How We Can Change Our Education System
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
BBC presenter Emily Maitlis recently posed a question this week which inspired me to respond. She said, ‘[following Covid19] we ask what kind of social settlement might need to be put into place to stop the social inequality becoming event more stark?’. I’m not sure the last time I heard such challenging question on the BBC!
The opportunities for us to redesign new systems to respond to social inequalities has never felt more pertinent – in particular that of the education system. As many full-time workers turn full-time parents during this season, social media memes of ‘teachers should be paid millions’ and other such acknowledgement of the challenges facing teachers, help us to consider how we educate our children.
Maitlis’ question threw me back to a classroom that I sat in nearly 30 years ago… Mrs Frazer, a grey haired fifty or so year old woman, stared sternly at my mum and step-dad following another series of detentions that I had collected; ‘She distracts the classroom learning all day long and I am making a referral to a child psychologist for a diagnosis of ADHD’ she told them.
At just 6 years old, I found myself in the office of a middle aged, grey haired, white man apparently labelled a ‘child psychologist’. With an approach as cold as Mrs Frazer, he looked at my mum and said ‘I would like to try her on a prescription of Ritalin’. Fortunately, my mum, a dope smoking hippy at the time, refused the prescription – only one of very few good decisions she made during my childhood!
In Sir Ken Robinson’s excellent RSA Animate, Changing Education Paradigms, he talks about one of the biggest perceived ‘epidemics in our culture’, that of ADHD in our children (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U). He cleverly depicts some of the issues with our current education system – mainly that of its industrial revolution roots and factory style approach which diminishes the creativity of our children. He talks about a system which was set up post war to respond to the needs at the time. A system for children to get a good education leading to a lifetime of employment. Something which we know now is slowly becoming more and more irrelevant in today’s digital age. Nonetheless, in this short clip one of the pivotal issues he sheds light on is that of the sense of ‘conformity’ at the heart of a young person being successful in school. The ‘one size fits all approach’ which fails to have the space to develop the strengths of individuals thus leaving many behind.
I know of many lovely people who decide to enter into teaching as a ‘solid’ career. A career which will not only pay a ‘good salary’ but one where there is ‘career progression’ and ‘job security’. Mostly though, many want to positively impact the lives of our next generation.
So, enter said ‘lovely person’ into a classroom of 30 or more teenagers having completed a three-year degree at university – often followed with a 36-week or so long PGCE focused on their subject– let’s say History or Geography. They enter their classroom and come to find at least 5-10% of those young people in that room (usually more in reality) are ‘disruptive’. No amount of World War II or sedimentary rock or OFTSED Outstanding lesson templates seem to engage these young people in learning. Consequently, they do what they are briefly taught to do on the PGCE course – reach for the School Behaviour Policy. A beautifully crafted document with a catch-all response to any behaviour. Everything from chewing gum or wearing false nails to throwing a chair or hitting a student is listed along with the appropriate response; often a ‘remove student from classroom’, ‘send to Head of Year’s office’ or ‘lunchtime detention’ and so on.
However, what those writing and administering these policies around assessments and ‘zero tolerance’, often in government and OFSTED, fail to understand, is that these punitive approaches only reinforce the rejection, abandonment and sense of shame that many of these young people have accepted as their identity. They are simply hammering another nail into our negative sense of self. A ‘doomed to failure’ mindset with voices so rooted in our subconscious telling us daily ‘I am not worthy’.
Dear policy writers, did you know that when you grow up with a mum who chooses violent and drunk men to have more children with, a dad who has left you before you turned two years old and a step-dad who shames and abuses you daily, it is very likely a 6 year old child may show up as ‘disruptive’ in your classroom? Mrs Frazer, did you know that there are now many scientific studies which show that children who do not have caregivers who model healthy emotions and experience physical and sexual abuse by caregivers struggle to learn? Our 6-year old brains actually have not yet developed the neuro-pathways needed to help us sit still in a chaotic environment and our amygdala is easily triggered with fight or flight which means we are often in a state of shame. We actually come to believe that we are not deserving of being looked after. John Bradshaw in his book, Healing The Shame That Binds You says ‘when these needs [security, food, parent’s time and attention and direction] are neglected, children are given the message that their needs are not important, and they lose a sense of personal value… children stop believing they have the right to depend on anyone [and] we feel shame when we feel needy’.
It would be easy to blame Mrs Frazer for the pain she caused me at such a young age. But this cannot be attributed to the lovely people who simply follow the behaviour policy, but to the system that sets them up to fail. A system where a PGCE or any level of training with ample information on the development of a young person’s brain is not compulsory to inform educational practice.
