Colin Lever

Author & Educationist

Month: September 2017

Is Competition Healthy?

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In any competition there are winners and losers. We learn from our mistakes or at least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. Whilst we cannot protect our children from experiencing setbacks, it is the nature of the defeat that shapes our character. I am not an advocate of wrapping children up in cotton wool but surely there should be a limit to how much we should expose them to failure, in terms of frequency and intensity. Robustness takes time to instil in a child.

 

On many a classroom wall there is a star chart, tallying up points for good practice for each child. Healthy competition? Providing a challenge and motivation? Invariably it is the same pupils that win (usually the most able or the naughty ones). Consider the quiet, compliant child at the back of the class. They barely get noticed. In fact there can be only one winner. How many times do you have to lose before you give up?

 

In China, classes are taught in mixed ability groups. Lists are put up for all to see, showing the rank order of best to worst. The ones at the bottom are, literally, named and shamed and this in a culture that places a strong emphasis on family honour. Achievement is raised through negative motivation.  Nobody wants to be bottom so they work like stink to avoid being the class dunce. They are subjected to this trauma from when they first start school at the age of five. It is no wonder suicide rates among teenagers are so high in the Far East.

 

Those over a certain age might be wondering what all the fuss is about. We were also taught in very large classes, using a chalk and talk approach. School reports always showed your position in the class.  Failure meant ridicule, laziness was sanctioned. ‘It did us no harm’ you say, but I bet you can all remember every blow as vividly as if it were yesterday. What have changed are the motives that drive education. The difference between then and now is that children were not seen as a commodity.

 

In Jersey, each teacher’s performance is monitored to ensure that every child in the class follows a linear progression in their learning. Deviations are seized upon, pressure is brought to bear on the teacher and subsequently on the pupil, to bring them back into line. What if the child is suffering a family trauma? Should we not expect that the child be excused such pressures, at least until the problem eases?

 

When every grade matters it is easy for the wellbeing of the child to be compromised for the sake of raising achievement. As a parent what comes first, your child’s wellbeing or getting those grades? It should be a ‘no brainer’ but for those in education the choice is not so straightforward.  We are now hearing the football manager’s cliché ‘we are in a results business’ echoing in the educational corridors of power. But should education be just about results? And if so, why are those not delivering, sacked, as football managers frequently are?

 

Be under no illusion, it is not just pupils that are now competing. Each and every school on the island is in competition with the other (we’ve all seen the banner at the top of St Saviour’s Hill). There institutional micro-management? It is compromising the ability of teachers to take a holistic view of the children? We exchanged one form of abuse for another. Are our children winners or losers in this game?

 

At what point does zealousness on the part of the professionals become exploitation of the child? What checks and balances are in place in school to ensure that the unscrupulous do not cross the line in their desire for ever higher results? Accountability should be as rigorous when it comes to wellbeing as it is in the pursuit of academic improvement. Yes there are policies and support in situ but surely it is more important to be pro-active and this involves putting the wellbeing of pupils and staff before results.  There can be no compromise.

 

The statistics regarding child mental health are a worry, so we need to know if there is any substance to these tales being told out of class. And what of the teachers? Stress and anxiety are contagious. How can we expect staff to be understanding of the pupils when they, themselves are not in a ‘good place’? We need to get at the facts and this can only be achieved by asking those directly involved, the pupils and the teachers.

 

 

Adapted from article in JEP

 

Child development and the pursuit of GDP

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While arguments rage about the efficacy of means testing parents who want to send their children to private nurseries something much more fundamental is being overlooked. It is well established that the first twelve months of a child’s life play a pivotal role in a person’s physical and mental development. This is the age when brain development is, arguably, at its most versatile. Children learn to walk, talk and to co-ordinate. Theirs is a world of inquisitiveness as they explore their environment. The same is true of their emotional development. In a loving and caring environment the child gains esteem, building a positive resilience in the knowledge that they are being supported. In the first twelve months, the young child endeavours to build secure attachments to their primary carer, usually the mother, and then with other family members.

 

If a child is placed outside of the family unit at this formative stage then that secure attachment may be compromised. Placing a baby in childcare may result in their physiological and basic health and safety needs being met but we cannot be certain that its emotional needs are being catered for. The younger a child is when placed with a carer and the longer it is away from its parents the more likely its sense of belonging will be compromised, leading to anxiety, stress, affecting their emerging self-esteem.

 

Much is made of children being born into poverty but what of the child born today in any social demographic where the parents are absent for long periods during these formative months? The absence of a discrete primary care-giver leads to insecure attachments which in turn reduce self-esteem and builds a negative resilience, sometimes described as a ‘survival instinct’. It is well documented that insecure attachment can manifest itself as A.D.H.D, O.D.D, or P.T.S.D and other socio/emotional behaviour conditions. S.E.B.D is no longer the sole domain of the poor in society.

 

Parenting is driven by social trends. The demand on some families is such that both parents have to work in order to keep a roof over their heads. The situation is further complicated by issues over equality and the rights of both parents to have a career. Governments encourage a debt driven economy which may create jobs but the consequence of rampant consumerism is that both parents have to work to maintain their lifestyle. Something has to give. There has to be compromise if we are to ensure the wellbeing of our children.

