Should ‘Be More Kind’ Be the First School Rule?
“There is a momentum in kindness, that beats the momentum of ‘no tolerance” 
In these last few dark days of a seemingly endless January, it would be easy to be even less optimistic about some of the challenges in caring for the wellbeing of young. Many school staff (and parents too) face a huge challenge in trying to gain support from overstretched local services whose job is to offer advice and guidance. And with the opening of every newspaper, teachers discover yet another 21st Century problem could be fixed by simply ‘teaching it in schools’ (mobile phone safety, financial skills, cooking, resilience – you get the picture – many of those things that communities used to teach their children). So I was delighted to discover that my cold journey to the ASCL Pastoral Conference, in the shadow of Blue Monday, was to prove a refreshingly positive experience.
Pastoral Care is a tough one; it encompasses all of those things that are not the nuts and bolts of academic work. To name a few strands, we are talking about health in all its guises, including mental health, extracurricular offerings, happiness and resilience, behaviour and rewards, safeguarding and online safety. Countless things that are so important to the wellbeing of our pupils, and that make such a difference to their potential to thrive and succeed.
The conference I attended introduced keynote speakers who all talked of the increasing challenges facing all teachers and especially those charged with leading on pastoral care. There was acknowledgement that times are difficult, local support is sparse and an acceptance that young people are facing challenges that adults are struggling to get to grips with. But this was no navel-gazing self-help group. It was a conference filled with practical advice and professionals sharing their experience of supporting pupils and parents in myriad, innovative ways. Paul Dix, founder of Pivotal Education, whose astonishingly effective behaviour management techniques advocate simple kindness and consistency (and tearing up the long list of rules) was both entertaining and practical. Then there was Tony Clifford’s enlightening talk on Attachment in which he discussed how understanding the impact of experiences in early childhood can affect the behaviour and attitude of the teenager will really help teachers get the best out of their pupils. Other workshops included a practical session on digital parenting (useful for parents and teachers) from Maria O’Neill of UK Pastoral Chat and workshop from Janet Goodliffe on developing a whole school approach to student emotional health and wellbeing.
It is good, for any professional, to get out of normal routine and discover what others are doing, particularly in these times of change and uncertainty for young people and their wellbeing. I’m looking forward to implementing some of the strategies and ideas learnt.
But the day also made me reflect on the fact that the staff at the High School really care about our pupils and really want the best for them. We aim for pro-active pastoral care; spotting issues before they get out of hand and supporting the pupils in building a toolkit of strategies to help them deal with things that life can throw at them. We achieve this through our PSHEE programme, tutorials and lots of informal support. Our adoption of the Girls on Board programme to empower our pupils to tackle friendship problems with adult support, rather than interference, has been groundbreaking. We also embrace the Positive Project, which is used across the GDST network, to help young people tap into their feelings and determine some strategies for improving how they feel about life’s ups and downs.
As a reflective practitioner, I am always evaluating areas where we could make small tweaks to turn the volume up on warmth and support too; I fully advocate the notion, from Paul Dix, quoted at the top of this post. We are fortunate to have few behavioural issues of any consequence in our school, but that quote really embodies for me what every interaction between a pupil and member of staff ought to be. Anyone who has spent time in my office will be familiar with my chalkboard wall, upon which I write quotes that I find inspired or inspiring. For some time now, the Frank Turner lyrics ‘In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose its mind, be more kind my friend, try to be more kind’ has been on that wall. And the facts back up the words – there is strong evidence that schools that embody mutual kindness between all members of the community have fewer behavioural issues and a greater academic purpose too.
Why the Holocaust remains relevant today
‘Somebody, after all, had to make a start.’
These words – spoken by a young teacher – echo down the years.
The start she spoke about was distributing home-printed anti-Nazi leaflets in her home town of Munich in the early 1940s. Within a short time, perhaps inevitably, the government’s agents spotted her. Sophie Scholl was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. On 23 February 1943, she was executed. She was 21 years old.
A second story
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a minister in the German Church, went on radio to denounce Nazi policies two days after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. His broadcast was cut off mid-sentence. During the war, he volunteered in the resistance and this work landed him in prison in 1943. Eventually, evidence of his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler was discovered. On 9 April 1945, he was hanged in Flossenberg concentration camp, just a few days before the camp was liberated.
A third story
Raoul Wallenberg was a wealthy Swedish banker working in Budapest. Following the Nazi occupation of Hungary, he led a network, which helped Jewish Hungarians flee persecution by forging passports and providing safe houses. The work was dangerous – Wallenberg slept in a different house every night to escape detection – but effective. His network saved at least 4,500 people – and possibly even twice that number. When Hungary was liberated by the Russian army, Wallenberg vanished – probably into a Russian prison – and was never seen again.
You may well have heard one or all of these stories before. Sophie Scholl’s life has been immortalised on film, Bonhoeffer’s letters to his fiancée published and Wallenberg’s mysterious disappearance aired in many a conspiracy theory. We are all familiar with ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ and ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, and perhaps ‘The Reader’ and ‘The Pianist.’
