As I write this, among other things, the new primary curriculum is suspended and the whole skill-versus-content debate is set to open wide again. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the uncertainty that the future holds, now more than ever schools must hold fast to their moral compass and ensure that regardless of legislation and government diktat they steer a course that provides the best that education has to offer. We cannot simply revert to the philosophy of ‘fill them and drill them’ favoured by some of our ‘leaders’ but must equip our students and staff with the resilience to successfully face the challenges ahead.
In her book 21st Century Boys, Sue Palmer says: ‘In overvaluing systems as opposed to empathy, we’ve been blinded to the significance of trust in human relationships.’ She goes on to say that ‘we have to accept that empathy, emotional engagement and eye contact matter just as much to human progress as systems, status and success.’
This lies at the heart of SEAL, and SEAL must lie at the heart of learning. Placing SEAL at the centre allows us to build confidence, self-esteem and compassion; it also fosters the ability to make considered judgements and makes achievement sustainable. Education, as Nelson Mandela said, ‘is the great engine of personal development… It is through education that… the child of a farm worker can become the president of a great nation.’
Yet despite what we know about how people learn and why they flourish, a relentless drive to raise standards across all phases has in fact robbed the entire education system of its flexibility. Teachers have become expert at enabling students to pass exams, many schools claiming phenomenally high pass rates of 100% A-C, yet at the same time, students are not equipped to enter the world of work and drop-out rates from universities continue to rise. Students (and I) would argue that teachers have, in some cases, lost the ability to think for themselves.
Various sticking plaster solutions have been tried over the past decades, yet the dependence model has become more and more entrenched. In Year 7 students frequently ask permission to turn the page, some nervously covering their work to avoid classmates ‘copying’. Sixth-form students would rather highlight a set of printed notes than read a book or participate in a discussion.
Peter Hyman, writing in the Observer in August 2009, noted that ‘what has been missing is a fundamental debate on what sort of students we want leaving school at 18. What sort of skills do we want them to have?’ and that ‘some schools are now rebelling against the old way of doing things and devising lessons that explicitly teach students the best ways to improve their learning.’
Park View is one of those ‘rebellious’ schools, but we have gone much further and have placed the emphasis not simply on developing the skills for 21st-century living but also the necessary social and emotional attitudes and attributes. In other words, as Guy Claxton comments, we have begun to teach ‘character’. This is where SEAL has become an essential part of Park View’s approach to learning.
One could ask, and at Park View we did, ‘What happens when those individuals are faced with problems for which their teachers have not specifically prepared them?’ The answer is that some of them fail and do not have the resilience and strength of character to respond. As Carol Dweck (Self-Theories 1999) points out, the most vulnerable group, in the first year of university, are high-flying girls who have never failed. Such students, who have consistently received unconditional praise, are much less likely to persist when facing setbacks. However, Dweck (Mind Set 2006) also suggests that ‘It is possible to encourage students… to persist despite failure by encouraging them to think about learning in a certain way.’ Students need to be given opportunities to experience learning as something that can be ‘grown’ and nurture a ‘growth theory’ of learning as opposed to a ‘fixed theory’.
Building learning power and SEAL
In 2006 Park View decided to take advantage of the willingness of the then DCSF to ease control over the curriculum and take a long hard look at learning, starting with KS3/Year 7. The focus was on developing a radical new approach to learning and teaching, which would be supported by a shared language for learning between teacher and student and teacher and teacher, fundamental for personalised learning (Janos and Crick, 2007). We were also determined that social and emotional learning would be part of this development and as such were eager to participate as a lead SEAL school.
At Park View our approach has been to marry the Guy Claxton model ‘Building Learning Power’ with SEAL. The two are integrated to produce an approach to learning and personal development that secures academic/vocational learning but also builds social and emotional resilience. This has also become the vehicle for PLTS and functional skills and is the underpinning philosophy that supports the transformation of the school community. From the multi-disciplinary curriculum developed to support Years 7 and 8 to the infusion approach across KS4 and 5 learning at Park View aims to build character and commitment.
