We need to talk

By Colin Baty, Head of Bedales Prep, Dunhurst

As a headteacher with significant pastoral responsibilities, I read the findings from the recently published report from Edurio – Pupil Learning Experience and Wellbeing Review: Pupil Experience in Schools and Multi-Academy Trusts – with discomfort.

The result of a sizeable survey of pupils from primary, secondary and all-through schools, the report covers topics from the learning environment and learning excellence to wellbeing and safeguarding, with a view to enabling school leaders to understand pupils’ needs and priorities and design strategies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

The finding with perhaps the greatest sting is that, although less than one half of pupils report feeling well (stress, overwork and sleep are issues for many), under one third will speak to a teacher about it when feeling sad or worried. This is deeply concerning, although perhaps not that surprising. The issue of wellbeing amongst young people has deep roots, and a previous study by Demos suggests that pupils become increasingly disaffected with their school as they get older, with a third of final year students believing their school is focused only on preparing them to succeed in exams, rather than in life. We should also factor into this the government’s enthusiasm for the idea that a ‘good education’ is one transmitted largely from the front of the class by authoritative teachers to quiet, attentive childrenThe recent appointment of Katherine Birbalsingh (Britain’s so-called strictest headteacher) as the government’s social mobility commissioner appears to confirm the idea of teacher as disciplinarian above all else.

Were I at school under such conditions, I’m not sure that I would want to share my worries with a teacher either, and that thought saddens me – not least because I know how keen my colleagues are to be a force for good in the lives of their pupils. I am fortunate to lead a school that makes central to everything it does not only the wellbeing of its pupils, but also the primacy of connection between pupils and adults as key to this being achieved. 

Arguably, this has never been as important as it is right now as we continue to emerge from the pandemic. At Bedales Prep, Dunhurst, we have taken the view that above all else we must pay attention to our pupils, and get a sense of how they are – how they see the world, and themselves. They may well have spent a lot of time looking at screens indoors (itself associated with issues of wellbeing in normal times), and will need to get used to being with their peers once more. So, we have spent as much time outdoors with them as we possibly can – talking, and slowly getting used to being with each other again. Of course, there has been learning too – a carefully-planned cross-curricular programme that has hidden its light in a bushel of fun. However, our first and most important job has been to figure out where they are and help them get them back to land. Whatever the future may hold, we will bring everybody together when we can – and keep doing it. That academic excellence results from such an approach is no coincidence.

In concluding the Edurio report, former Head of Research at Ofsted Daniel Muijs writes, correctly, that we “must not make the mistake of seeing our schools as heartless places”, with pastoral support well established and wellbeing a key concern. Tellingly, he also concedes that overwork and sleeplessness are negative impacts of high stakes testing, but is wary of alternatives to exams such as teacher assessment. It is here that I must resist. Academic achievement must not come at the expense of pupils’ wellbeing, and it does not need to. Schools such as Dunhurst have shown that there are many ways in which learning can both take place and be assessed, and that the entire undertaking is enhanced rather than undermined by pedagogical relationships more ambitious in their scope than government seems willing to consider. If pupils do not trust teachers enough to talk to them it is, at least in part, a problem of government’s own making.