, rather than creating a policy that will still support a small minority at the expense of the majority.
Arguably, the government should focus on abolishing the half-hearted grammar system all together and instead, nurture the muddled landscape of the non-selective system; after all, affluent children are still currently much more likely to take places in grammar schools, with the government revealing this week that 36% of places in grammar schools are taken by children from families with below-average incomes but not receiving free meals, compared with 53% of places taken by families with above-average incomes. This discrepancy will not be addressed by tiny tweaks to an already broken system. Let’s wave goodbye to the inequality gap exacerbated by grammar schools; let’s greet a new policy to fund and improve non-selective state schools, to achieve greater equality and move more effectively towards closing Grammar Gap Number One.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Teaching in a Time of Terrorism

Last week, the UK was struck by another tragedy – the Westminster terrorist attack on Wednesday 22nd March. Whilst the scale of the disaster perhaps proves our increasingly strong defenses against terrorism (a solitary attacker yielding a knife, contrasting, for example, to the multiple killers and multiple bombings of the 7/7 brutalities), it also nevertheless reminds us of the sad and inevitable truth; we are living – and therefore teaching – in a time of terrorism.
The young people we teach are essential members of our society; not only do they have the rights to truth and explanations now, but they are also, as the cliché goes, our future. It is imperative that we do embed effective citizenship teaching and discussion into the curriculum or, at the very least, in the school day. In addition, it is important that the key messages from such a tragedy as last week focus on the unity of our society, coming together and tackling such attacks without political or social divisions.
The morning after the horrific attacks, I shared with my sixth form tutor group the most recent news articles, prompting a discussion on how we should respond. This was engaging but, inevitably, ad hoc. How can we integrate more opportunities for young people of all school ages to thoughtfully engage with the questions and concerns that terrorism raises, and what it means in today’s world, to ensure that they are prepared, in the future, to lead a more ideal culture of prevention and peace?
The adolescents in our classrooms are members of our societies and emerging citizens. They need the opportunity to thoughtfully engage the questions and concerns that terrorism raises. They must be part of creating a culture of prevention and peace. To be able to do this, I believe we need to not only record such events but go right back to the subjectivity of these terms. Terrorism is an overused and often misunderstood concept, and its definition and examples are not fixed entities. We need to actively engage students in exploring what terminology such as terrorism, extremism and stereotyping mean to ensure that hate crime is eliminated and young people do not conflate the inexplicable actions of a minority of individuals with wider racial and religious groups (as was the case against many Muslims following the rise of ISIS).
In addition, such cases should not a time of reinforcing terror but of encouraging students to see themselves as active citizens. Simply by engaging with the news each day and staying informed, young people are equipping themselves with the knowledge to make informed decisions and judgements. It is also worth sharing many of the positive stories that result from such terrorist attacks, to really show students the number of humans who do, in contrast to such attackers as last week, act with compassion and courage. Following the most recent attacks in Brussels, for instance, many people in the city welcomed in strangers to their homes and workplaces to provide necessary refuge. Many individuals, including last week, have also immediately assisted victims by putting into practice known first aid skills, to help and support victims as best they can and actually getting to know the human stories directly affected by each attack, to make these events more real and relatable. These smaller scale acts of kindness can act as a springboard to discussions about the impact of peaceful negotiations and what alternatives to terrorist responses might be.
Terrorist attacks like last week’s Westminster tragedy do, inevitably, leave us as both individuals and a collective society feeling vulnerable and powerless. However, by actively building in regular discussions and compulsory lessons (whether in form time or PSCHE, for example) on the definitions, examples and counter possibilities to the current threats of terrorism, we can encourage young people – and ourselves – to see alternative possibilities and to become more politically engaged and morally aware future leaders, with genuine desire to end calculated violence and fight, peacefully, for non-violent solutions.

Posted in Uncategorized

Teaching in a Time of Terrorism

Last week, the UK was struck by another tragedy – the Westminster terrorist attack on Wednesday 22nd March. Whilst the scale of the disaster perhaps proves our increasingly strong defenses against terrorism (a solitary attacker yielding a knife, contrasting, for example, to the multiple killers and multiple bombings of the 7/7 brutalities), it also nevertheless reminds us of the sad and inevitable truth; we are living – and therefore teaching – in a time of terrorism.
The young people we teach are essential members of our society; not only do they have the rights to truth and explanations now, but they are also, as the cliché goes, our future. It is imperative that we do embed effective citizenship teaching and discussion into the curriculum or, at the very least, in the school day. In addition, it is important that the key messages from such a tragedy as last week focus on the unity of our society, coming together and tackling such attacks without political or social divisions.
The morning after the horrific attacks, I shared with my sixth form tutor group the most recent news articles, prompting a discussion on how we should respond. This was engaging but, inevitably, ad hoc. How can we integrate more opportunities for young people of all school ages to thoughtfully engage with the questions and concerns that terrorism raises, and what it means in today’s world, to ensure that they are prepared, in the future, to lead a more ideal culture of prevention and peace?
The adolescents in our classrooms are members of our societies and emerging citizens. They need the opportunity to thoughtfully engage the questions and concerns that terrorism raises. They must be part of creating a culture of prevention and peace. To be able to do this, I believe we need to not only record such events but go right back to the subjectivity of these terms. Terrorism is an overused and often misunderstood concept, and its definition and examples are not fixed entities. We need to actively engage students in exploring what terminology such as terrorism, extremism and stereotyping mean to ensure that hate crime is eliminated and young people do not conflate the inexplicable actions of a minority of individuals with wider racial and religious groups (as was the case against many Muslims following the rise of ISIS).
In addition, such cases should not a time of reinforcing terror but of encouraging students to see themselves as active citizens. Simply by engaging with the news each day and staying informed, young people are equipping themselves with the knowledge to make informed decisions and judgements. It is also worth sharing many of the positive stories that result from such terrorist attacks, to really show students the number of humans who do, in contrast to such attackers as last week, act with compassion and courage. Following the most recent attacks in Brussels, for instance, many people in the city welcomed in strangers to their homes and workplaces to provide necessary refuge. Many individuals, including last week, have also immediately assisted victims by putting into practice known first aid skills, to help and support victims as best they can and actually getting to know the human stories directly affected by each attack, to make these events more real and relatable. These smaller scale acts of kindness can act as a springboard to discussions about the impact of peaceful negotiations and what alternatives to terrorist responses might be.
Terrorist attacks like last week’s Westminster tragedy do, inevitably, leave us as both individuals and a collective society feeling vulnerable and powerless. However, by actively building in regular discussions and compulsory lessons (whether in form time or PSCHE, for example) on the definitions, examples and counter possibilities to the current threats of terrorism, we can encourage young people – and ourselves – to see alternative possibilities and to become more politically engaged and morally aware future leaders, with genuine desire to end calculated violence and fight, peacefully, for non-violent solutions.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment