Exam periods are not only a source of stress for young people, but how your teen responds can set the mood for the whole household. During the pandemic, my kids were working towards their GCSEs and A Levels respectively, only to have them replaced by teacher assessed grades. This year, while one is coming towards the end of her second year at university, the other child is preparing for A Levels. Of course, for their school cohort, these will be their first public exams and the stakes feel higher than usual.
As a parent, here are some ways you can help your child during this seminal moment:
Remember, their experience is gospel
As parents, we have the benefit of hindsight, but if there’s something I have had drummed into me by my children, validating their experiences is the most supportive thing you can do. Even if you know this too will pass, understanding that the first few times you experience something, it feels huge and you need to be allowed to fully feel whatever it is that you feel. This is why for example young people report as the most lonely of any age group – when you get to my age, you know what periods of loneliness and isolation feel like, and you know what you can do to mitigate them. But to young people, this is a terrible new sensation and it can feel like this will be the rest of your life! Yes, it can be reassuring to have a parent tell you that in the grand scheme of things, things will be okay, but there are ways to do this without dismissing their real feelings of anxiety, doom, panic, comparison with peers and a lack of self-confidence. Think: what can you say that reflects back what they feel and also reassures them? Consider asking your child what they would find reassuring and then say that.
Ask what they need
Giving advice and helping with exam preparation practicalities can be brilliant, but only if they are receptive at the time that you give advice. Also, what worked for you, back in ancient times, may not feel relevant or helpful. So ask them first what they need right now. Perhaps you can suggest that when they feel ready, you can help them plan a realistic revision timetable, or maybe they would like some help with devising revision techniques, or maybe to join you on a trip to buy some nice flash cards, coloured pens and other stationery to help get prepared. Give them a written list of things you could help them with and let them know exact times of the day, evening and weekends when you will be available to help. When they are ready, they can book you in for whatever it is that they want your support with.
Feed and water them
It sounds obvious, but making sure that your child is eating well and is hydrated makes revision go more smoothly and can help keep them well throughout the exam period. Healthy snacks and drinks can help with concentration and staying power, and can also make your child associate pleasure with learning. If I see my child working hard, I will bring them a nice pint glass with a drink, some ice and a straw, a plate of chopped fruits, and a handful of nuts and quietly slide them into view by way of quietly saying “I see you, and applaud your efforts”. If I’m on my way home from work, I might pick up something they particularly like as a treat and surprise them as a reward for keeping on track with their work or as a commiseration if things aren’t going too well.
Go there, even if it feels counterintuitive
Young people can feel immense pressure to perform and aim for high grades. They can also be extremely fearful of failure and of disappointing their teachers and family. Dismissing this as nonsense or adding to the stress by nagging or pushing them to work harder are never good strategies. In my household we say, ‘Let’s go there and see how it feels’. By this I mean, we will talk through what the options are in different scenarios. ‘You don’t make the grades you need for your next step, what are your options? Can you appeal? Can you re-take? Are there other pathways that interest you?’
Having a plan B is important, and visualising yourself having not made the grade but still having options is empowering too. Allowing your child to imagine the feelings of shame, disappointment, upset and jealousy of peers who have aced their exams in a safe space as just one option, is cathartic. It is also an opportunity for you to show that you will walk with them, whatever happens.
Collective social responsibility
Remember that your child is not alone in their efforts to study and reach their goals. Their friends will be having their own experiences and homelife dynamics. Create a collaborative study space and invite them to host study sessions as a group, or perhaps they can all go and work together at the library nearby. Remind them of the advantages of working together, preparing revision materials and testing each other as well as the fact that not every child has a space at home to study. Modelling to your child the collective social responsibility we have, empathy for others and the benefits of social interaction rather than competitive self-absorption is crucial, especially in an often individualistic society.
There are so many wonderful technology tricks and apps that are readily available and either free or that the school will subscribe to:
Plan a realistic revision timetable using the calendar attached to your child’s school email account, or if you have Gmail, set up a shared one so you can help them stay motivated and make sure they build in breaks, time with friends and rest time. You can also use software like Notion or Trello and create a basic project plan or a to-do list with Todoist. My favourite is Asana, not least because you get galloping unicorns if you complete a string of tasks!
Digital flashcards apps like Quizlet are great for revision. You can also find lots of revision sets already created that you can adapt. Children in the same class can make the workload manageable if they divide up different topics and create shared revision sets for all to benefit from.
Online learning platforms, lessons and explainers are things that some schools will subscribe to like Hegarty Maths for example. But there is a lot that is free and publicly available. If your child is confused by something or perhaps missed the class when that topic was being taught, catching up online can be a great relief.
Timers setting an alarm to start and finish a revision session is a good idea. Taking breaks and building in down time can all be managed on a smart phone.
Background sounds using apps like Spotify for music can help. You can download pre-made study music or create your own playlist. There are apps like Rain Rain with a huge range of white noise from crackling fires, to freight trains or waterfalls which can really help with concentration and mood. These can be useful for helping wind down before bed or if your child experiences anxiety-related sleep disturbance and needs soothing in the night.
Stop motion video might sound bizarre but one of my children uses this as a motivator. They will film themselves studying on stop-motion or slow mode and then it creates a speeded up short version later. The longer they study, the more satisfying the video as you see, perhaps the sun go down in the background, or people passing by through the window and so on. Even though she’s a young adult and manages her own time away from home, we occasionally receive one of these via WhatsApp and it’s a nice way to elicit coos of encouragement from her parents and sibling.
The final advice is take care of yourself too. As a parent, you need to be rested, calm, centred and present during this challenging time so build in space for your own nutrition, exercise, off-loading onto listening ears outside the home and so on. And take your own advice, when the going gets tough know that this too will pass!
Over the past six months, I have been supporting school staff who are on a DfE-funded Mental Health Leads course. Having carried out about 120 coaching conversations with staff members leading on this work in their schools, I feel that there are some clear themes coming through that we need to pay attention to. I also have read a number of research reports which have been useful to support my understanding of the picture nationwide. The following are some thoughts on what I have learned about mental health and staff wellbeing in schools.
Schools in context When it comes to mental health, schools are influenced to both push and pull factors. ‘Push factors’ are those which can be influenced by the organisation such as leadership practises, school policies, pay and conditions. ‘Pull factors’ are those which may not be influenced by the organisation such as health issues, staff moving away, pregnancy and maternity.
There are interdependencies between the push and pull factors which should not be overlooked. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, teaching staff and education professionals report the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in Britain. The wellbeing of the school workforce is of concern because over 947,000 educators currently work in state-funded schools in England, and research has shown that the wellbeing of teachers affects both their retention and their students’ outcomes.
Some of the factors identified in the Ofsted research which impact on how teachers feel at work are:
health (how we feel physically and mentally)
relationships with others at work
purpose (including clarity of goals, motivation, workload, ability to influence decisions)
The education sector itself While teachers have strong moral purpose and can be positive about their workplace and colleagues, they expressed disappointment with the profession as a whole whereby the advantages do not outweigh the disadvantages e.g. workload driven by national policy, how the profession is regarded externally (although this has risen between 2013-18 according to the EPI study), feeling dictated to by policy-makers.
According to the Education Policy Institute (EPI) study, secondary school teachers show lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction and worthwhileness than primary and early years teachers but also have lower levels of anxiety despite reporting high levels of work-related stress and less manageable workloads. (It would be worth exploring gender differences in this sector). Also in the EPI study, teachers’ view of their profession has worsened since 2013 significantly. Interestingly, the Education Support Teacher Wellbeing Index 2021 found that teachers identifying as Black and Ethnic Minority reported lower levels of stress than their white peers, and they are following this up with further research to explore why this might be.
Lack of agency Teachers do not have enough influence over policy, either at national, local or school level. This is increasing with gradual weakening of the unions, increased pressure on schools from government to academise, and to tackle many wider societal issues which arise from policy-based and structural inequity e.g. gender and ethnicity pay gaps, poverty, general mental health crisis. This can be exacerbated if they are part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), where this adds an extra level of centralised decision-making on which teachers are not consulted.
Ofsted Increased administrative workload, feeling of threat, leadership threat levels from impending Ofsted inspection and changes in framework lead to additional workload. The suspension of Ofsted inspections during the pandemic was triggered to prevent staff burnout.
Again, MAT structures can mean additional levels of mock-inspection, monitoring, scrutiny and compliance activity.
There is recent pressure on schools rated outstanding by Ofsted that have not been inspected for many years, and who will likely be downgraded as the inspectorate seeks to reduce the number of schools rated outstanding overall.
Work-life balance The workload is high and this is affected by increasing administrative tasks, marking, staff absence (exacerbated by the pandemic), staff shortages, diminishing external support specialists (e.g. SEND), behaviour management of children with increasingly complex needs, frequently changing government policy, lack of skills and training.
The TES survey report shows that 67% of UK teachers said their workload is unmanageable in 2021. In 2020, this figure was 22%.
The Education Support survey showed that 70% of staff that have considered leaving the sector attributed this to workload (80% for senior leaders).
While many sectors have been able to give more flexibility around working arrangements including condensed hours and working from home, this is less possible for schools.
Funding and resources Decreased human resources increase workload, efficiency, and can mean taking on responsibilities outside of a staff member’s area of expertise (high risk strategy for performance and progression). Lack of physical resources can impede teaching quality and impact of teaching. This is especially acute for smaller schools which will need to fund a leadership team and cover material costs of running a school on smaller budgets.
Funding is and will increasingly be inadequate for schools to even cover their staff costs.
Relationships with parents/carers Parental/carer expectations and the high-challenge, high-threat climate in schools regarding outcomes for children and inappropriate communication between staff and parents can be stress factors. The marketisation of education has created the notion of parental choice and pressure on schools to deliver in order to retain popularity with parents/carers.
The Covid 19 pandemic The pandemic, working from home, remotely or in blended ways has created a worldwide re-evaluation by many around the meaning of work and a ‘great resignation’ as people move to different patterns of work, professions and relationship with the world of work. While leading up to the pandemic, 1:3 teachers left the profession within their first five years, this trend starts with the fact that 1:6 leave within just one year. In the Education Support survey, 54% of staff said they considered leaving the sector in the past two years due to pressures on their mental health and wellbeing (63% SLT, 53% teachers)
Staff report that they feel much less confident performing their role now than they did in 2020 2020 79% felt confident compared with 38% in 2021).
Push factors for schools
Students’ behaviour Low-level disruption impacts on teachers’ wellbeing and impacts on learning. Inconsistency and lack of support around behaviour management leaves teachers feeling exposed. The pandemic has also impacted on relationships with students, with the TES survey showing that while in 2020 83% felt they and colleagues had good relationships with students, but in 2021 this was at 58%.
Lack of support Teachers feel unsupported by line managers in appropriate ways and solutions are often offered when it is too late. Not enough recognition for work done well, positive feedback, professional dialogue, development and nurture rather than monitoring and target-oriented performance management. About a third of teachers report that they don’t get enough support with just under 50% saying they get some support but that it isn’t adequate.
Lack of agency and trust The TES survey showed that nearly 50% of 2,995 UK respondents to their survey reported that they don’t have a voice about how things go at their school. 44% of staff in the Education Support survey say they feel fully trusted by their line manager with 91% of those who felt distrusted reporting it impacts negatively on their wellbeing.
Lack of training and professional development opportunities Nearly half of respondents in the TES survey said there were no opportunities for them to develop in their current role, and a similar number thought they were not working towards personal goals.
74% of teachers in the Education Support survey say that their Initial Teacher Training courses did not prepare them well to manage their own or their students’ wellbeing.
Poor leadership The TES survey shows that less than 40% think that their school has a vision for the future. 16% feel that information is shared effectively between staff in their school. The pandemic has forced physical restrictions on ad hoc communication between staff outside of their ‘bubbles’ and the volume of emails has become so great that messages can often be missed.
The EPI study shows that SLT have the highest levels of both positive wellbeing and anxiety.
The Education Support survey shows that 42% of staff consider their organisation’s culture as having a negative effect on their wellbeing and 27% of staff feel the relationship they have with the SLT impacts on their wellbeing most negatively.
How might we be tackling some of these issues?
Schools can limit their response to staff wellbeing and mental health to being reactive to poor mental health and wellbeing through offering Employee Assistance Programmes and taking out insurance to cover costs should a member of staff have to take time off. Other responses can be around ‘compensatory’ measures without addressing issues which may be connected to push factors listed above. These can range from yoga and meditation sessions, small gestures like cakes and treats, through to tangible offers around revisiting workload around marking and feedback, or offering each staff member a ‘mental health’ day that they can take once a year.
According to the Mercer study on digital healthcare innovation, a third of companies plan to grow their virtual or telehealth solutions as part of their employee support benefits. The report says that employee-focused digital technology can support staff to contribute their best if they are able to develop new leadership skills, can target feeling stress and burn-out swiftly, and if the organisation can shift the culture around mental health, and invest in meaningful programmes of support targeted at employees’ needs.
The following are some of the ways which companies offering wellbeing solutions for staff may be able to tackle some of the issues identified:
Helping line managers know how their teams are doing Regular staff surveys can create a view of staff wellbeing which is not possible to gain in the bustle of day to day life at school. These are only as good as the line managers are at using the results in positive ways. Where they are used as surveillance tools, this is extremely negative for staff who then either don’t participate, or limit how honest they are.
Anonymous feedback from teachers Many schools say they have an ‘open door policy’ for staff to come and ask for support but teachers are often afraid that by reporting a problem, they will become the problem. Anonymising feedback is a good way to know what is happening without letting bias creep in. Again, in some coaching calls, staff described tactics used by line managers to try to find and ‘have a word’ with those they perceived as negative or lacking resilience who reported feeling unhappy at work.
Helping teachers set goals professionally and personally Teachers being in dialogue with themselves around goal setting relieves the pressure of goal-setting being always around performance management targets and being held accountable to management. Unfortunately, the consensus from most staff I spoke with was that there is no time outside of performance management routines to have professional conversations. Some, however, had fantastic cultures which included strength-based leadership and peer coaching as powerful methods to promote professional growth and autonomy.
Staff recognition and appreciation Time pressures and workload often mean this is left unsaid and the only feedback teachers get is when things aren’t going well. Other times, when this is given, it can feel tokenistic, especially if the basics of good people management aren’t in place.
Whole-school communication about students behaviour and wellbeing CPOMs and other online tools have created useful tools for teachers to quickly and effectively register concerns about their students. Where they are able to form a team response, teachers feel supported and although concerns for students are high, they don’t feel as much burden dealing with issues alone.
Supporting leaders with Ofsted compliance around staff wellbeing In my investigations into technology to support staff wellbeing, one of the apps I explored links their offer directly to Ofsted compliance. Being able to show how you monitor, respond to and support staff wellbeing is helpful. Again, when it is done as a performative act to satisfy the impending threat of Ofsted, that’s a red flag.
What are schools doing well?
Based on over 120 hours of listening to Mental Health Leads talking about mental health and wellbeing in their schools, here are some insights.
Workload is a massive issue Schools have tried to tackle this through a combination of looking for ideas to reduce workload, especially those that are evidence-informed like moving to a whole-class feedback and no marking policy. Other workload-related ideas intersected with trust and autonomy, which we know influence employees’ sense of wellbeing at work and job satisfaction. So, for example allowing teachers to do PPA time at home, having restrictions on when emails can be sent and/or read, kicking-out times from the school site, finding easier ways to communicate that aren’t email-based (or WhatsApp groups) like Teams or Slack.
HR and the way people are treated Schools that had in place clear, people-centred policies and had done training around the sorts of life-cycle and seminal moments issues that staff face seemed to fare better in terms of protecting staff mental health and wellbeing.
For example, generous and equitable practice around parental leave, fertility, bereavement, family break-up, attending children’s plays and medical appointments, menopause, moving house, duvet days.
Professional development pathways In small schools and those with low staff turnover, staff can become frustrated that there is nowhere to develop. The schools that seemed to be aware of this had developed firstly a way to link performance management and professional development to building on strengths rather than correcting weaknesses. Some had gone as far as thinking about using something like Strengths Finder 2.0 or an adult equivalent of SDQs to map how everyone was using their strengths. Good schools will be building development pathways that tap into local, regional and national CPD offers, networks and opportunities. Others will align themselves with a professional body like Chartered College of Teaching to ensure that teachers can develop through action research, special interest groups, NPQs, Masters courses and more.
Significant and regular development conversation One big missing element was significant and regular development conversations that happen frequently and that aren’t tied to performance management cycles ie. not an annual ‘have you met your targets?’ conversation.
Regular one to ones, and knowing there is at least one person within the school who has your best interests at heart is important. This could be solved through a peer to peer coaching model with monthly sessions covering ‘What’s going well?’, ‘What could be even better if..?’ and ‘Where can I help you?’
Some basic coaching training and matching people in cross-hierarchy pairs would create an interesting dynamic and space for professional coaching conversation.
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion matters Connected to this is a big win to be had around equality, diversity and inclusion. If this work can be linked to structural barriers, it could be extremely powerful. Gathering some basic data on individuals could yield some simple red flags connected to development pathways, HR and other elements that can impact on mental health and wellbeing and that are also linked to protected characteristics.
Employee Assistance Programmes are patchy Many schools have these but have no idea if or when staff use them. Many mental health leads thought that these could send a message that the school cares and that this is there if you need it, while others thought that it was a bit useless especially if the issues are caused by school itself but dealt with externally. Most of the mental health leads in schools felt that there needed to be a way to build a culture of engagement with the services they use, and that there’s a need to change school culture so that you don’t have to push yourself to breaking point. These programmes can give the message that they are there because school will break you eventually.
It will be interesting to hear your thoughts and experiences on these matters whether you are a school leader, leading on mental health in your school, or even part of a company supporting schools with a programme or a technology solution to alleviate some of the pressures on schools.
Over the past few weeks, I have been talking to schools about mental health and wellbeing. It is fantastic to hear that teachers and leaders are taking mental health and wellbeing of children seriously and are putting things in place to ensure that it is integrated into the curriculum, behaviour management and relationships across the school.
What I have felt through talking with schools is that nurturing good mental health and wellbeing of staff doesn’t come naturally to many. While they understand that no amount of cakes, recognition walls and coffee vans are going to cut workload and the stresses of the job, leaders seem inexperienced around what does matter to human wellbeing in the world of work more generally, and which are in their power to change.
My experience of the world of work tells me these things matter when they are done well, and can break people when they are not. You could file all these things under building good organisational culture, which I believe is as grounded in the niceties of daily interaction as they are in solid, routine and dependable processes and practice working in synchronicity.
Feeling valued professionally
Most people don’t stay in a job for the cake trolley on a Friday or the Christmas party. What really matters is feeling valued professionally. When this is done badly, you might get a hint of your value through the thrill of being new, being one of the old timers whose place seems secure, or be flavour of the month for a fleeting period. But what really matters for our health and wellbeing at work is similar to what we want in place for the children in our school – does everyone have at least one trusted adult who consistently has their best interests at heart, who can coach them through difficult times, set clear boundaries and support them to reach their full potential?
Professional value can be communicated through the following ways:
Does my line manager schedule regular 1:1s with me?
Do they show up to them without fail and hold a conversation with me around a simple agenda:
What’s going well?
What could be better for you?
What’s stopping you?
What will you do next?
Do I have regular opportunities to look at my performance targets and see how I am doing on reaching them? Did I have a hand in crafting them so they are realistic, achievable, measurable and motivating? Does my line manager walk with me on the journey to achieving them? Or are these written for me, filed and then looked at again at the end of the year?
Knowing you have someone who takes an interest in your professional journey, who helps you trouble shoot, identify issues yourself and supports you to find answers, celebrate successes, and pushes you to reach your potential makes coming to work feel safe, challenging and motivating. Don’t underestimate the power of investing 45 minutes a week in someone else. And as a line manager, you also will benefit as your own professional knowledge will be enhanced, and you can keep your finger on the pulse around what happens in different classrooms and through the eyes of different professionals.
Does my line manager and the rest of the team know what my strengths are?
Are these being used frequently or am I being forced to get better at things I hate and am bad at? Do I know other people’s strengths and am able to draw on them and collaborate?
See my previous post on Strengths Based Leadership here
Do I have opportunities to lead, learn and develop?
Even if there isn’t a clear formal TLR or ladder rung to climb, do I have clarity on where I can take on projects that make me visible across the school as a competent leader? Can I work shadow, be seconded somewhere, lead on a project, collaborate with a more senior colleague? Can I have coaching and mentoring for my professional development?
Do I have opportunities to develop my leadership and knowledge?
Is reading, doing action research, online learning and other CPD valued by the school or is it all channelled into INSET days and twilight sessions?
Does my school engage with and understand some of the structural barriers?
Is there a commitment by your school to understand and lean in to some of the structural barriers that people from typically marginalised groups can face? Remember that these can be intersectional as well, but women, people of colour, people with disabilities, people who are LGBT+ will face daily micro-aggressions, outright discrimination and structural inequities which will impact on their professional journey, day to day wellbeing and general outlook. Schools should be absolutely clear on what they have in place to ensure that the workplace is equitable, and should be putting extra support and nurture in place where appropriate. The BAMEed Network provides coaching for staff from Black, Asian and racially minoritised backgrounds, as well as support to schools with their diversity and inclusion work.
Feeling heard, held and seen through seminal moments
For me, these seminal moments have been make or break situations. The way that an organisation treats staff in its day to day operations is embedded in the culture and can be supported by having policies in place. However, these policies aren’t worth the paper they are written on if as an organisation you don’t have a robust plan in place to support people through seminal moments. Fudging it, getting it wrong, being clumsy, ill-informed or insensitive can be make-it-or-break-it moments for many people at work.
What do we mean by seminal moments?
Marriage, birthdays, births – does everyone get the same attention & gifts or is dependent on how popular you are?
Attending your own children’s first day at school/nativity/doctor’s appointments – can you do this guilt-free – or at all?
Parental leave – do you have Keep in Touch days and are these used well? What happens when people come back to school after parental leave? Is there provision for breast-feeding mothers to pump somewhere private and store milk somewhere appropriate?
Fertility – can a staff member have treatment and are they supported appropriately? Does the school know what it means to go through fertility treatment both physically, emotionally and financially? Would it be worth knowing about it now, even if you have never encountered it in reality and no staff member needs support with this yet?
Menopause – do MEN and women know what to do/expect? What are the physical, emotional and professional impacts for women going through menopause? What can the school do to support with this in small yet meaningful ways?
Moving house, death & divorce – They say these three seminal moments are of equal impact on our psyches. Does the school have a clear leave policy or is it all a bit ad hoc? What is our agreed shared language we use with each other to acknowledge and show compassion?
These are just a few examples of how you can make sure people feel valued professionally and personally at work and which will impact positively on mental health and wellbeing more than a thousand cakes and coffee vans. With these in place the other things won’t feel tokenistic.
This Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Portobello Festival of Learning in Edinburgh. I am writing this while the train home carries me hurtling through green fields and northern cities, with a feeling I haven’t had for quite some time. It’s a mixture of deep pain and uplifting joy, both are the direct result of feeling connected to a shared narrative experience. The golden thread running through the event was around storytelling and narratives as pivotal not only to learning but to the human connection which makes learning sticky, memorable and even a deeply happy experience. Nina Jackson’s incredible hour-long keynote was as harrowing as it was hopeful. Like a phoenix from the flames, she took us deep into the fire of her experience in childhood and early adulthood and right through to the colourful and whole person she is today. The intensity of 300 pairs of eyes tracking her glide around the centre stage was visceral. Her ability to tell her story, to elicit gasps, laughs, to have us leaning in and then recoiling again, was phenomenal. Her pulling together the themes, tying them into clear strands and using minimal visual inputs at carefully timed intervals was clearly craftwork.
When I refer to storytelling and narratives as a tool for learning, it is clear to me that this is not just about teachers telling stories that make learning happen in the classroom, although the inimitable Hywel Roberts’ session definitely reminded me the power of a carefully prepared narrative containing dramatic development, coupled with a deep understanding of sound pedagogy, to activate the senses and make engaging learning take place. As he led us through some of the methodology he uses in the classroom with teachers and children alike, I had a physically and emotionally intense response to the suspense and drama he created. The group was positively bristling with excitement and childlike willingness to enter into an adventure with him. We mustn’t forget as teachers that our ability to facilitate learning in others is most powerful when coupled with our own commitment to lifelong learning as a human being. Part of this learning means seeking out the human stories of those around us, so that we can expand our view of the world, the possibilities and similarities and differences. Prior knowledge means that we have anchors and reference points to draw on, but alongside this is also the fact that what we often class as prior knowledge is often deeply flawed, contextually irrelevant or even just plain learned bias. Lyfta’s workshop took participants on a journey to immersive storyworlds with embedded human documentary stories. Opening the session, Serdar Ferit started with the fascinating contextual framing that led to the Lyfta concept being born. Guiding the group around the storyworlds Lyfta has created, and before playing each human story documentary, he asked, “what can you say about what you can see, and how do you know?” We’re all willingly sharing our assumptions as our eyes scan an Ethiopian village, a Palestinian family living room, a Finnish ballet studio and we hazard a guess, only to be gently redirected as we watch the short film that follows, and as we listen to real human beings telling us their story. By the end of the session, teachers in the room spoke of what sounded to my ears like a renewed commitment to treat what we have learned with the challenge it rightfully deserves. One of the powerful yet simple learnings I have gained from reading about race and class in recent years is the toxic nature of the presumed innocent question we often ask people we meet, which is along the lines of “where are you from?” or “what do you do?” This can be loaded with racially stereotypical and classist connotations and assumptions. One way around this, which is also faithful to the importance of storytelling and narratives is to ask “what’s your story?” – giving people the opportunity to respond in as narrow, wide, personal or generalised way as is fitting for their own contextualised narrative journey of the current moment.
Paul Dix reminded us of the importance as educators to lead on the co-creation and at times to own the narrative for our young charges. The simple process of reframing the narrative can diffuse potentially disruptive situations in the classroom. He laid out carefully why we as adults need to be clear on our part in the story that is unfolding right there in our own classroom. We may need to retell the story to include perhaps a historical context that allows a potentially volatile young person to rewrite the story in real time. Instead of entering into a battle of wills, trying to get a child back on task, you can say for example, gently but with conviction, “remember last week you helped me clear up when the lesson was finished, and you stayed behind to make sure everything was in place? That’s the person I know, and that’s the person I want to see here now”. This reminds the young person that this positive element is still part of their story, and is included in the whole story. Paul used dramatic demonstration and emotionally engaging dialogue to help us understand that as responsible adults, we can reframe, redirect and take charge of the narrative so that behaviour is guided back on track leaving both your and the student’s dignity and self-respect in tact.
