Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Heart of 21st Century Schooling


Notions of heart seldom rate more than a nominal nod in the agendas of most UK high schools. At best such sentimental notions are reserved for nursery/kindergarten and primary/junior schools where the focus is more evenly balanced between pastoral and academic development.

There are issues here about our perception of maturity and of what it means to be a person in society. In nursery school (kindergarten) we expect the importance of children’s feelings to weigh more than the importance of their academic achievement, say 70/30. At primary/junior school the balance is expected to be roughly 50/50. By high school there seems to be an expectation that academic achievement is much more important than pastoral wellbeing, and the balance shifts to roughly 80/20 in that direction. The kid gloves are off it’s down to the hard business of learning and passing exams – welcome to the ‘real’ world.

Obviously, emotional balance is an important basis for academic achievement, as reflected in current initiatives designed to enhance emotional literacy and wellbeing in UK high schools. Most high schools satisfy themselves with policy documents that show, on paper, that these priorities are being met. This is usually regardless of the integrity of actual practice in that regard. Everyone knows that, and this inconsistency eats away at the integrity of the schools’ mission, spelling an element of bad faith which our teenagers often intuit and respond to emotionally, even unconsciously, and frequently negatively (e.g. alienation, poor behaviour, lack of motivation, lack of respect, etc.)

Incidentally, wearing my storyteller hat, it is noticeable that the importance of story for teenagers is not generally perceived to be as high as for the younger years. Story can be dismissed as pointless fairy tales and seen as a childish indulgence by the hard nosed. Its use in terms of exploring narratives of learning and social and personal development to enhance critical awareness, thinking skills, independent learning and curricular integration cannot be denied. But it can be overlooked by those whose creativity has been too long constrained by systemic priorities or by those who prefer coasting comfortably along inside their reality tunnels without the challenge of opening up to other realities.

What all this suggests is that although society as a whole recognises the importance of emotional wellbeing for everyone, and of story too for that matter, in practice we do not actually prioritise it as much as we say we need to. And this is a contributing factor in many social problems.

Yes, it costs money to deliver a quality pastoral program, delivered by quality staff and supported by quality training and resources, but any such spend is a saving in the long run; kids who don’t grow as straight as they otherwise might often end up costing society a lot more – a stitch in time as they say.

A useful indicator is the fact that pastoral training for high school teachers receives a miniscule budget by comparison with academic and behaviour management training.

Of course some schools are lucky and have very gifted pastoral teams, while others do not (it’s not just luck, but good judgement in appointing the right people), while some schools’ pastoral teams are more of a mixed bag. Ultimately, the pastoral ethos of a school is defined and led by the head teacher or principal. There is a tendency for heads to be seen as business managers, finance fixers. This late 20th century view is actually putting the cart before the horse. Business and finance is meant to be a means to an end, the desired goal being a happy healthy school where pupils can achieve their potential because they have a clear orientation and all is right with them emotionally.

Two examples from the many schools I know:

One is a primary/junior school (which shall remain nameless) where I recently asked a cross section of staff about the school ethos. Not a single staff member knew what I was talking about. The school has no ethos, their ship no rudder. Little wonder, perhaps, that the pupils there are underachieving. The school has slipped into the relegation zone, close to failing, and spends a lot of money on consultants to keep it afloat. A heart patient with a prosthetic pump to keep it alive.

The other is Pimlico Academy, a high school where the pastoral ethos is very strong. Under its new head it has moved up from failing to good/excellent in the space of a single year. They do not have a team of consultants keeping them afloat in reactive response to any shortfalls in achievement. I have worked as a consultant there for the past three months, a proactive 'stitch in time’ to reinforce the pastoral system and academic specialism. My brief is too complex and varied to detail here, but it includes working with individuals at risk of diversion by gang culture. One boy, who displays dangerous behaviour, was excluded from school and sent to a special unit for a week. The school actually paid me to go that unit and spend time working with him. I was no little astounded and quite some impressed. I have never heard of such commitment; this school really cares about its pupils, it doesn’t just hide behind fooey policy documents. There is a lot that is special about this school. I was a trainee teacher there in the early 90’s and it has always had a uniquely mixed intake, from the children of cabinet ministers to members of street gangs. (The school is quite close to parliament in the heart of London.)

Not only is Pimlico in the heart of London, it is, in some ways, at the heart of London too. If they can get it right here London will be a better place, and the signs are hopeful.

Notions of heart are not on any political agendas and academics shy away from anything below the head and what it can weigh, measure and classify. Academics and politicians are not generally known for excellence in matters of heart any more than are high schools. This is part of the problem with today’s academic culture and the materialist values that govern its funding. Let us not forget that truly great minds are also of admirable heart. People like Einstein, Bohr, Churchill, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela and Malcolm X have shown this in the past, and people like Obama keep alight the spark of that notion. Not for nothing was the final work of Paulo Freire, the 20th Century’s greatest educationist, entitled ‘Pedagogy of the Heart’.

If 21st Century education means anything it must mean aspiration to honour the value of heart in learning and teaching for all. That is true aspiration to excellence and ultimately to social wellbeing. If we are serious about progress we should accept nothing less. Parents will be hard pushed to find a school that takes this view more seriously than Pimlico Academy. I work at scores of schools, but this is one of only two that I would class as truly outstanding.

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