In the draft framework for the new National Curriculum for England, it says that “all schools should make provision for Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHEE)”. Isn’t it time to consider that this word “should” ought to be changed to “must”? More than this, isn’t it time for us to really evaluate whether we are doing enough to enable children and young people to break the chain of inequality that besets so many? Are we fully addressing their needs, supporting their potential and developing all of their intelligences as well as we ought?
Imagine a young person waking up, having had a good night’s sleep in their comfortable room, going downstairs for a hearty breakfast and making their way to school. Imagine the same child having conversations about politics, books, the arts and music with their parents almost every evening.
Now imagine a young person coming to school without breakfast. It isn’t hard. Most teachers know of more than one child who has arrived for lessons having eaten very little since their last free school meal. Or perhaps you could imagine a child coming to school who is utterly exhausted because they’ve been cooking and caring for their younger siblings.
These “imaginary” young people are going to the same school, sitting in the same classroom and studying for the same exams day in day out in almost every state school in the country.
How can we possibly look at ‘schooling’ these young people in identical ways? Their needs are vastly different and their experiences alarmingly polarised. Yet this is precisely what we do when we put them all into the silo of the classroom, ignoring (in the main) the inequity of their paths to school each day.
A classroom isn’t a silo separated from the rest of the world though. It’s full of people with individual needs, desires and skills, different backgrounds and diverse experiences. It’s a place full of stories of relative wealth and poverty, of nurturing and neglect, of stimulation and stultification, of haves and have nots. Our “Equal Opportunities” policies ask us to treat all children equally but this isn’t the same as treating them all in exactly the same way. If (or rather as) we do, we perpetuate the inequity that we convince ourselves we are addressing by giving them equal access to learning and the subsequent qualifications.
Schools can’t possibly be accountable for all the woes of the world. They can’t be tasked with fixing every social inequality but neither can they function for the needs of the individual child if they concentrate wholly on educational attainment as the means of levelling the unequal paths that these young people have to tread. It’s far more complicated than that.
And the main complication comes in the fact that our current education system doesn’t truly embrace the fact that we all function on different levels and we have multiple intelligences that need to be nurtured, refined, developed and accommodated for within the realms of what schools offer.
The outcome of ignoring these other intelligences and the multiplicity of the needs of the child was superbly demonstrated on television this week with “The Secret Millions” programme on Channel 4. If you haven’t already seen this, then please do watch it as it clearly shows how all of our young people, and not just the disaffected, are entitled to a more rounded education that looks at life and learning more holistically.
In this programme, the highly perceptive Gok Wan was asked to work with a group of young people from Kids Company – an organisation that specialises in supporting and ‘educating’ young people who have experienced abundantly more than their fair share of problems in life, including homelessness, abuse and neglect. His task was to equip the young people with the skills, experience and resilience to become employable. The enabler was to engage them in a task that was interesting for them not imposed upon them. In this case, it was to design and manufacture a range of T-shirts, bearing the slogan, “Break the Chain”.
Creativity, as in so many cases, was at the heart of the solution. Through using their imagination, ideas flowed, agreement was eventually had and the group set about with their individual and collective designs. Distribution and manufacturing businesses were engaged and dependent upon their ability to work cohesively and collegiately, a Big Lottery Fund of £2 million was the potential reward for Kids Company.
It certainly wasn’t plain sailing. There were times where the dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviour of the young people was clearly displayed – where their destructive emotions completely overtook them as they defended themselves against what they construed to be a lack of respect from others. Yet there were also other times when there were demonstrations from the young people themselves, that they had the wherewithal, the potential skills and an empathetic nature to work effectively for the benefit of themselves and others.
Gok had a week in which to pull this off. The Kids Company key workers, assigned to individual young people to support their needs, were there to offer help and to placate some intensely difficult moments when the entire project was in jeopardy due to the miscalculations and thoughtless behaviour of some of the people within the group. But even they, with their wealth and breadth of experience, couldn’t prevent the tense situations happening in the first place. Also, whilst the warm and heart-felt intervention from Camila Batmanghelidjh – so respected by the young people – was essential to create peace, there’s not enough Camila’s to go round to all young people, and eventually they have to develop the skills to be resilient for themselves – something to which Kids Company evidently pay great heed.
Our current education provision has failed the young people who refer themselves to Kids Company. Their individual needs haven’t been met through mainstream schooling. Even in the most compassionate institutions can’t single-handedly overcome the abusive and neglectful situations that these young people have found themselves in. Education, as well as the classroom, is not a silo. Our housing, health, social care policies nationally and locally are all vital to enable young people to be ready for learning, and living.
This programme demonstrated two things – what can happen when we fail our children and young people and what could potentially happen had they been given the more holistic support, that they received from Kids Company, from the outset. We have to get this right, and not just for those children who are demonstrably affected by neglect and abuse. We have to get it right for all children. We have to enable their intelligences to flourish, in order that they can flourish, and treating all children to the same menu of schooling can’t possibly be the answer. We must rather than should address these issues in our educational provision.
The irony is that whilst we’ve been writing this, a report has come from Ofsted on the teaching of PSHE Education titled, “Not Yet Good Enough”. Exactly so – more on this in future posts.
The issue is this – that even when destructive emotions, abuse, poverty and neglect have taken their stranglehold to the point where it seems impossible for a given individual to learn how to manage these forces of damage, somebody has to be there with a healthy and empathetic dose of hope, respect and trust. We have to believe in the individual capacity of each and every one of us, and there has to be recognition that we’re not all following the same path to school, and that we don’t all have the same needs or aspirations.
We certainly do need to “break the chain” but we also need to know how to mend it too. Making explicit links between what is happening to our children in their home environment as well as in schools is vital in order to break the chain of injustice, and this needs to be done on a deeper and more thought-provoking governmental level, nationally and locally, as well as on an individual basis. We can’t continue to expect our children to come to school ready for learning when they have so much more to contend with in life, and with no opportunities within their current education to develop those essential personal and social intelligences that will afford them greater opportunities in life than any amount of qualifications could.