Aside from learning about others through taking an interest in their narrative and on their own terms, is the important work of learning to connect with our own narratives. By this I don’t mean to endlessly hone the story we tell others about ourselves, which we often defensively beaver away at to show ourselves in the best light. Learning one’s own narrative means being able to zoom in and out, and as we gain greater perspective and distance, weaving in the contextual, socio-historical backdrop to give more rich and layered meaning to our own pinhole camera view. Parts of the day were personally resonant, and therefore profoundly painful for me and I’m sure many people in the room. But I know that I am also increasingly able to understand my own childhood experiences firmly within the political backdrop of Britain at that time. I contextualise my parents’ decisions and behaviours that led to some serious negative outcomes for their children within their class-based economic constraints, educational achievements and resulting restricted opportunity, and the contemporary gender role expectations – as well as the commonly-held beliefs about childhood of the time. This helps to ensure the story I tell is iterative and nuanced, based on my own emotional growth and psychological bandwidth to zoom out from the pure hurt to an external packaging which humanises the chain of events without betraying my own experience.
Whatever our narrative, and however we weave storytelling into our professional, pedagogical and personal life, perhaps we all need Nina Jackson’s reminder of the Japanese practice of Kintsugi – repairing broken ceramics with gold. Kintsugi wisdom says rather than disguising the broken pieces, you recognise the story of the object and visibly incorporate the repair into it, while outlining the places which are whole and in tact. By outlining the places that broke us, or where the story changed, we can also remember the beauty of the process of retelling and rebuilding that resulted in who we are now.
When we were setting the agenda and theme for this year’s BAMEed Network annual conference, I have to admit that the idea of a theme of the habits of highly effective people felt like it could stray into contentious territory. I don’t buy into the ideology that promotes a view that hard work breaks all barriers if you just put your mind to it. I do believe that our world is inherently racist, our institutions are structurally racist and that many white people, when faced with challenge on this are prone to being fragile and defensive, often crying out the case for colour-blindness instead of taking responsibility and committing themselves to join the call to be agents of change. We will need to all work extremely hard as a society to make meaningful changes for people of colour, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people, the working classes, women, people with disabilities, LGBT people and the many marginalised people in general. We will need to understand that these changes need to take place, not out of pity or do-goodery which creates further ‘othering’ people of colour. Change needs to happen for the good of us all.
One of the strong themes of the day was to explore the reasons why diversity and anti-racist practice, in all its forms, is good for everyone. After all, diversity is actually good for business. In our increasingly materialistic and managerialist world, employers in all sectors and business people alike should be aware of the impact of ignoring the issues. It might seem cynical to overlook real human experience in favour of putting the business case for equality, but it might also be a good way to make people start to engage with the issues. Where you can’t first change people’s attitudes, perhaps you can change their actions.
A healthy workforce is a happy workforce
Mental health and wellbeing is a good place to start. The evidence is there, cumulative exposure to racial discrimination has incremental negative long-term effects on the mental health of ethnic minority people in our country. Studies that examine exposure to racial discrimination at one point in time may underestimate the contribution of racism to poor health.
I think what is hard for people to understand is that when we refer to racial discrimination it is not confined to outrageous and obvious racist abuse, it is confined to these small acts, daily reminders, constant and seemingly subtle markers of territory which white people are prone to do. White people too are victims of constant, deep and consistent conditioning that we will need to work hard to free ourselves from.
A person who is consistently made to feel that they do not belong, that they are not fully British, or they are Brit(ish) as Afua Hirsch so powerfully explains in her recent book of the same title, is exhausting. The impact on health, both mental and physical, is tangible and has been researched, written, documented and spoken about extensively. The incidents of micro-aggressions and denying people of colour an equal place in shared spaces is imperceptible to most white people’s consciousness. As a Jew, I know these micro-aggressions all too well but as a secular, white Jew, I can choose to expose my ‘otherness’ and don’t wear it as obviously as many marginalised people do.
The ‘innocent act’ of taking an interest in someone’s heritage is a prime example and in many accounts I have heard, it involves this simple but powerful way to show someone their right to be fully British is under question:
Q: “Where are you from?”
A: “London/Birmingham/Dorset/[insert any part of the UK]”
Q: “Yes, but where are you from? Where is your family from originally?”
Diverse teams are 35% more productive
Diversity in the workplace doesn’t mean having a bingo card full-house of ‘minorities’ or marginalised groups. What it does mean is diversity of thought. If you have a diverse group of people they will differ in the way they approach situations, think things through, perceive challenges, view the issues, come to solutions, work together, articulate themselves, network and collaborate. This leads to higher rates of productivity in all sectors and of course profitability in the private sector, according to a recent McKinsey study. You can’t have diversity of thought if everyone in your organisation has the more or less the same background and experience.
The best way to ensure diversity is to change recruitment practices. Too many employers say that they struggle to recruit a diverse workforce because the diverse candidates just don’t apply. Anyone who attended his workshop or has spoken to him, will know that Roger Kline’s work with the NHS is a fascinating insight into how simple changes in practice make a huge difference. The interesting fact is that while you can’t oblige people to believe this is the right thing to do morally, simple target-setting can certainly be a huge motivator for people to reach the levels of diversity, and therefore productivity, that workplaces should strive to achieve. It’s a two-pronged attack of targets and educating managers that works best of course. It’s not enough to believe, you need the tools and sometimes the carrot and stick approach to make change happen.
But Roger’s work shows that it doesn’t just stop with getting the team in. It also extends to treating people well. His research shows that it is 1.56 times more likely that BAME staff will enter the formal disciplinary process than white colleagues, while in London it is twice as likely. We see this also with punishment and exclusion of our students in schools. We should learn from Kline and colleagues on what works and what doesn’t in promoting equality for our staff members and our children.
Change always begins with me
There is a place though to consider what measures each of us can take to promote change, point out inequality where it is taking place and to position ourselves as best as we can to mitigate the effects of structural and inherent racism in our society.
For me as a white person, I know that I have a moral responsibility to keep reading, learning, listening and educating myself so that I can open doors, send the elevator back down, and share my privilege where I can. As Peggy McIntosh so rightly points out, white people have a ‘knapsack of privileges’ which we are encouraged to not even recognise or see as inherent to the experience of ‘whiteness’ and white privilege. She says, “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage…I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious”. I was pleased that this year, our conference included more white delegates than ever. We are yet to be blessed with ‘the great white male’ among their number. Next year, our conference will be in Brighton on 15th June and I hope that we can do better on this front.
My fears of even a hint of victim-blaming or ‘just try harder’ message coming across in our choice of theme transpired to be unfounded of course. One workshop I attended, further helped me reconcile my original worry. Issy Dhan’s session explored how we can make our work and achievements more visible in the workplace. He was sensitive to the fact that culturally, especially those not socialised and conditioned in the way our white, British, male colleagues may have been, can find the whole concept of potential immodesty, extroversion and trumpet-blowing hard to stomach. However, some simple processes and actions can go a long way to helping make ourselves more visible as credible people in the workplace and the knock-on effect can be to raise the profile of our perceived minority group, whether we like it or not.
One great and relevant piece of advice came from one of the participants in this particular workshop. She said that where your workplace still isn’t convinced of your strength and worth, consider making your impact outside of the workplace. Get involved in things you can lead, organise, be active in. Show your professional abilities and leadership qualities. Blogging, writing for professional publications and getting involved in movements like the BAMEed Network are prime examples. We’d be delighted to see your blog on the event and to hear what impact it had on you. We are looking for more regional leads who can ensure that across the country we are making change happen. Just get in touch, we’re waiting to hear from you.
I want to remind you, because it matters to me. I want to remind myself because thankfully, I am worlds away from where I was once, and sometimes, even I too forget what it can be like.
Students, teachers and parents/carers, bound by the rhythm of the academic year, all know the feeling leading up to the summer holidays. The absolute, bone-aching, itchy-eyed crawl through the end of year obligations and celebrations, the various milestones and rites of passage, the last logistics and then the deafening silence that ensues when it’s finally here and we can kick into a different gear for the greater part of six weeks.
“Have a great summer!” we say as we wave goodbye to the school gates, the students and staff members. Forgetting that for many, the summer is protracted period of chaos, uncertainty, hunger, vulnerability, emotional upheaval and even physical wounds. It is the wrenching away from a number of guaranteed hours of structure, predictability and protection that the school day can provide.
I’m sitting beside a river, looking at my own children, as we horse about in the south of France, where we have been for nearly two weeks. This year, we let them bring a friend each, since they are 12 and 15, knowing this would make it even more fun an experience. We’ve done a home-swap and took the train here, so the costs are pretty modest all in all. They have little idea how lucky they are. I keep thinking back to my own experience of summer holidays at their age.
Please do note while reading this post, that I am aware that there are of course two (and more) sides to every story. My parents made the decisions they did with the resources, understanding and urgency of their situations at the time. Neither of them acted out of malice or any intention to do other than what they felt they could given the circumstances. My father was forced to live abroad after his marriage to my mother broke down, he lost his job and wanted to provide what he could for his family. What I outline here, is from my child’s-eye view of what it felt like at the time. I spell it out in such viceral detail because I want you, as teachers, working with young people and colleagues, to know that some of your students and fellow teachers might be indeed spending their summer having similar experiences and the associated feelings and behaviour that might stem from this later.
