Is it possible to parent gently and send your child to mainstream school? A question I’m often asked by parents.
What should parents look for when choosing a school?
How should they handle homework and behaviour policies that go against their beliefs?
I’ve answered some of these questions in ‘The Gentle Parenting Book‘ and I’ve addressed the issue of school behaviour control in a previous blog. This blog post commonly attracts negative responses from teachers, who say it’s just not possible to run a school any other way. Yet I believe it is.
I wanted to pose the question, of whether it is possible to integrate a respectful approach, mindful of the true needs and abilities of children into a more conventional educational setting, to somebody heavily involved in education. Who could be better than a headteacher? Rob Dell is the headteacher of Rosemary Works, a school on the Hackney/Islington border in London. His responses are thought provoking and inspiring.
So, for those of you not keen on home education, unschooling or alternative schools such as Steiner, read on…..
SARAH: “Is it possible to run a school that both meets the needs of children and impresses OFSTED (The UK’s inspector/regulation of education)?”
ROB: “Yes, but it takes time to change the culture and ethos of a school so that the standards set by Ofsted can be met and many schools in ‘special measures’ or ‘notice to improve’ have little time to implement these changes, so they battle on reacting to Ofsted’s recommendations. The role of head teacher in many schools I liken to being a football manager. Some ‘super heads’ are paid enormous salaries to ‘turn schools around’ so it becomes like a football league.”
SARAH: “What are your feelings on SATS (Standard Assessment Tests)?”
ROB: “SATs are the way pupil achievement is measured at the moment. It is not holistic but it gives a reasonable assessment of how individuals are performing within the core subjects. Some children thrive during testing and enjoy the experience of sitting in a silent room beavering away. Others detest it.
For me, the utopian way to measure children’s progress is to spend time talking with children and getting a good sense of what they know. This may include some written tasks, some group challenges, verbal responses and some physical tasks. What needs to happen is for there to be clear guidance on age related expectations for all ages up to adulthood and not just within the core subjects. I’d like to know what growth is expected from one age to the next under the following headings: physical, psychological, academic (core), academic (arts), academic (foundation), pastoral (empathy, social, etc.).”
SARAH: “How much do OFSTED scores and SATS results really tell you about a school?”
ROB: “Ofsted scores and SATs results are the equivalent of looking at a property, reading the surveyor’s report and then studying the local area for crime stats, etc. It is one of the main things parents look to when choosing a school for their child, but SATs results and the overall grade won’t tell you about the core values of a school or how they nurture each individual. A parent must visit a school, hear face to face from existing parents (and not on viral parent sites) and see for themselves how they see their child in the environment.”
SARAH: “If parents are considering potential schools for their child, what should they look for? What questions should they ask?”
ROB: “Parents should look for a school that they can picture their child (and to some degree themselves) in. They should visit the school on both open days and a personalised tour to see the school warts and all. There should be no flies on schools, so head teachers should welcome this.
Parents should ask about how they think the school will best serve their child – how the school will encourage their child’s strengths and support their areas for development (if it’s not clear from the visit). Parents should ask how they utilise the space and what opportunities children have in the real world. They should get a sense that the school is transparent and open, confident and clear in its vision. Parents should see the upper school children and imagine their child at that age. Is this what they want for their children? Parents should ask if the school is working towards its aims and have them explained to them. Ultimately parents should get a good sense that the school will be a good fit for their child(ren).”
SARAH: “How much of an impact do you believe the school surroundings (decor, landscaping) etc.. affects children? Is it important for parents to consider these when choosing a potential school?”
ROB: “Not a lot actually. I believe in the cardboard box idea, that children can have as much fun and creative play from a cardboard box as they can with a bought toy. Schools that look like city offices are impressive to look at and are well resourced, but this, in my opinion, offers limited value to the pure education of children. Sure, schools need to have computers, a stimulating learning environment, good outside space and access to outside world areas of interest, but a fancy looking school is smoke and mirrors.”
SARAH: “How important is spending time in nature when it comes to a child’s education?”
ROB: “Crucial. In fact, everyone should spend time in nature and in all weathers. Seasonal changes, using all senses to experience the outdoors, visiting zoos, farms, the woods, mountains, the beach etc. are essential for growth. I have taught children who had never been to the beach and had no true sense of how to then write or talk about it. Upon taking a subsequent trip to the beach, they not only had a blast, but could write with qualification poems and stories about the beach.”
SARAH: “Do you think we provide an appropriately holistic education in the UK?”
ROB: “Overall, sadly no. The UK is notorious for reacting to situations by adopting blanket approaches. If a child is not at age related expectations in, say, number in maths, often more number work is thrown at the child rather than a deeper examination of why the child is less confident with number and what imaginative ways can be adopted to have that epiphany moment. It could be dance or music in this instance, or real-life money, or darts, the list of possibilities is endless and is dependent upon the interests of the child. Finding pathways into the child’s way of learning is crucial and this is where holistic learning is best. Sure, meditation, forest school and all the other new fads are great, but this, in itself, is not a holistic approach. True holistic education is about knowing each individual child well and creating inroads.”
SARAH: “Are ‘softer’ subjects such as art, music and drama important?”
ROB: “Crucial. The arts and physical activities work hand in hand with academic subjects. Schools that forego these subjects for ‘revision’ are doing children a great disservice. At Rosemary Works School, the mornings tend to be when the core subjects are taught and the afternoons are when swimming, enrichment time, democratic time and the foundation subjects are covered. Within that, literacy and maths lessons are still a lot of fun and the arts are still woven into these subjects. What better way to introduce a new subject in literacy than to perform a play about it first? Softer subjects underpin ‘academic’ subject learning just as a warm, inclusive school ethos underpins a healthy, well driven school.”
SARAH: “There is a lot of talk in schools at the moment of Dweck’s ‘mindset’ work, but do you think schools really understand and apply her teachings?”
ROB: “I’m sceptical. In this climate, it is often the priority of a school to perform well for Ofsted and to out-perform previous years and other local school’s examination results. In doing so, I believe that some schools may take a short-sighted approach to a meaningful development plan and think in batches rather than children as individuals. The line that Special Educational Needs falls on is, in my opinion, more circular and where some children fall short (in terms of age-related expectation) in some areas, in others they often excel.
It is the school’s responsibility to recognise strength, acknowledge further support potential and be, above all else, constantly mindful of the physical, emotional, mental and academic health of their children using creative approaches to find children’s inhibitors and find channels in.
In order to really adopt Carol Dweck’s mindset principals, schools, from the top down need to, as said, have firmly in mind, the well-being of its children and make clear their definition of success. In my practice, I make it clear to all staff and children that we operate a fairly flat structure and that we are all no better or worse than anyone else. I am not a success because I’m the head and that the TAs or lunchtime staff are not a success. We are all called by our first names. I was happy to wave goodbye to Sir!
Schools should redefine success to mean an overall sense of positive well-being. It should not necessarily be considered successful if a child achieves 10 A* GCSEs, 4 A levels, etc. being the end-goal by the time they leave secondary education. Building meaningful meditation and positive empathy teaching into the timetable – recognise mental health and discuss ways of dealing with depression from a young age, make children’s aspirations flexible and ever-changing. The ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ mentality should be ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Working in the same job for life to receive a gold watch is a thing of the past, and in this ever-changing marketplace, it’s important for children to be taught a multitude of skills and ways to socially interact in order to develop a fulfilling future.”
SARAH: “What are your views on commonly used school behaviour motivation techniques such as ‘Golden Time’?”
ROB: “Ineffective use of Golden Time is a very poor excuse for children to have meaningless time at the expense of further learning opportunities. Made worse by the fact that the very children that need some form of respite from the crazy train of school, are often punished and denied time during the week because of not finishing ‘work’ or ‘behaving badly’. Moreover, schools that often fill the school day with micro-managed activities for children that deny them certain skills, for example, managing their own time, making choices about their learning and pursing interests outside of the curriculum.
I have developed Democratic Time over the past few months to enable children to make choices with regard to how to spend time in school on a Friday afternoon. This is applicable to all children from Year 1 up. Democratic Time enables children to tell Student Voice and the teachers what they would like to do with their time which teachers then facilitate. In assembly on Friday morning, the teachers inform the children what they are providing and, that afternoon, children can turn up to the rooms or spaces freely. There is always a really interesting range of things for the children to enjoy – chocolate making, breakdancing, yoga, Lego construction, board games, story writing/song-writing, painting/fabrics, jewellery-making, cross-stitch – to name but a few. If they tire of an activity, they are free to move to the next. No one is denied this time.
Democratic Time is not about offering a behaviour motivational incentive. It is about empowering children to make decisions, enjoy school and play collaboratively with children from different year groups. There is as much learning going on during this time as there is with the traditional curriculum subjects.”
SARAH: “How do you feel about school behaviour warning techniques such as the traffic light and ‘sad cloud’ systems?”
ROB: “Best practice schools look inward and breathe and flow with the specific cohort of children and adults at any given time. They recognise the way that individuals learn best and shape activities to best meet these needs. They acknowledge that all children have special educational needs but that some are in need of further support above and beyond (e.g. children with disabilities, specific learning impediments, etc.).
