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A Tough Life for Children – Makes Raising Attainment Even Tougher

A blog by Iain Erskine, head teacher at The Fulbridge Academy.

Exam success gives you the key to the door, but ‘character’ determines how well you do on the other side.

I would like to promote the idea that we all learn in the same way, no matter how young or old we are.

In terms of educational provision, that means that the traditional approaches to teaching and learning from Foundation Stage to Key Stage 4 need addressing and rethinking – they are not doing enough when it comes to raising attainment.

Our curriculum at the Fulbridge Academy works extremely well, putting us in the top few percent of schools for ‘value-added progress’ in the country. Our curriculum is successful because it engages children emotionally, intellectually, and physically.

To play is not just child’s play. Play … is a way of using mind, or better yet, an attitude towards the use of mind. It is a test frame, a hot house for trying out ways of combining thought and language and fantasy. (Bruner)

I would not describe our approach as play-based – it is all about learning through experiences. Play is an interesting word, and one that is misconstrued by many. When we refer to learning through play, we are actually saying we want children to learn through co-operation, collaboration, experiences, imagination, creativity, interaction, and, most importantly, talk, in an active, stimulating environment.

Is this not the best way for a four, fourteen, or 64-year-old to learn?

We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. (Bruner)

When looking at strategies for raising attainment, we need to continue developing imagination, creativity, curiosity, and talk at all stages of our education and life. Learning activities will need intervention from time to time; the skill of the teacher lies in knowing when to intervene, when to join in, when to teach and instruct, and when to withdraw and leave them to it.

A Word Of Warning

Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas, two of the UK’s top educationalists, beautifully describe how the way we learn has often been misunderstood by adults. In their book ‘Educating Ruby’, they divide educationalists into ‘Romantics’, ‘Researchers’, and ‘Traditionalists’. I believe that Early Years providers, in particular, have been guilty of promoting a ‘romantic’ approach to education and that, as we pass through the system, education becomes old-fashioned and ‘traditional’ in its approach.

The ‘Romantics’ believe in the innate goodness of children, and therefore assume that education should allow children to express themselves and discover their own talents and interests. Didactic teaching and adult authority are seen as impositions that cramp and quite possibly damage this inherent spirit. The most extreme Romantics have a deep trust, not borne out of evidence, that if children are just left alone, all will turn out for the best.

For me, that encapsulates the reasoning behind why, in many cases, the Foundation Stage curriculum needs to be more structured than it historically has been. However, in a large number of schools, the Secondary School and KS2 curriculum is often too structured, as our system then subscribes to a more traditional, Victorian approach. Such a traditional approach is exemplified by being desk, worksheet, and textbook-based. It is also over-reliant on excessive testing which focuses on a narrow curriculum and unreliable accountability measures.

What if there is a formula that encapsulates the way we all learn which is neither play-based and fluffy, nor traditional and test-based?

Treat a child as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat a child as he could be, and he will become what he should be.


A Research-Based Approach

At Fulbridge, we have signed up to a research-based approach with the Whole Education network, the Cambridge Primary Review Trust and Cambridge University. We have been guided by the work of Robin Alexander’s Cambridge Primary Review and influenced by the thoughts and writings of educationalists like Guy Claxton, Bill Lucas, Mick Waters, Sir Ken Robinson, Andy Hargreaves, Pasi Sahlberg and Sir John Jones. We recognise advances in neuroscience as well as research-based evidence into how children learn best and what we now know that they are capable of from a young age.

We do not subscribe to the ill-thought-out booster group approaches that so often originate from politicians and commercial companies. We prefer to subscribe to well-thought-out initiatives like the importance of dialogic teaching that are grounded in years of high-quality research.

Helicopter Parents And Teachers

In recent years, parents and schools have encouraged an overprotective, overdependent, ‘nanny-state’ culture, where there is too much of a support, cushioning, spoonfeeding mentality that does not prepare children for the very difficult world and life ahead. Like all habits, the approach we take in the early years and throughout their school years will have a long-lasting impact as to how our children deal with their learning, as well as the difficult and challenging situations they will face as they grow up.

We either do nothing, in the style of the Romantics, or we ensure that we shape, engineer and structure children’s education and their character development. If we are over-protective, we create a dependency character trait in our children by offering too much support and creating that cushioning, spoonfeeding mentality. In doing this, we train children to believe that, if they wait long enough, it will be done for them and that someone will always be there for them.

I would argue that, in Sir Ken Robinson’s words, where there are ‘helicopter’ parents and adults waiting to descend immediately to help, protect and defend, we are creating children who will lack resilience and grit.

Research indicates that, by not developing appropriate character traits in our children and by not providing children with clear firm boundaries and routines, we are creating a climate where youngsters are at greater risk. They are therefore more likely to self-harm, develop eating disorders and depression, be victims of bullying, succumb to exam pressure, experiment with drugs and alcohol, and seek belonging wherever they can find it, even in radical groups. If children are to deal with all these issues, we need to teach them to be resilient and capable of dealing with challenges, disappointments, and setbacks.

Failure isn’t just about failing; it’s about learning how to win the next time.

In schools and in life, we need to focus not on creating a culture of comfort or of stress, but to aspire to one of stretch and challenge.

Character Development

We need children who do not fear failure, are risk-takers, and have a resilience to adversity, as well as an empathy and a tolerance of diverse opinions. To achieve this, we need children with a sense of humour and proportion, who are able to prioritise, solve problems, and be courageous; we need children that show initiative, integrity, compassion, empathy, curiosity, respect, an ability to collaborate, and that are both resourceful and reflective.

In addition to knowledge, attitudes and habits of mind are the attributes and foundations of learning. Character is about your behaviours, your understanding of right and wrong and how you respond to difficult situations. These are the character traits that need to be in place if children are to succeed.  

Children need academic success to unlock the door to the worlds of work and academia, but they need good character if they are to then succeed. Our world needs people who do the right things, who have worth, who are willing to contribute and who have spirit. As teachers, we need to provide the world with these people.

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