My dad saw us once a year, for two weeks, during the summer holidays. He would come over from America, rent a cottage in Dorset where he had research interests and some sense of community, and which would give him a little company and structure to the days – he probably wasn’t aware that this left us feeling completely exposed, pulled away from our friends and familiar surroundings and unsure of what the rules and expectations were from an authority figure we hardly knew. We were getting to know “Uncle Dad” as I used to think of him. If you added up all the two-week slots I had spent with him by the time I was 12, it amounts to just under six months. Seeing my dad once a year was meant to be a treat, and in a way it was because we got away from London and from our mum during that time, but it also was a painful experience. This short two-week window was a chance for the three of us children to be reminded of several things:
His lifestyle in America was completely different to ours. He had a new wife, no kids, a great job, ate out, had what seemed to us a massive circle of friends and colleagues. He even had hobbies and leisure time – we were on free school meals, my mum constantly worried about running out of money. She had no support network, social life or love life other than what could be packed into those two weeks and around her job as a teacher. She lived like a battalion commander under constant enemy fire
It felt like he disapproved of us. His visit inevitably began with the ritual end of year report reading and I felt like I always got a talking to from my dad. (He tells me now that this talking to, was really him saying, ‘get everything you can from your education and you will be set up for life’, but at the time, it felt like I was being berated as I found the whole experience of school torturously difficult). While away with him, we children squabbled, acting out the angst and frustration from our fraught home life, which he knew nothing of. He must have thought we were argumentative and violent kids that needed better boundaries. We had a short window of time to prove ourselves worthy of his love and the experience was humiliating, like an annual two-week Sisyphean mountain
We believed we were not lovable – if we were, the child’s-eye logic said he wouldn’t have gone so far away and moved abroad, right? If we were, he wouldn’t spend time with us once a year and then hand us back to cope alone with the horrors of our daily lives, board the plane home and not see us again for another 351 days
During the summer holidays, my mum was more stressed about money than usual. She was often on part-time or contract work which didn’t include payment in the summer holidays. This meant that we were left to our own devices much of the time while she went into a sort of exhausted, low-cost limbo. It being the 70s and early 80s, over-scheduling, playschemes and expensive childcare weren’t really a thing yet. Playing in the streets and roaming were. That was fun and exciting and there was a whole pack of us neighbourhood kids that would play for hours on end or go off on our bikes to the parks and the heath. Smoking fags, trespassing, dodging weirdos and paedophiles was just a part of life and looking back now I see that we were in real peril many, many times.
My mum was lonely, isolated, struggling with mental illness and a complete lack of interest, imagination, or support from those around her. She was prone to violent outbursts and we would bear the brunt of these with vicious beatings, afterwards, being locked in our rooms for sometimes a whole day and overnight, howling to be released. Or if we ran away from her grasping hands, having the contents of our rooms emptied onto the floor and ripped and trampled underfoot, being denied food, affection, an apology or even acknowledgement that that had just happened.
Term-time gave some day-time reprieve from the enemy at home (even if it was also pretty miserable for me, being in detention, in the corridor or in disgrace a lot of the school day). The summer meant always being in a cortisol-fuelled state of high alert. I remember feeling exhausted at the end of August, and a sort of soul-deep, secret, soiled state of being. No-one knew what we endured. Not even our friends, their parents, teachers – or our own dad. The long school-shirt sleeves and knee-high socks of the autumn term covered the bruises.
“Write about what you did in your summer holidays” was always the task we started the year with. Or “write down your resolutions for the new academic year”. Every year, I composed a jolly recollection of the time we did brass rubbings in the village church or a walk we went on all together, with my dad. Every year, I could almost taste the feeling of hope and thought I could turn over a new leaf, knuckle down, be a better me. I would last a few weeks and then succumb to the deeply ingrained sense that I was the vile, unworthy, rotten-to-the-core child that had been drilled into me over the course of the year by school and my mum and finished off over the summer by my dad in his own unconscious way. The cycle began again and I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t hold my tongue, the gap widened and I didn’t understand the work and had no-one at home to work through it with me.
When I was a teacher, I made sure I was sensitive to the possibility that this sort of experience was the case for some of my students, some of their parents, some of my colleagues. I knew that at least a proportion of them would be struggling over the summer and that their return to school wouldn’t be with a glow of bronzed skin, relaxed shoulders and tales of exotic climes. I knew that they would hunker down and brace themselves for the self-satisfied tales of trips with the family and the inevitable setting of assignments and declarations of what their well-rested and re-charged selves could achieve in the year ahead.
My plea to you as teachers, as parents, as people, is to remember this. Be sensitive. Think of a way to reach out and hold tight those for whom it was summer time and the living ain’t easy.
This week I had a chance to reflect on leadership from several angles and I have found myself increasingly rattled. The most obvious reason I am thinking about leadership is that we just had a general election. The same week, I attended the Inspiring Leadership annual conference in Birmingham. And finally, this has made me reflect on what matters to me as a leader in the workplace.
When leadership is only tactical, we are all doomed
It’s the saddest reflection of our society that many people have been put off from voting because they believe that politicians are not really concerned about the good of the people. Politicians are concerned about power, tactical manoeuvring, short-term gains and winning votes from specific, high-value sections of society for their own individual needs. Our public services, education, social care, the NHS have all been cynically sacrificed as a result. These tactics also don’t seem to have done Theresa May any favours at all, despite her arrogant conviction that she would glide through easily: the snap election of 2017 is characterised by May’s tactical manoeuvring seriously backfiring on her. If that kind of behaviour happened in a school, surely the headteacher would be forced to resign, but there is a special blend of (often white), privileged, self-righteous leadership which gives license to some people to keep on ploughing ahead, regardless.
When this kind of behaviour happens in any organisation, it can tear people apart while the king pin is somehow allowed to stride forth, visibly naked in his/her emperor’s new clothes, crunching underfoot the bare bones of the very people who s/he sacrificed along the way. The tactics are dressed up as being for the good of progress within the organisation. Heads must roll for it to look like there is change.
The good: A clear strategy is good for everyone. A strategy needs to be firmly based on evidence and that evidence should be gathered from all levels within the organisation itself as well as from immediate stakeholders and beyond, into the local, national and global picture. Strategy can never be about individual personal gain and protecting the power for the top dogs.
The bad: When there is a lack of transparency on how the evidence has been gained to inform the strategy, or strategy-making happens behind closed doors, there is a direct disconnect between the top dogs and the actual people tasked with delivering the strategy.
The ugly: Top dogs who use the strategy of the organisation to forward their own tactical gains are unethical and are blurring the lines between what serves their own interests and what is good for those they serve.
Leadership is not about hierarchical structures
The biggest mistake we make in organisations is to think that the only leaders are those that are at the top of the pyramid in terms of pay scale and rank. In fact, I can say with great conviction that many leaders can feel at their weakest in terms of actual leadership, influence and impact when they are at the very top. They are removed from the heart of their organisation and as a result are often extremely poor decision makers, left to throw their weight about with superficial displays of strength and loud declarations.
I actively encourage all of my colleagues to consider themselves leaders, whatever their age, stage or rank. True leadership can come from any level within an organisation and should evolve from a person being first and foremost a great listener, highly attuned and focused on their own thoughts and motivations, those of others around them and on what it is that needs to be done, but also clearly able to see this within the context of the wider mission of the organisation as a whole. We don’t give enough time to leaders like this to drive us forward in an organisation.
Take the example of a flock of geese flying in their V-formation. The goose leading the way at any one time knows that they are there for as long as they have the strength and stamina, the clarity of vision and the inner compass to be breaking the headwinds in tight formation with their fowl friends. But they also know that when they need to take a moment, or when they might be losing their way, another bird in the flock will glide forward and allow that first goose to hang back. They aren’t ejected from the flock in disgrace, managed out, unfairly dismissed, put ‘on capability’ as schools like to call it. The forwards momentum continues and the one at the front needs those flanking them to be agile, attuned and be feeding information forward to help propel them all towards their destination.
I have said to colleagues, no matter how junior, “you have challenging questions to us all and you have emerging answers, you have a strong opinion and seem to know what needs to be done. Just lead and we will follow”. And yet people can deliberately hold back, perhaps wanting answers to only come from the Big Cheese. I am confident enough of my own leadership that I am also ready to be led by my colleagues, and yet the conditioning many won’t question in themselves, doesn’t let them glide forth to the tip of the V-formation and lead us towards a warm current they know is there. Better, it seems, to sit back, grumble, criticise and say I told you so. I would like to change this dynamic wherever it occurs. I want to build something else.
The good: The Big Cheese should use real leadership skills to clear the way for good ideas, evidence-informed answers and innovative problem-solving by embracing solutions and a strategy that can come from anywhere within the organisation. Think, Google’s Hack Days, and the proud employee who thought up the ‘Like’ button.