If another retelling seems to add little, then surely, you may think, the lessons of the Holocaust have been learnt. What good does it do, we might feel, to focus on an event of such horror that happened well before most people alive today were even born?
There are many possible answers to that, but one thing I know.
It is that, every time I go back to the Holocaust, I find out something new – a fresh perspective – about humanity. For example, when I first began to study the Holocaust, it was believed that there was very little resistance to it. Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Raoul Wallenberg were glorious exceptions – heroes in a world full of villains and passive bystanders.
This, it now transpires, is a massive over-simplification. Wherever you look in Nazi Germany and the occupied territories in WWII, you find people ‘making a start’ in their own way to resist Nazism and its atrocities. Jerusalem’s Holocaust Museum collects the names of such people – known as the Righteous of all Nations. Their current roster contains the names of 26,973 people from 51 countries – ranging from over 6,000 Poles to one Cuban, one Egyptian and one Vietnamese. Twenty-two British people are named – 12 of these identified only in the last 20 years.
Sophie Scholl, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Raoul Wallenberg are, in fact, the tip of an iceberg – an iceberg of people, from all countries and walks of life, who helped to sink the Titanic of Nazi terror. They did this, not usually by bold acts of derring-do – manning the barricades, storming the battlements – but by small, deliberate acts of non-compliance or defiance or kindness.
The saying goes that ‘it is enough for evil to triumph that the good do nothing.’ And I ask myself – where would I have stood in their place? Would I have stood on that street corner to protest about a wicked regime? Or made that radio broadcast? Or volunteered for that rescue mission in Budapest?
Remember that, at the time no one was expecting them to do it. Often no one was even noticing. True, History has garlanded them with honours – and labelled them the Righteous. But at the time when they made their decisions, their choices offered them only danger, social ostracism, humiliation, a criminal record, hardship, pain, even death.
Holocaust Memorial Day invites us to answer that question for ourselves – faced with a similar choice, where would I stand? Would I ‘make a start’ or would I be a passive bystander? The question is far from hypothetical. Our times are also blighted by racism and anti-semitism. Indeed, these toxic forces are on the rise again. And genocide didn’t end when the Holocaust was over. Indeed, it haunts some corners of our world as I write.
Why keep returning to the Holocaust? Because we find out something new every time we do so. Something new about humanity, yes. But, just as often, what we find out is something new about ourselves.
Now’s the Time
Imagination is not usually seen as the best foundation for policy-making. For that, we look to facts and stats. In education, though, things are – or should be – different.
Why? Because we are preparing our youngest school pupils for adult life and the workscape as it will be in the mid-2030s. For this, the facts and stats of the past 16 years will not suffice to inform our thinking, just as the facts and stats of the turn-of-the-millennium – pre-iPhone, pre-Facebook – did not help us greatly to shape the education of today’s 18 year olds.
For decades, education has been playing catch-up with technological change, with classroom practice and social conduct adapting ‘on the hoof’ to the new possibilities of communication, information gathering and disclosure presented by innovations and inventions emanating from commercial enterprises with a completely different agenda from that of schools. For more than a generation, our education system has been enmeshed in a struggle to prove itself against national (and international) standards of individual employability competencies, in an exercise in which countless incommensurable variables are smoothed into invisibility in a bland background picture.
The result has been an exodus from the teaching profession on an unparalleled scale as the joy of the work has been squeezed out of existence. Meanwhile, the dizzying possibilities for our own students of internationalism – a truly globalised higher education and employment market, for example – seem scarcely to register in a society in which the levers of social mobility seem to be rusted in a locked-shut position and the prevailing public discourse is stuck in the well-worn groove of blaming the independent-state divide.
Sticking narrowly to the facts and stats of economic, social and technological change has brought us hither. Continuing to do so offers a depressing outlook for the journey onwards. What, then, can inspire teachers and young people to resume the challenges of education at the opening of a new year – 2019?
For that, we need imagination.
Imagine, for example, a world in which the gender pay gap has already been bridged and sexual harassment has become a thing of the past in the workplace culture.
How can we get there?
Now let’s imagine a girls’ school whose approach to Student Guidance revolves around preparing its students to speak out and to act to build the society that they want and deserve rather than merely preparing them to cope with the obstacles they will encounter.
If this sounds powerful, it is.
But what does it look like in practice?
Let’s focus on one concrete example to exemplify the approach. This was our #Now’sTheTime Conference, run for our Year 12 students in November. The day was bookended by individual stories; beginning with Carole Stronach, Director of Global Real Estate for Avon, who spoke about her quest for personal success and fulfilment, and the rewards and sacrifices made along the way and finishing with Sally Kettle, High School Alumna and professional adventurer, drawing on her insights about the same issues from a generation younger. The filling in the sandwich consisted of sessions designed to tackle head-on the key issues facing young women as they prepare to enter a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, both professionally and socially, where, the stats tell us, a discouraging outlook of diminishing self-efficacy, narrowing expectations and plateauing professional horizons beckons. A plenary from Dr Melanie Crofts, Senior Lecturer at De Montfort University’s Law Faculty, gave girls the low-down on the law of consent while experts in their fields ran workshops on vocal efficacy, bystander intervention, practical self-defence and building a vision of equality, which will stand the test of confrontation with real-life experiences.