 

After about 12 months, although child development is continuing, the resilience of the child is better established.  It should be borne in mind that insecure attachment can occur at any point in a person’s life, be that parental divorce, bereavement or other emotional trauma so any change in routine needs to handled sensitively.

 

The timing of moving from full-time parental care to a part-time one is significant. Basic maternity leave on Jersey is 18 weeks but in the UK it is 26 weeks This coincides with both parents being back at work when secure attachment between primary caregiver and child is at its most vulnerable. If leave of absence was longer, around twelve months, this would better support a child’s mental health development. This of course would have financial implications. But why should a parent have to choose between having a child and having a career? Can they not have both without risking the wellbeing of their child?

 

If a child has to have childcare, parents want to be assured of a high quality of provision. At present there are minimum physical requirements that early years establishments have to meet. These include staff to children ratios, square footage etc. There is also a pre-school quality framework that nurseries have signed up to. This includes; relationships, organisation, learning and achievement. On Jersey assessment is largely through self-assessment. However, the degree of quality assurance is not evident. There is a lack of transparency and a dearth of independent information meaning that parents have little to refer to in order to help them facilitate choice.

 

Nursery managers have to have a level three qualification in childcare. But that is not the case with all childcare ‘assistants’ who make up the majority of the adults who, in turn are not well paid. Why is nursery education not a degree entry profession like the rest of education and paid accordingly?

 

Jersey has one of the highest numbers of working mothers in the world and so the demand for childcare places is high. The island spends far less on Pre-school education as a proportion of GDP than the UK(1.2%). Raising children in today’s society is an expensive business and parents bear the brunt of that expense. The three new nurseries will be a welcome addition but of all the areas within education Pre-school is where there is least investment and yet this is where the foundations of social, emotional and educational development are built.

 

Adapted from article in JEP

Child protection and the role of the school

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Haute de la Garenne was a scandal involving children in the care of the States of Jersey. People were employed to provide a ‘duty of care’, but as we now know, a small number of adults abused their positions of trust. Every employee within the care system has the same responsibility to the children under their guidance, from States Ministers right through to frontline staff. Whilst those identified as ‘abusers’ take the blame there is  a corporate responsibility to ensure that there are not only policies and procedures in place but that the necessary checks and balances are actively implemented.  One states minister has been accused of telling lies, another finds himself having to apologise for committing a ‘grave political error’ and a third does not see the efficacy of putting the needs of children first. These are examples of a lack of empathy with the whole issue of child protection, people seemingly putting their own political careers foremost. It is symptomatic of child abuse tragedies in the UK and across the world. Other ‘managers’ within the system are just as complicit, hiding behind policies and procedures. It should be a case of being not doing. Child abuse is still happening on Jersey and elsewhere. The need for a Children’s champion has never been greater.

 

Whilst the focus is on the care system, many children that are at risk are still under the supervision of their parents. It is the policy within social care to keep the child with its parents if at all possible. Their position is an invidious one and fraught with risk to the child at the centre. Jersey has appointed an advisory panel to look the recommendations coming from the resultant enquiry. I am not sure how far the remit of the newly appointed advisory panel extends but it must look at the broader picture in respect of child protection. Child abuse takes on many forms. Sexual and physical abuse make the headlines but emotional abuse and neglect are perhaps the most prevalent. Children in need rarely express their concerns openly. Challenging behaviour in school is often an expression of an unmet need and it is the skilled professional with the time to consider the situation that draws the right conclusion. Herein lies the rub.

 

All schools have policies and procedures in place with a designated staff member holding responsibility for child protection. Secondary schools have school counsellors and primary schools have visiting wellbeing experts. It is within these confidential conversations where children express their anxieties that many issues of abuse come to light. The referral route is well established, the problem is the ever increasing demand and the shortage of social workers. There were over 244 referrals to Children’s Services last November on Jersey, double the monthly amount.

 

However, it is also the case that classroom teachers get wind of children experiencing personal problems. A child might become more challenging in class or more introvert. It is a concern that with the present climate in schools staff, where they  may not pick up signs of abuse, so focussed are they on improving academic performance. It is an essential part of a teacher’s job but one which is being increasingly compromised.  This a prime example of management putting profit before people.

 

If behavioural issues are resolved using only punitive sanctions they can quickly escalate into something much bigger. Ultimately the child might receive an external suspension, putting them back into a family situation that increases their risk of being abused. In Jersey secondary schools, external suspensions have increased by almost 20% in the last five years. The maximum time allowed in respect of external suspension on Jersey is 45 days with a maximum of 15 days for each term.  The vast majority of school suspensions are for verbal abuse. Exclusions are an area that the advisory panel might want to look at. Children that are externally suspended might be being returned to a high risk situation. There are alternatives.

 

Another issue relating to school and child protection is the issue of vetting in respect of adults working in schools. All staff employed by a school are subject to standard police checks but what about jobs that are put out to tender, many of whom are new to the island and not cleared via statutory police checks? Such cost cutting is putting our children at risk.

 

The actions of some teachers as they attempt to maintain discipline and improve academic performance can be questionable. In most cases it comes from frustration at being unable to manage an individual’s behaviour and it is often the most vulnerable children that are the most challenging. Many teachers and management in school are not adequately skilled in dealing with child protection issues; more training is needed, especially in intervention techniques, if schools are to offer protection to all children. It is essential that schools do not become part of the problem.images

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