The bad: Some organisations have a “Director of Innovation” who insists that all new ideas need to come through them to be ratified and rolled out, if deemed worthy. The further you get from the coalface, the less easy it can be to see creative ways forward. Couldn’t this be seen as an innovative, patriarchal and patronising idea? That as someone at the top, you can essentially become the battery farm owner of others’ innovation, boxing ideas up and getting them ready to be marketed so as to protect your own leadership position.
The ugly: A Big Cheese might say things like this: “I decide what you do and when you do it, and I can change my mind any time”. Being overly directive and engaging in micromanagement is the ugliest form of so-called leadership. This widely misguided version of leading by example is often what separates a leader from a bureaucratic managerialist. Thinking being a leader means wielding power over others is wrong.
From the mouth of babes and straight into their long-term consciousness
My oldest daughter said indignantly over dinner tonight, “what are we to do if those that are in power are focusing on the wrong things?” She told us a story of her frustration at being punished for descending the wrong staircase at the end of the school day. She was duly barked at, made to climb back up and circumvent the whole school to reach the correct route back to where she had been moments earlier. “I was already on the bottom step! Why are they focusing on this, while kids are bunking off school, smoking at break-times or intimidating others in the toilets? Using the wrong staircase by mistake isn’t going to ruin my life chances or threaten others’ chances of success. But those other things, that are happening right under their noses, they have no plan for”.
This isn’t leadership, this is control. Having an up staircase and a down one makes sense when it is part of a coherent plan to help students move through the school between lessons in a safe and orderly fashion. These kinds of logistics can indeed make for a calm and purposeful learning environment. But to enforce these rules at 4pm after the majority of students have already sped out of the school gates and are halfway home seems petty and demoralising. To focus on these for the purpose of control rather than giving answers to the critical issues that impact negatively on the whole school population’s sense of well-being is worth re-evaluating.
The good: Keeping the main thing the main thing is important. We all need good frameworks and collective agreement on central issues that affect us. These things can be done well so that the entire population of your organisation understands the importance of what you have put in place.
The bad: Creating a set of rules to abide by can be important, but when it replaces human generosity of spirit and basic common sense, or worse still, is dressed up to be the raison d’etre, vision and ethos of the organisation, this is bad. Think zero-tolerance environments and their track record of a good understanding of where tackling mental health issues begins and deploying no-compromise disciplinary methods ends.
The ugly: What we do now are the examples that are set to others and the ones that others are likely to replicate. We can shout at a child on a staircase or intimidate our colleagues to show our hierarchical position of strength. And this is what our legacy will be, this will be replicated.
The thrusting male model of leadership
As leaders of complex organisations, it is too easy to compartmentalise separately the ideals of leadership and the actual day to day behaviours of a leader. The presenters at Inspiring Leadership gave endless quotes from books about leadership, people were tweeting and scribbling notes. All the while I had a growing sense that I am tired of the “thrusting (white) male” model of leadership that we are forced to endure. I find the Inspiring Leadership conference so uplifting and such an inspiration on the one hand, but on the other, I sat through it enraged.
White male, after white male, presenting their philosophy of what good leadership looks like. The competitive sports analogies, the direct comparison between the journey of the sportsman and that of people tasked with leading a child moving through a journey of development and discovery, just doesn’t work for me the way it is told here. The professional sportsman’s journey started to look like a big bundle of anticipation, control, discipline and brute force towards a 3-minute climax on national TV worth millions of dollars, viewers, fans and expectations. It sounded like the leadership journey was so base and primal, so rooted in domination – of the self, the body and mind, and of others – that it made me rail against it. We have all experienced it over the years in the workplace. Leaders who are excited by such descriptions of leadership but that in their own dealings with people are so lacking in self-awareness that they can’t see how poor they are as leaders and what a raw deal they are delivering for those they lead.
And tying this back to the issues that WomenEd and BAMEed are working hard to address, this thrusting male model is arrogantly and wilfully unaware of what it feels like to be anything other than a white heterosexual man. The words of wisdom on the slide that summarised the All Blacks coach’s speech at Inspiring Leadership: “No Dickheads” was born of the same thrusting male symbolism. Dickheads. The tip of a male phallus.
In amongst the debris of the day’s impressions, I picked out some hints that resonated with many but could have been developed more clearly instead of the usual predictable fare.
The good: The concept of transparent vulnerability as a great strength that was mentioned briefly in one of the speeches, is spot on. If we spend less time pretending we can cover over our weaknesses and more time being at one with them and harnessing the strengths of others, we all win. That is leadership, and leadership starts with harnessing our own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of others. For example, Peter Hyman, headteacher of School 21, is known to interview potential new members of staff with questions that start with “I am not very good at X, how would you help with this in your role at our school?”
The good: Spiderman said, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. The thrill of this seems to motivate those that are conditioned by society to be confident of their own thrusting male-ness and be a reason why perhaps others are perceived as unworthy. We are socialised to have a fixed view of what a leader looks like. Being 10% braver as per the WomenEd campaign and unpacking unconscious bias as per the message of BAMEed, can go some way to address this.
The good: Wonder Woman said, “If the prospect of living in a world where trying to respect the basic rights of those around you and valuing each other simply because we exist are such daunting, impossible tasks that only a superhero born of royalty can address them, then what sort of world are we left with? And what sort of world do you want to live in?”
‘What I do to protect clients’ privacy and why’ was first published in in the September 2016 edition of BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) “Children and Young People” journal for counsellors and psychotherapists working with young people by Ben Gross MBACP(Accred) MSc PGCE BSc(Hons)
Ben Gross is a school counsellor, working in an infant, a primary and a secondary school and in private practice. He is also a teacher and an author of children’s stories. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Picture courtesy of Stan Dupp
I believe that protecting clients’ privacy is fundamental to ensuring the ethical and effective delivery of counselling in schools. In this article I explore the significance of privacy by describing what I do to protect the privacy of my clients and the rationale behind my approach.
I protect my clients’ privacy by taking care to not make it obvious to their peers and staff that they are clients. Here are a few examples of how I do this:
I cover the windows to the counselling room, although I often have to leave a small gap so staff are able to look in “if it might be necessary”.
I put a “PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the door.
I choose discreet locations for counselling rooms.
I do not want to let other children know who my clients are because I do not want to make them seem different from the others. If I did not take these precautions I believe that many of the children, even of nursery age, would notice that certain children are having additional input and before long all the children would realise it. Generally children don’t want to appear different because they want to fit in with their peers.
To avoid making it obvious to their peers that they are having counselling I avoid collecting clients from class. I ask their Learning Support Assistant (LSA) to bring them if they are Key Stage 1 (KS1). Others can usually come alone. If for any reason they cannot come alone, they can be brought by their LSA. If a client forgets to come I ask either the SENCO or Deputy Head to collect the child from class (in primary schools). In secondary schools if a client forgets to come I write them a letter explaining that they have missed a session, reminding them of their appointment time. In the past when I have collected clients from class I noticed that it can attract a lot of attention from the other pupils.
Other ways I avoid exposing clients are by refraining from:
sitting with clients in the dining hall
working with clients during lunch break in the playground
pinning “counselling clients” lists to the staffroom or counselling room noticeboard
allowing clients to put pictures on the walls of counselling rooms with their names on.
This objective of ‘not letting others know who do not “need to know”’ also applies to parents of clients (who are also clients). For example, I do not collect carers and parents of clients from the school foyer when we have meetings, but instead arrange for them to come straight to the room where we are meeting, so it is less likely that other parents and staff will see they are meeting with me. I work in the same way when I have meetings with staff.
I do not let people who do not need to know, know the identity of my clients because there is inevitably a stigma attached to being in therapy, which springs directly from the stigma around having social, emotional or mental health difficulties. We project our own vulnerability and fear that we might be mentally unwell into those who have been given this label, and then reject them, and in so doing feel we are now fine in comparison; not like them, the “mentally ill” ones. This process of projection can cause people to treat “therapy clients” differently at best and, at worst, avoid and bully them. Many young clients have said to me that they don’t want their peers to know they are going to see a counsellor because it would embarrass them, or they are worried they might get teased or bullied about it. This can deter them from accessing counselling or make them want to stop if they are having counselling.
I also protect my clients’ privacy in relation to the school staff. In my experience, many clients would not be comfortable with staff knowing that they are having counselling. Only those who need to know should know, namely: Learning Support and Behaviour Support staff who work with the student; the teachers of the client; The Senior Leadership Team (which includes Special Educational Needs Coordinators and Head of Inclusion) and Year Heads in secondary schools. I have found that staff readily refrain from talking with me about clients in front of other staff (ie in the staff room or corridor) and understand the idea of respecting client privacy once I explain to them the importance of this approach.
In secondary schools I protect clients’ privacy by not automatically letting carers and parents know when a student is referred for counselling; instead I ask the client how they would like this managed. By contrast, in primary schools I have always been required to get signed parental permission before beginning the work. This difference in approach seems to apply in many schools. Although some clients, regardless of age, do not want their parents to know they are having counselling, privacy for clients in relation to their parents seems to be determined by whether they are in primary or secondary school. This may be because of a mistaken understanding of The Gillick Competency where the rule has been oversimplified to match school ages for ease of application; after all, some primary-aged children have the capacity to make reasonable decisions for themselves and some secondary-aged students do not.