Most importantly (to me), best practice schools are constantly changing and never rest on the ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ mentality. Teachers (and by that I mean all adults in school who interact with children and therefore offer a learning experience) should discuss what works and what might work constantly taking measured risks along the way to make every child’s learning experience a truly rounded one recognising that learning is as much about equipping children with new skills as it is knowledge. We want children to know that making mistakes and taking risks is a very valuable part of the learning process.
School reports that say ‘X could do better… or X has great potential, etc.’ are shooting themselves in the foot, I believe and every parent, upon receiving a statement in this manner, has the right to wonder what the school is doing to maximise their child’s learning potential. So, motivational incentives within the classroom like stickers, traffic lights, clouds, smiley faces, etc. serve little positive purpose. It has the potential to divide classmates, reduce self-esteem and develop a negative feeling about school. It rarely works.
There is little difference between standing up in class and being berated by a teacher to the point of humiliation and seeing your name falling into the sad cloud. In my experience of using such methods as a teacher years ago, I simply cannot remember a child who fell into amber, or meh face or sad cloud caring a jot and having the motivation to become green, happy face or sunny.
Motivation comes from rewarding children for making forward steps according to their individual needs. As an example, some children cannot sit still. So what? Should they then get a sticker or go on the happy cloud for sitting still for longer? If so, why? Schools are places of learning. What learning has been achieved from being able to sit still for long enough to be given a vacuous reward? So they may look compliant, but are they engaging if they’re made to sit still? Probably not.
Perhaps the teacher should examine why the child is unable to sit still – is the lesson boring or not meeting their needs? Have they been sat on the carpet/chair for too long? These incentives reveal how institutions feel about their school by holding up a mirror. Confident, good schools don’t. Ultimately, it is the relationship between teacher and child that makes for a successful learning experience – sad clouds and poor golden time compromise this relationship.”
SARAH: “How do you feel about the constant stream of certificates and awards schools give to children in an attempt to motivate ‘good’ behaviour?”
ROB: “I’ve touched on stickers before and I have a dusty bank of stickers I’ve hardly used within the last five years. I have heard of children being plied with stickers, coming home and forgetting why they received them, or worse, knowing that they received a sticker for sitting quietly.
Stickers can be divisive and offset other children’s positive contributions. They have no place in the real world and therefore have limited place in my school. Why I haven’t thrown them away is simple – children love stickers. There is a wealth of sticker books in bookstores and the feel of something semi-adhesive has great appeal to children. Therefore, I sparingly offer a sticker to a child who is sent to see me for an exceptional reason. They choose whether to adorn the sticker or place it next to the activity they have done. I do not have stickers for good behaviour and as eluded to earlier, most ‘bad’ behaviour is a failing of the school for not having secure enough systems for all children to feel valued and busy.
If children are sent to my office for a behaviour related issue, I often start the conversation with ‘what went wrong, and how can we fix it?’ All children know what to do to remedy the situation and, with help, how to move forward. We all make mistakes.”
SARAH: “What do you think constitutes good behaviour management in the classroom?”
“Recognising that behaviour patterns relate to a myriad of reasons which may include personal issues from home, unidentified learning impediments or just that a child is under-stimulated, not in the mood, is thirsty, hungry, etc. etc. it’s important for teachers to recognise and empathise with the learning environment.
Good behaviour management includes finding creative ways of being fully inclusive. The culture of teacher asking a closed-ended question, children putting their hand up to answer, then moving on to the next question is a dull and largely pointless activity. I remember once, in my fledgling teaching days, asking a class a sum in maths and a child responding by saying, ‘why are you asking, don’t you know?’ That immediately changed my approach. From then on I’d put five choices on the board and ask children to decide which one the correct answer was and why. (e.g. 52 = 3, 7, 25, 10 or 125).
Moreover, when the child who needs a few more seconds to process a question has a child furiously waving their hand up and is chosen to answer, it’s hugely frustrating for them. Techniques like posing a question, asking partners to explore the answer and choosing any child (no hands up), then teacher remaining silent so that the whole class say ‘nice one’ gives the whole class the opportunity to demonstrate that they are engaged and valued.
Good behaviour management is not reserving a specific time in the weekly schedule for ‘circle time’ and manufacturing a ‘feeling’ for children to explore, but having immediate circle times when a child is feeling sad, angry or disengaged and the whole class developing empathy and support for the child in need live and as it happens. Good behaviour management is valuing every child equally and offering genuine praise as and when appropriate. Showering children with praise for the sake of it offers no value, and when the chips are down for a child, work sensitively through the issue and use it as a learning opportunity. Ultimately, the learning environment should be set up to feel safe, flexible and resourceful. There should be no reward charts or public target boards. It’s divisive and counter-productive. It should be a pleasure to be in.”
SARAH: “What are your views on social withdrawal/deprivation methods of behaviour control such as time out and isolation?”
