Dr. Neil Hawkes: Do our school practices abuse children?

Dr. Neil Hawkes, the founder of VbE talks about how what has become normal practice can be damaging children.

Has your mind ever been severely jolted by an article, giving you a big wake-up call? That was my experience when reading Primary First (Issue 16), the magazine of the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE).  Pam Jarvis (pp. 6-7) describes the differences in children and adults’ brains and how the educational establishment fails to recognise this – relentlessly continuing to roll out ill conceived policies, such as to test children between their fifth and sixth birthday on their phonic competence.  The article’s logic is fascinating and convincing but it was her conclusion that stunned me:

“… many contemporary early education policies are shockingly ill-informed…also discriminatory and therefore contrary to human rights…could eventually lead to claims for compensation for psychological damage…”

I felt very uncomfortable as I began to reflect on whether as a Headteacher I had been inadvertently colluding in a form of low-level child abuse. That I had not spoken out enough to stop aspects of schooling that are based on dogma rather than in the best interests of children. I began thinking about our current educational culture, which is determined by well-meaning but ill-informed politicians and officials, who continue to fuel educational myths that support an unintended form of ‘child abuse’. Economic principles rather than educational ones fuel many of these myths.  Margaret Clark in the same NAPE magazine (pp. 8-13) draws attention to the fact that one in three pupils are not ready for school in terms of their cognitive skills, physical development, socio-emotional and language competences. 

I agree both with Pam and Margaret’s analysis and in regularly observing the education of young children in our schools, I am concerned that we are fuelling the marginalisation of particularly vulnerable children from a very early age.  The Government is rightly concerned about radicalisation as a major threat to the stability of our society but: I have a growing understanding that by marginalising children we store up not only problems for them but also society. Marginalisation can occur when children are either not ready for school or have a condition that inhibits learning. For instance, according to Professor Norbury at UCL, approximately two children in every year one class will experience a clinically significant language disorder that impacts leaning.

There is an unrealistic expectation, which has become a shibboleth, that all children can reach high standards; that it is only the quality of teaching that stops this happening.  For many children who are not ready for school, arriving with limited social skills, delayed speech, lacking self-help skills and resilience the ‘system’ will cause them to have low self-esteem, adversely affect their mental well being and negatively affect their educational attainment.  It is such marginalised people, admittedly a very tiny percentage, who as young adults, become susceptible to the allure of dangerous ideologies that offer them an identity and with it a meaning and purpose for their lives. For instance, we learn that the Nice terrorist Bouheil had serious untreated mental problems for more than a decade (Telegraph, 16 July 2016).  Such people become the fodder for radicalisation by perpetrators of evil behaviour. In my view, global educational trends exacerbate social unrest. This view is supported by Andy Hargreaves who commented in his article, Blooming Teachers (RSA: Journal Issue 1 2016):

While the compelling need for creativity, care and compassion across the world has been growing, the greatest global educational trend of the past two decades ran completely contrary to it, driven by the promise of short-term results.’

What can you and I do to support the well being of all children in schools and change the trend? The priority surely must be that policy and practices reflect the understanding that school culture must provide an environment that treats each child as a unique human being and celebrated as such. That learning and teaching is appropriate for each child’s stage of development and focuses on inspiring children to love learning; that readiness for learning is considered as key determinant for curriculum progression; that psychological well-being must underpin all aspects of the curriculum.

With these thoughts in mind, I thought it important to tweet the newly appointed Secretary of Education Justine Greening as follows:

“Congrats from #vbezone to @JustineGreening. Please prioritise well being, as it determines all other personal social & educational outcomes.”

My own research, (Oxford University, 2005) shows that it is in the culture of values-based schools that children will be more likely to thrive psychologically.  Jane Hawkes, educational consultant, has a vision that schools need to understand and implement what she describes as the Inner Curriculum (IC). The IC is about an understanding of, and subsequent deliberate focus on the child’s internal world of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Jane passionately argues that all children are entitled to develop a secure sense of self, which she defines as a child’s innate capacity to be altruistic and compassionate, with a natural curiosity and excitement about learning and life. This aptitude profoundly enhances their readiness for learning and lays the foundation on which personal and social wisdom is built. Ideally, a secure sense of self will have been established in all children by the age of seven.

There are many schools that swim across the tide of educational policy by ensuring that, as far as they can determine, children are helped to construct their unique sense of self. In practice this means that schools will have nurtured positive personal competencies, which include high self-esteem, resilience and self-leadership. Some of these schools deliberately embrace this educational philosophy and become what is termed, ‘values-based schools’ i.e. their curriculum and life is underpinned by a community-selected list of positive human values such as respect, tolerance and hope, which guide all school policies and practices.

Headteachers are discovering and celebrating the potency of Values-based Education (VbE). May I share with you the following endorsements about VbE from three Headteachers, whose schools in the past week have gained the Quality Mark in VbE. I share them from a spirit of hope for our children’s future, rather than from an egotistical position of ‘look at us aren’t we marvelous!’

Evelyn Davies, Headteacher of Coldfall School in London, wrote:

“The Values journey has been the most inspiring experience for us as a staff and for the local community and we are thrilled to receive the Values quality mark in recognition.”

Martin Smith, Head of Pixies School in Hemel Hempstead remarked:

“We are all ecstatic here as all the staff really believe in our Values journey and want it to continue to be the heartbeat of the school…Values – it is certainly changing lives!”

And to put the icing on the cake, David Harding, Executive Head of Park Lane Primary School in Nuneaton rejoined:

“The values-based education approach has transformed Park Lane and we look forward to building on this success over the coming years.”

Wow, I hear you say, but what can I do? My hope is that you will encourage teaching to be a collaborative, research-led profession, freed from ill-advised political whims. That if you are a teacher or parent you will review your own practice, asking to what extent it nurtures a child’s secure sense of self. I hope you will be prepared to challenge practices that are not attuned to the well-being of children – that your voice is heard. And lastly I hope you will consider VbE as the guiding narrative of your own, and our nation’s educational practices.

Do you agree that we need to be more careful with our practice to make sure that it is nurturing the child? Let us know your thought in the comments below or on Twitter. 

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