I contain my work within the privacy of the counselling room to protect the privacy of the counselling relationship. Hence I avoid doing anything which would make me become part of a client’s social world such as:
leading assemblies about counselling
setting up counselling info stalls in the school foyer
appearing in photographs of staff on the noticeboard
working with clients outside of the classroom (e.g. in the dining hall or playground)
The reason I avoid these activities is because in counselling work, I provide safe containment for very sensitive personal feelings in the privacy of the counselling room. I join my clients in their private, inner, emotional world and so I feel that I should not at the same time be part of their outer, social world. It is for this reason that the counsellor assigned to a child should not be a friend or teacher of the client, or a friend of the client’s parents. My view is that if I enter a client’s social world, this creates two different relationships and the boundaries of therapy become blurred.
It is hard to uphold these boundaries in schools. Sometimes staff or students open the door of the counselling room, ignoring the “Please do not disturb” sign. I have experienced members of staff not wanting the windows of the counselling room to be covered. In a school where I worked it took over a year to reinstall the latch on the counselling room door that had been removed so that it could not close. If staff are able to tolerate their frustration about not knowing who the counselling clients are they will model appropriate behaviour for pupils who will learn to not be intrusive with peers who are having counselling. When a student is having counselling some of their peers and staff will no doubt find out, one way or another, even by simply seeing the child walking to the counselling room. But this does not imply that all their peers and staff might as well be told. So I do my best to be as subtle about it as I possibly can.
The BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2016 (EF) supports my approach to client privacy. The EF states that counsellors have a “commitment to clients” to “Show respect by …protecting client…privacy” (p1). The EF sets out guidelines on “Good Practice” (p5) which includes “Respect” and states, “We will respect our clients’ privacy”. Thus, according to the BACP, if we let others know unnecessarily that a client is in therapy we are not respecting their privacy and this is not good practice.
In schools, as already stated above, it is almost impossible to keep the fact that a child is having counselling completely private. The EF states, “We will protect the confidentiality and privacy of clients by…informing clients about any reasonably foreseeable limitations of privacy or confidentiality in advance of our work together” (p7). So we have a duty to explain to clients that others will find out they are having counselling, what the implications of this could be, and help them to make a decision for themselves about whether or not they are comfortable with this.
Of course some clients may be happy for others to be told. The EF states, “We will work with our clients on the basis of their informed consent and agreement” (p7). “Informed consent” is key here, and relates again to the idea of Gillick Competence; the ability to make an informed choice. If a child does not have the knowledge and maturity to make an informed decision, we have a duty to protect them from the side effects they may inadvertently be exposing themselves to by agreeing to openness. The idea of what is or is not private develops only gradually in children’s mind. They need to be given the opportunity to develop their attitude to privacy. If we don’t help them to make this decision themselves, but instead tactlessly reveal they are having counselling to others, we are doing them a disservice. This could even be seen as abuse. If I suggest to a client that it’s ok for all and sundry to know, they may agree and later regret it. The EF states: “Careful consideration will be given to working with children and young people that…takes account of their capacity to give informed consent…and their best interests” (p8). Clients have a right to choose for themselves whether they want the fact they are having counselling to be revealed freely to their peers and staff by those who know. Some young clients will need support to make such a decision.
The guidelines for “Good Practice” in the EF state, in the section, “Building an Appropriate Relationship” (p8), “We [counsellors and therapists] will establish and maintain appropriate professional and personal boundaries in our relationships with clients by ensuring that…any dual or multiple relationships will be avoided where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client” (p8). This supports my previous suggestion that we should avoid taking on additional roles outside the counselling room. Similarly, the Department for Education (DfE) report “Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future” states: “Counselling needs to take place in a safe, private and welcoming environment…If possible the counselling room should be in an area where it isn’t obvious the pupil is going there to attend counselling” (2016:p30).
I have encountered members of staff who believe that it does not matter if the counsellor is seen in public with a client because students don’t know who the counsellor is. I think that is unlikely; after all, young people are curious and they will see the counsellor walking about and into and out of the counselling room and news spreads fast in schools. Some staff deny the existence of stigma saying, “All the children want to go to therapy because it has such a positive image in our school.” I think this is wishful thinking. There is a vast body of research evidence that counselling is stigmatised in UK schools, and that children fear being stigmatised for attending counselling. “Much research reinforces the ubiquity of concerns about negative stigmatisation by peers as a barrier to young people accessing services” (Prior, 2011:p1). Students, generally don’t want it to be known that they are attending counselling because of student attitudes towards mental health and well-being services (p1).
Interestingly I have seen situations where senior staff members are extremely attentive to the privacy of staff members who are attending counselling whilst at the same time adopt a very open policy towards children attending counselling. They are quite aware that staff seeing a counsellor would not want other staff to know. Perhaps this is because they believe that adults stigmatise but children don’t. Children, in their view, might not be affected by stigma if counselling is dealt with very openly. I don’t agree. If a therapist stays with a student in the playground or dining hall (acting rather like a human dunce cap), this will advertise to the entire population of the school the fact that he/she is a client. Once when I was visiting a school for an interview, a counsellor introduced me to her client as they went into the therapy room (which was just off a dining hall full of students). The client looked extremely uncomfortable. I do not think being open about counselling is a good way to try to reduce the stigma around therapy. Better keep a private interaction private.
In summary, I believe that protecting privacy is an essential component of ethical and effective counselling practice. If we do our best to protect the privacy of our young clients this will help them feel comfortable about accessing counselling support in schools and staying with it. I hope the ideas I have set out in this article will encourage practitioners to think carefully about their approach to protecting the privacy of young clients in schools.
BACP, (2016) Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions. Leicestershire: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Cooper, M. (2009) Counselling in UK secondary schools: a comprehensive review of audit and evaluation data, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 9, 3, 137–50.
The College of Teaching is really going to start taking shape now and I am hoping that one of the things they will consider will be a sabbatical year as a way to prevent teacher burn-out.
I was a teacher for over ten years and I took a sabbatical year once in my penultimate year of teaching. The decade in which I taught was filled with probably familiar personal milestones for many teachers today. I was at the peak of juggling the demands of my professional life and the responsibilities and developments of my personal life. I completed my PGCE, taught for 4 years and then graduated from my M.ed, which had involved action research and lots of late nights reading voraciously and writing, on top of my full time teaching timetable. Shortly afterwards I was married and a year later had our first child. In Israel, where I taught, it is accepted practice that a mother returns to work after 12 weeks of statutory maternity pay. By the time I was mother of two a couple of years later, I was working full time, supplementing my salary with tutoring dyslexic students and exhausted from sleepless nights which are part and parcel of having small children. Adding together the long working hours and the cycles of lesson preparation and marking that happens out of school – you may not know this, but the weekend in Israel consists of Saturday as school runs Sunday to Friday – I was wondering how long I can sustain this intense lifestyle. My sabbatical year was a godsend.
How does a sabbatical year work?
The sabbatical year is part of an expectation of ongoing professional development for teachers and has been going for a long time in Israel. In 1962, the government approved the sabbatical year for all teachers as a way to prevent burn out and retain teachers within the profession. It was also seen as a good idea to strengthen teachers’ professional identity by encouraging them to take time out to study, recharge and reconnect with their profession.
There is an expectation that teachers will undertake CPD activities outside of their school hours throughout the normal working year to help strengthen their subject knowledge and also to support them to hone and develop their teaching methodology. I would usually do at least one evening class a week at one of the teacher training centres. An Israeli teacher’s pay is determined by their level of education and so each course helps you accrue “points”. These points, the different leadership roles you might take on and the number of years you have taught then inform your salary rate. The direct result being, the more you learn as a professional and the better you are able to use that back at school, the more valuable you become. Cynics would say that teachers could just attend courses to bolster their salary, but you have to pass the courses you attend and they are usually very interactive. So unless you sit there with earplugs in chanting nah nah nah nah, you will learn and your learning should inform and improve your teaching.
The sabbatical year gives you time to step off the hamster wheel of teaching and invest some time into a dedicated time for study and reflection.
How is it funded?
During the sabbatical year, a teacher is paid about 66% of their salary which they draw from a fund to which they have contributed 4% of their salary over the previous 6 years. The education department match-funds this. Of course, if you don’t want to take the sabbatical year, you can just defer it to another year or you can even take the money and continue working so you can also view it as a savings scheme. You can read more about this here
How can a teacher afford a pay cut?
You are able to teach on a part-time basis while on sabbatical. I took the opportunity to support a struggling English department at another school one day a week and it was a great insight into how another school operated. It also gave me quite a lot of professional confidence that I could deploy some good practice in another school and contribute to the improvement of their department overall. This in turn boosted my professional network and reputation. And of course, it helped supplement my income a little.
What can you study on sabbatical year?