The neuroscience and evidence base around how we learn and how this is impacted by trauma and, crucially, what we as the adults can do to significantly contribute to better outcomes for these young people, is now widely accepted, published and taught in the fields of psychotherapy and psychology. Why then is it not essential for those of us who have the largest potential to contribute? Why did I, despite starting a career with young people at the age of 21 years old and accessing fantastic training throughout, only really access information and evidence around Attachment Theory and Neuroscience of the brain when I started to access my own therapy journey? Therapy – in my experience a privilege for those of us who come to understand a sense of love and belonging through life experiences and have the space – i.e those of us who do not yet have children or financial restrictions – as opposed to an essential for those battling mental health issues and/or with trauma experiences in our childhood but that’s for another article!
We need more voices of experience to input to these policies and systems. Mr Education Secretary, when was the last time you read or listened experts on the issues of the impacts of childhood trauma on the brain and how this is detrimental to a child’s ability to learn? If you did maybe we would come to realise that disciplining a child whose brain has perpetually experienced toxic stress and trauma may not be the right approach. That actually when school policies, systems and structures are designed in such a way that ‘zero tolerance’ is the buzz word and ‘compliance’ is the key to success we will continue to fail our most vulnerable children.
John Bradshaw in ‘Bradshaw On: The Family’ suggests the challenge with rules in our society is that they have a tendency to ‘deny emotions’ and come from ancient times ‘based on a kind of master-slave inequality. They promote obsessive orderliness and obedience… such rules allow no place for vitality, spontaneity [and so on]’.
For many of us in the education, youth and social care sector, we are all too aware of the cliché that ‘the education system needs to change’. For the large majority of us who went into the sector to empower, motivate and inspire generations of young people we quickly became frustrated with the ‘disruptive behaviour’ presented by a huge percentage of our children in the classroom. Not at the young people themselves but at the schools that continue to exclude these children. Our frustration is heightened when we read hundreds of research reports with numerous evidence bases, as well as seeing many excellent examples of practice in the US – and more recently in the significant decrease in murder statistics in Glasgow.
In her research paper, Insight 10 ‘Attachment-Informed Practice with Looked After Children and Young People’, Judy Furnivall states that for ‘Children who develop a secure attachment to a primary caregiver have a number of developmental advantages…Particularly important for children's capacity to understand the minds of others and their own minds (to mentalise) is the parent's ability to tune into and reflect on the infant's own feelings and thoughts. A number of important early developmental tasks involve the regulation of emotion - these include managing stress, controlling impulse and rage, coping with shame and developing empathy. All of these milestones in emotional development are most easily achieved in the context of a secure attachment. If a child has not developed a strong foundation of emotional competence in these areas by the time they enter school, they will struggle to manage the learning and social environment of school as successfully as their peers.’
Let me be clear here, this is not a plea for a system with no boundaries or consequences. This is a plea for a system which, when another 14 year old is excluded from school or removed from the classroom for ‘disruptive’ behaviour or being rude to a teacher, asks the question ‘what does this young person need here’ rather than ‘what does our behaviour policy say we should do here’.
Let’s look to the excellent example in Glasgow of John Carnochan, former Former Chief Superintendent and Head of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit who pioneered a public health approach to policing and as a result significantly reduced violence. Carnochan reinforces the importance of talking about adverse childhood experiences ‘ACEs’ and the impact of these on children’s behaviour, and moreover, the behaviour of humans! We can look to the hundreds of excellent youth, education and community organisations and services around the UK that see the transformative impact of LOVE daily. They see this because they first start to understand the underlying social factors that exist and attempt to first respond to these.
Let’s design a behaviour policy which understands that in order to educate a child we must first ensure their brain is able to be educated. Let’s acknowledge the reams of evidence which tells us about the importance of consistent positive adults and take responsibility for designing a school system which knows that we need to be social workers, educators and parents all at the same time and let’s train our schools to have the knowledge needed for this to be fundamental.
Let’s get excited about re-designing an education system that helps our most traumatised young people understand the impact of this trauma on their brain and start to break generational cycles in their families. Let’s use this opportune time to design a system which is responsive rather than reactive. Which reduces violence on our streets and, most importantly, says to the most vulnerable children in our country that they are worthy and they too can turn their pain into power.
Dominy Roe is the Director for TransformShoreditch, a youth and community organisation based in London, UK and is on a mission to inspire those overcoming significant childhood trauma to go on a healing journey and turn their pain into their power. Dominy has over fifteen-years’ experience working with young people and their families who have experienced some of the most significant barriers to education and employment. In her years in leadership positions she continues to ensure that the operational and delivery needs of the young people and the families she works with are at the heart of decision making, policies, systems and staffing. Dominy continues to share her own journey of healing from childhood trauma - Find out more at www.dominyroe.com.