Transforming teacher attitudes
While the integration of SEAL within the learning agenda has been central to the transformation of the curriculum at Park View, it has also transformed the attitude of teachers and their relationships with their students and each other. As the teacher has increasingly taken on the role of coach and facilitator within the classroom, coaching conversations between colleagues have become a feature of the relationship between staff. Learning is a common topic of conversation both in formal and informal situations and the influence of the SEAL agenda can be seen in the nature of those conversations. The understanding that an individual’s emotional state can impact on their ability to learn or to teach is helping to shape a different approach to how staff work with students. Social learning, actively supporting the growth of positive relationships and emotional engagement in the classroom is given a high priority and is a key feature of the CPD programme. Staff are keen to share and develop their classroom practice. Peer-to-peer lesson observations are seen as a positive and often cross subject divides, and staff are keen to develop their skills as coaches. Such changes are confirmed by the evaluation of staff attitudes carried out by the school’s educational psychologist, where increasingly teachers (and associate staff) see it as their responsibility to ensure that students’ emotional and social well-being is a priority.
SEAL also permeates our approach to all areas of school: the pastoral system and transition, for example. In the former, mentors, who work in pairs, are replacing tutors with the focus on developing a ‘coaching role’ with students. Associate staff have been trained as mentors by MIND, and play a key role in supporting the students. The ‘isolation unit’ has been replaced by the student support centre, which focuses on changing behaviour patterns and giving students the skills to enable them to understand themselves better, to reflect upon and therefore manage their own behaviour and to build more positive relationships with staff and peers. Small group work led by the SSC manager and LSAs, trained in emotional intelligence, allow students to explore issues such as friendship, managing their emotions and bereavement.
Supporting the transition
Transition has also been transformed by the focus on securing the emotional and social wellbeing of students, with knock-on positive effects for staff and parents. In a split-site 11-18 secondary school we are developing transition programmes across years 6-7, 8-9 and also 11-13 that address the differing needs of students, parents and teachers within those phases.
A major success in the primary transition programme has been informal meetings both at the secondary school and the primaries, to familiarise both children and parents with the process. Informal coffee mornings at the primaries allow anxious parents to ask those questions that they might be reluctant to phone the school over, while the children can chat to our current Year 7s. A multi-agency evening gives them access to, among others, the school nurse, the anti-bullying officer, the catering company and the parent support adviser in circumstances that make communication much more relaxed and easy.
A particularly innovative project has been led by the performing arts faculty, as a Creative Partnerships project. In a joint production, students from Years 3-13 and staff from the primary schools have worked together, over two terms, with professionals from the arts, towards a celebration of their achievements to which the public and parents, friends and family are invited. The final performance of 2010 actually got a standing ovation and led to increased enthusiasm for the performing arts in both phases.
To support students transferring sites when moving from Year 8 to 9, a series of visits for students are organised, supported by more intensive work for the vulnerable. Both pastoral and teaching staff move between the sites at such critical times, building student confidence and creating positive relationships which will enable students to deal effectively with the move into Year 9. Such support continues into Year 9, built into the pastoral programme with continued targeting on key students. Study clubs staffed by LSAs that students are familiar with provide an important link between sites and nurture the self-confidence necessary to ensure success. For the transition from Year 11 into Year 12 a new approach is being developed. Students will work together for a week, with the focus on building self-esteem and confidence and raising aspirations.
If SEAL is not integrated into learning, it will have little real impact on students or staff. However, once it becomes an integral part of the learning it can move beyond the classroom and really begin to provide the glue that helps bind our community together. Its impact cannot be underestimated. Treated as just another initiative SEAL will fail and fade into the mists of time, but as a moral compass on which to build social capital and prosperity it has the power to transform our education system and the lives of our young people and our communities. Let’s leave the last word to M Scott Peck (The Road Less Travelled): ‘The more children know you value them, that you consider them to be extraordinary people, the more willing they will be to listen to you and afford you the same esteem… and the more extraordinary they will become.’
- Hyman, Peter. Observer, August 2009
- Dweck, Carol. Self-theories 1999, Mind Set, 2006
- Claxton, Guy. Building Learning Power
- Holt, John. How Children Fail/Learn 1966/67
- Fullan, Michael. Motion Leadership. 2009
- Jaros, M, and Deakin-Crick, R, ‘Personalised Learning for the Post-Mechanical Age’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 39: 423-440, 2007
- Scott Peck, M. The Road Less Travelled, 1978
- Palmer, Sue. 21st Century Boys
Kim Cowie is deputy head of Park View School