To qualify for the sabbatical funding, you need to study at least 15 hours a week. We were offered a vast choice of courses and were encouraged to find courses ourselves too. We were required to think of three broad categories of courses: something that builds on my current professional interest, something that broadens my horizons and something for my physical and mental well-being. Gym membership or Tai Chi classes for example, were a completely acceptable way to spend a couple of hours a week.
What did I do?
Aside from working one day a week at another school and continuing to give some private lessons in the evening, I decided to take a two-term diploma in conflict resolution, knowing it could be helpful as a tool in the classroom or beyond. I also took a 12-week course in graphic design, imagining myself perhaps writing my own materials in a more professional way or even illustrating that children’s book I had often thought about. And as a wild card, I did a year’s qualification as a Doula (or birth coach). This was a golden opportunity to explore a possible career fall-back plan if teaching ever got too much. Oh, and I clocked in and out of the gym at least once a week, doing yoga, Pilates and other classes, finally taking care of that niggling lower back ache that had been bothering me for years.
I passed all of my courses and had the incredible experience of supporting 5 couples through their births as part of my Doula course. I was able to charge my clients the going rate and therefore recoup some of what I spent on the course (as only the official education department courses are funded or subsidised). I am still planning to do a refresher and become registered as a Doula as my next career move when I am in my dotage and it was an amazing experience which perhaps I will write about more fully one day.
How can the government afford it?
I couldn’t find anything online about how the government affords the scheme but I can only assume that matched against the cost of high attrition rates of teachers and the fact that this scheme has been going since the 1960s, one can only assume that it must pay off. I did find the results of a research piece which says that findings indicate that a sabbatical in conjunction with a professional training programme had great impact on strengthening the teachers’ professional image, and reducing their feelings of job burnout and intentions to leave their workplace or profession
What did it do for me professionally?
Having a year to do something different, to recharge, and learn new things is definitely empowering. The fact that it is encouraged and is not seen as a sign of weakness or that your enthusiasm for the profession is waning to take a year out, is a great thing. Being able to spend time in another school, as I said earlier, was also a great experience. Just stepping off the great hamster wheel of school life was so refreshing.
I recommend a sabbatical year for teachers in this country but…
…this is on several conditions:
I think it is important that this is a whole year and not a one month or six week offer as was trialled in England in 2001 and as is available in places like New Zealand. You can read the English DfES (as it was called then) report here
It shouldn’t be made into the usual highly-monitored surveillance and hoop-jumping exercise that is so often the case in this country. If we want to professionalise the profession, then trusting the professionals is a first big step. If you give people the space they will usually make good use of it
It should be simple to administer and not a bureaucratic and expensive nightmare. Teachers should be automatically enrolled and if at the end of the 6th year they decide to take the money and run, so be it. This is the only point at which they should be able to opt out
The sabbatical should be the grand festive climax of an ongoing expectation that teachers should be given space and adequate time for continuing professional development that is high quality and impactful as far as the teachers themselves are concerned. Short courses and INSETs are notorious for being often centred on fad topics and not adequate in length or quality to have a lasting impact on the teacher or the school
It would be great if as part of the salary-supplementing ideas teachers were paid to undertake research, supply teaching or other interesting and much-needed activities to support the profession as a whole
There should be a limit on the amount of paid work you can undertake during a sabbatical year and a minimum expectation regarding professional development hours per week so that you don’t just work yourself into the ground when you are meant to be recharging
I would love to hear other people’s ideas of how to make this work and I wonder to what extent it is on the agenda at all with the College of Teaching, the DfE or fellow people of the teaching profession in general.
While I am writing this, I can hear my neighbour screaming at her kids again. She and her partner have three kids – two teenagers and a ten year old. She rants, screams, swears at them and humiliates them. It makes my heart ache but I feel powerless to do much except stay vigilant. I guess it reminds me of my own experience growing up and I often catch myself at home standing motionless, listening, my inner-child self paralysed in poised readiness for fight or flight. When I come to, back in my adult self again, I realise I am just getting myself ready to calmly pop over and ask if I can help out at all – especially when the shouting escalates and I fear there might ensue physical violence. I try not to judge. I don’t know what demons they are battling there or how precarious their situation is. But I can’t be indifferent either to the fact that these children are getting a very raw deal. They are being damaged. I need to find a non-judgemental way to extend some kind of support.
People are quick to judge when things go wrong
There have been a few dramatic stories in the news lately where parents’ ability to care for their children have been called into question. The parents of the child that fell into the gorilla enclosure in the USA were immediately investigated for neglect and poor parenting; the parents that left their son behind in the forest as a punishment in Japan were heavily criticised for their drastic and draconian way to show their anger with their son for behaving badly; and the parents whose toddler was tragically snatched by an alligator while they were holidaying in Disney World sparked consternation that they could be so stupid as to let him paddle in an area renowned for the deadly beasts. People are quick to judge when things go wrong but parenting is a complex operation and it must be the only high impact, high risk and high responsibility role that we need no qualification at all to undertake. You can’t work with children without training and a DBS check. And yet to be a parent, not only is there no training, there is also not much support out there either formal or informal.
Do parents support each other enough?
Parents here can be awful to each other. It seems that the only time they work together is when they have a common enemy in the school. I have seen some really nasty rivalry and complete inability to show any solidarity or support for each other. Parents just seem to lack any imagination about how to relate to other parents. Having been brought up by a single parent with mental health issues who was completely unsupported by her own family, friends or neighbours, I have made it my business to extend support to other parents at my children’s school. Especially the single parents. Since there are two of us, my partner and I have always tried to make sure we extended offers of help with the school run, babysitting and sleepovers to free up those lone parents to have a bit of space and breathing room. It is nothing for us and can mean a lot to a parent that is juggling work, childcare and any hope of a social life.
When we were living in Israel, it was taken for granted that parents would look out for each other. It is customary for the school teacher to give parents a list of all of the children in the class, their parents’ names, phone numbers and their address. Every parent will then scan the list and make contact with others that live nearby. We’d find each other and work out who will do the pick ups and drop offs on which days. That’s just the way it works. Imagine my surprise when we moved here, my child starting reception didn’t get the list sent home and I heard my first reference to ‘data protection’ and ‘privacy’ when I asked about it at the school. Imagine my bafflement when on the first INSET day of the year there was no provision for the children and instead 300 children’s families were forced to each take a day off work to care for their child. It took me three years to convince fellow parents that we could actually each only take a day off work during half term if five families shared the care of four other classmates. That was the best half term break ever, with a small group of delighted children hanging out all week together with a different parent each day, at a park, a gallery, an outing somewhere different each day of the week. Why don’t we support each other more as parents when we are often struggling with the same issues?
Do schools support parents?
Some schools can have an extremely judgemental attitude towards parents. Many schools’ attitude to parents seems to be that they are a nuisance whether their children behave well or not. A lot of the school communications and processes are defensive and designed to keep parents at arm’s length on the one hand and also to berate them for not being involved enough in their child’s education on the other hand. As parents who are both in demanding full time employment, my partner and I have found that the school’s invitations to be involved during school hours was really difficult for us. I find that the role that parents and teachers play in bringing up a child together is hugely important and yet, I have only once heard a teacher in this country say anything from the heart to this effect. She started the parents evening by talking about my child in a loud and enthusiastic voice “I LOVE A_____! I really love her!” This is what every parent wants to hear. They want to know that you love and care for their child. And once that is established, the parent will work with the teacher wholeheartedly. Once this is established, a parent will be ready to hear about the things that aren’t going so well, and they will work with the teacher to help create an atmosphere of mutual respect in the classroom. There is no home-school agreement on branded school paper sent home in a brown envelope that can replace this.
When I worked as a year 7 form tutor at a secondary school, I had a wonderful line manager and mentor who coached me on how to work with parents. She insisted all form tutors hold an evening meeting with the parents of the children in their class before the start of term. She scripted my opening speech for me and made me work on it until I owned it. The basic stance was that I am about to receive their children and spend more time each day with them during the week than they will. I would need their support and guidance to understand their child and draw out the best from them, and I would need them to support and respect my judgement as a teacher. We would need to communicate clearly, regularly and responsibly with each other. We would need to work together to raise their child. It made a real difference saying this loud and clear and to their faces.
Parents and teachers need to model tolerance
This week’s Secret Teacher article is a clear example of this judgemental and unimaginative stance towards parents. It doesn’t take a genius to see why parents might have sent their children with inappropriate contraband and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to have had a discussion with the children about why the rules for the trip are what they are. They might even appreciate them if you explain your rationale to both parents and children. I really believe that if this ground work is done at the start as I was asked to do as a teacher, and is maintained throughout, it should be easier to guide parents as to what is appropriate beyond sending a list of instructions home every so often. After all, parents and teachers alike are educators and we must model this at all times. We should also model tolerance to difference and be lifelong learners open to learning from parents as well as learning about parenting that differs from what we know. This doesn’t mean we need to compromise on what we believe to be true or stand by when children are being damaged or are damaging others. It means we need to make more effort to do the right thing for those in our care and at times to extend our care beyond our own charges.