Sharing the day with a group of Year 12 girls from Weston Favell Academy meant that we could hear a range of stories and build solidarity with peers – while also practising networking skills over lunch! And, invaluable though the day was in itself, we knew that we could reinforce key messages and practise building self-efficacy through follow-up events in school and through the Girls’ Day School Trust’s unique CareerStart events and mentoring programmes.
Our Sixth Form students believe wholeheartedly that Now’s The Time for them – the time for them to enter an employment market in which gender equality is a lived reality and for them to flourish in workplaces where sexual harassment no longer needs to be on anyone’s agenda. Now’s The Time for them to take an active part in society – feeling free to express their views, taking for granted the fear-free enjoyment of public spaces, reclaiming the night from violence and intimidation, refusing to be a frightened bystander.
They are ready and eager to make it a reality for themselves and, with a little imagination and large dose of belief – in them and in ourselves – we can help to make sure it happens. Now’s the time.
Lost without translation
A skill deficit that costs the UK economy an estimated 3.5% of GDP.
A knowledge vacuum that 74% of business leaders identify as a major barrier to career success for graduates in today’s world of work.
You may be forgiven for thinking that I am talking about science, technology, engineering or maths – subjects which occupy so many headlines, especially where opportunities for girls and young women are concerned.
These stats relate to Foreign Languages, an area which rarely attracts comment and stands pretty low on the national educational agenda at the moment. And yet, I would argue that Britain is in danger of sleepwalking into an employability crisis, as many educators continue to turn a deaf ear to the research and the warning signs highlighting a comparative skills gap for our graduates that will materially harm their employment prospects in the coming years. We are in danger of nurturing a generation of global consumers who are incapable of flourishing as global citizens, earners and opinion-formers.
The figures are eloquent – and concerning. Only a third of Britons report that they are able to hold a conversation in another language. A 2016 review of language teaching in English secondary schools found that a mere 34 per cent of pupils obtain a good GCSE in a foreign language, and less than five per cent do so in more than one language. As language learning in schools and universities continues to shrink – with French and German A Level declining by 17% and 12% respectively in the past six years, for example, it looks unlikely that the situation will improve for the next generation.
Many people seem to be assuming that the problem will decline after Brexit. After all, they say, many of our trading partners are Anglophone (such as, the USA) and (American) English is the lingua franca of the global economy. This overlooks the reality that post-Brexit Britain will inevitably turn more outwards towards non-European markets and, hence, into more difficult territories for business in countries, such as Russia and China, where the linguistic scales are even more drastically balanced against monolingual Britons than in European countries.
Professor Bianco of the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Language and Literacy Education has put it in a nutshell: There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other one of them is knowing only English.
We must not rely on the fact of the first (a reality which many, many young people in non-Anglophone countries are working hard to address) to ignore the truth of the second. Nor does this mean radically reorientating language-learning in the UK away from European languages towards Russian or Mandarin, say, a suggestion which may well leave policy-makers in education and head teachers shrugging their shoulders in impotent despair. Language-learning is about more than mastering a single language. It is about mastering the skills for language acquisition, which can be transferred to other languages in the future. No surprise, then, that French, German and Spanish remain in the top five languages recommended by the British Council as threshold languages for study.
It is also, and crucially, about developing the cultural awareness that opens the way for a more sophisticated understanding of other ways of doing things. This, in itself, is a vital transferable skill, which is indispensable in international business negotiations. It should be part of the armoury of any ambitious professional leaving education today.
With 39% of employers surveyed in 2017 expressing dissatisfaction with the global cultural awareness of UK graduates (up by 9% in just one year), the imperative facing responsible school leaders is clear. Making the study of a Foreign Language to GCSE level as part of the core curriculum should be an absolute minimum and internationalism must be a golden thread woven through school life.
What does this look like in practice? At the High School, for example, language exchanges, a compulsory residential in Year 8 to Normandy, cultural visits every year to a rich selection of destinations (recently Berlin and Granada), a thriving eTwinning programme and an exciting Erasmus + project, collaborating with schools in Germany, Hungary, Latvia and Portugal, provide a myriad opportunities for girls to develop a global perspective. Last Tuesday, we hosted the European Universities Consortium for a workshop on European degree applications to feed the growing curiosity among our students about overseas study.
Whatever Brexit brings, we know that the future for our students is unlikely to be defined by the lines of national borders. That is why igniting the fires of interest in language-learning and internationalism at school is as important as stoking the flames of STEM.