ROB: “I can only hope that this doesn’t happen anymore, but fear it does. Detention has no place in the modern dictionary and certainly no place in school. The likelihood that a child suffering at the hands of social withdrawal and isolation needs the very opposite. Social inclusion. So schools that profess to being inclusive yet still have a prison mentality for the subordinate child are hypocrites. A much warmer and effective approach is proper meditation or yoga. Some teachers who believe that ‘good’ teaching is all about lightning fast paced lessons and general busyness are wrong. I believe that a school’s timetable should offer different tempi as one would expect in real life situations. Some lessons, indeed, are fast paced, and that’s fine, but others need to breathe. Teaching and practicing meditation and yoga in school allows children to have time to reflect without the need for detention or for an adult to stand over them expecting them to articulate why they behave the way they do. Many children just don’t know. Allowing breathing space for all children (yes, true inclusion) enables children to think about their actions empathetically and how best they feel they can move forward. Isolation breeds contempt and, the worst thing possible, a resentment and distrust for their educational institution, and for the individual administering the punishment (whom should be in a position of trust and unconditional love).”
SARAH: “What are your views on children missing break times as a punishment for undesirable behaviour?”
ROB: “As before with the isolation question. Missing break times should be a thing of the past like hitting children with a ruler or cane. It has no place in schools. Denial of outdoor learning is draconian.”
SARAH: “Do you believe that children need to be ‘toughened up’ by school in order to prepare them for adult life?”
ROB: “No, if anything, I believe that children need to learn to be socially inclusive so that we can finally raise a generation of people who are not racist, sexist, elitist, ageist, etc..
Adults live longer and youth, therefore in comparison, is shorter. Adults should safeguard this valuable time to make it a wonderful experience as much as they possibly can. Adult life has enough difficulties and hurdles that a decent adult wouldn’t want children to experience knowing that the vast majority of their lives are in adulthood. Stay young – let children be children.”
SARAH: “Do you believe that homework ever plays a role in learning?”
ROB: “I see very little value with giving children under the age of ten homework. For me, its principal purpose is to inform parents of the specific areas of learning their children are covering in school, but this can be done in other ways. My teachers send weekly emails to parents telling them what they have covered and what the following week will look like with some tips for how parents can support their children at home should they have the time or inclination to.
Schools have sufficient time within the school day to teach children and that responsibility should not be passed onto parents. Busy parents ought to use the time they have with their children to strengthen bonds and further develop family relationships. Homework often creates a barrier to this relationship and can cause distress for parents and children alike. However, if parents know what their children are learning in school, they can find subtler ways to forge the learning at home if they feel the need, but children need to be children and enjoy learning about the world in a less short-sighted way than a photocopied worksheet.
That said, reading books is a different aspect of homework. I believe that children should have regular access to at home and/or in libraries lots of books. There’s no doubt that the pleasure of books, stories, facts and make-believe have a natural appeal to children. The issue is, learning to develop any language starts with speaking and listening, just as a musician listens and moves to music before attempting to play an instrument, so reading homework for very young children ought to be more about developing language and some phonetic understanding than progressing through a scheme.”
SARAH: “How do you feel about parents taking their children out of school during term time (for holidays)?”
“There is nothing more valuable, memorable and positive than the opportunity for families to spend quality time together. At Rosemary Works School, parents are free to take their children out in term time to go on holiday. All I request is that they do not ask the teacher for homework to take with them! The enriching experience of feeling sand run through your toes or seeing great skyscrapers, etc. with your family who can afford to go places because the flights are cheaper in term time is priceless and I feel it almost egocentric of schools to think that a child’s learning experience is better in school. Seriously? That’s one hell of a school!”
SARAH: “Finally, what are you most proud of about your school?”
“So much! The children are absolutely fantastic – quirky, confident, funny and clever and it is them that I am proudest of. The teachers too are amazing – they stand side to side with me and my principles and know that I hugely respect them and trust them. I encourage them to take risks and I aim for them to be ‘that teacher’ that a child will fondly remember going into adulthood.”
Rob Dell is the father of three primary aged children and is passionate about education and making a positive difference to the lives of children. He has a BEd in Education and has worked in primary schools since 1994. For ten years he worked in an Inner-London school as a class teacher, then spent five years in the first academy which opened in Bexley, where he became head of teaching and learning, then deputy head, then head teacher. The opportunity arose to become head teacher of a small independent school in Hackney and, having worked in state education and academies, he was keen to see how independent education worked. Since 2009 Rob has enjoyed developing the school to be a truly wonderful place to be both for children and adults alike. He has pioneered some innovative approaches to learning and is very proud of the achievements of his staff and, principally, the children.