Requiem for a Straw Man

” . . . and indeed it takes

From our achievements, though performed at height,

The pith and marrow of our attribute.” – Hamlet

There is a common refrain in the discourse about teaching reading that almost immediately derails the debate, and which ensures that people are talking at cross-purposes. This does nothing to advance the cause of improved reading teaching, which is the cornerstone of a good education.

The misunderstanding is apparent every time someone proclaims that “there is more to reading than just the words on the page.” Surely this must be one of the most trite statements possible with regard to teaching reading. Of course there is more to it than that – otherwise why would anyone bother to read? The obvious facility of this position tends to suggest that the speaker is avoiding the issues – or else holds a prejudiced, and uninformed, view of what proponents of effective decoding teaching are actually advocating.

Those who propound good phonics instruction do so because it is a means to several related ends, ends with which almost every teacher would whole-heartedly concur: improved comprehension, access to background knowledge, development of imagination and empathy, and a love of literature. It is essential for us all to acknowledge that these are important points of agreement in an often conflicted and highly emotive field. Those who advocate phonics do so because they believe its effective inclusion in the curriculum will achieve these goals better than it if was left out.

Equally, those who propound phonics do not do so because they are in favour of rote, drill-and-kill, or some linguistic form of Pavlovian conditioning. They do so because they know that phonics is what children need to know, and decoding accurately and fluently is what they need to do, in order to support those longer-term aims.

It is important to stress the what in that last sentence. Phonics (i.e. knowledge of sound-spelling relationships) is a body of knowledge which students will need to recall automatically and effortlessly for the rest of their lives. As such, it needs to have a systematic organisation within the curriculum, and, just as importantly, in the teacher’s mind. For many teachers, this is commonplace; they simply see phonics as an aspect of curriculum and try to ensure that it is taught well, both in its discrete components and how it is integrated with the wider curriculum.

For others, though, a systematised body of knowledge seems too didactic. This is particularly so where theories of child development with discovery as the main focus of learning hold sway. In this view, children should find things out for themselves, and so the environment is arranged in ways that are intended to stimulate their imagination and creativity. Children encounter books and print, they talk about them, they make links between words and pictures, and they are encouraged to think from the ‘top down’, to infer what the text says from a general sense of what the story is about. While all this is often stimulating, it does not work well as a comprehensive system for teaching children to read.

The biggest problem with this approach is that it actually works for some children. Most children can actually intuit much of the English alphabetic code, given time and opportunity. Why is this a problem? Because for teachers it leads to what one researcher called “intermittent reinforcement” – just enough reward to harden our behaviour into a habit. Cognitivists might call it ‘confirmation bias’ – we attend to those success stories that confirm our preferred ways of doing things. So when some children pick up reading anyway, we can say, “See, Samantha learned to read this way. But Simon didn’t, so there must be something about Simon that’s causing the problem.” As a result, all children learn to read more slowly than they might, and some do not learn very much at all.

What is puzzling is that those who contest phonics do so in the face of overwhelming evidence that teaching this body of knowledge systematically is of great benefit to children’s emotional and cognitive development. Conversely, failure to learn reading – something that seems to afflict about 20% of children not taught systematically – has ongoing and debilitating effects on achievement, self-esteem, mental health, and behaviour. And that’s just during the school years. The effects of low literacy beyond that are enduring and pervasive.

So why oppose something that massively reduces the incidence of illiteracy, and greatly enhances children’s life chances? Writing off phonics teaching as a ‘one trick pony’ or ‘barking at print’ won’t cut it. There is indeed a lot more to reading than just phonics. In the same way, there is a lot more to being an athlete than just fitness, but you won’t get far without it.

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Reading is Knowledge


We shouldn’t confuse skills with knowledge 

One of the most discussed topics in education today is that of the so-called ‘knowledge curriculum’. Its most famous proponent is E D Hirsch, who has written extensively on the subject. Hirsch argues that depriving students – especially poorer students – of the ‘cultural capital’ that middle and upper class children have access to perpetuates inequality and injustice. Instead, he believes that the curriculum should reflect ‘powerful knowledge’ that enables students to gain the same access to higher education and working opportunities that those in better-off circumstances tend to have.


Hirsch, and many others, recognise that reading is an essential tool in this approach. The amount of knowledge that students need to consume in order to be well-equipped by the end of secondary school is vast. It is not possible to cover it all in lessons alone; nor is this desirable. Developing independence in…

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O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Ophelia, Hamlet.

It should not be surprising that a recent report by the Social Mobility Commission found that educational inequality is increasing. Schools tend to reflect, rather than direct, their communities, so in a society of increasing inequality, it should come as no surprise that that inequality is replicated in its schools.

This replication is not, however, a foregone conclusion. The mechanism by which inequality is reproduced is well embedded in the system, but there is also evidence to show that it can be changed, and that when this happens there are remarkable results for the children concerned. The mechanism in question is not funding, governance, leadership structures or even curriculum. It is not even the class system itself. Rather, it is the beliefs that educators, parents and policy-makers hold about intelligence – beliefs which are barely recognised, let alone discussed or questioned, but which pervade our actions every day.

It was Alfred Binet who first developed a test of intelligence. Working amongst the poor and deprived in Paris, he was commissioned by the government to find a way to classify students so that they could be given extra help according to their level of ability. His early tests were designed to identify three categories: idiocé, imbecilité, and moronité. While Binet’s motives were charitable, the sorting power of IQ tests was soon harnessed by eugenicists such as the Stanford professor Lewis Terman, who devised tests to ‘prove’ that immigrants from certain countries had sub-normal intelligence. Scandinavians scored the highest on his tests, he told an American Senate Committee, while the Irish and Mexicans scored at levels “dangerously close to those of negroes”. Later in the twentieth century, the British tripartite model of education (grammar, secondary technical and secondary modern), was heavily influenced by the work of Sir Cyril Burt – based on ‘twin’ studies purporting to show intelligence as hereditary and fixed, which were later discredited because Burt had falsified data.

The legacy of this approach to intelligence is that we have an education system inherently focused on sorting children according to their perceived intelligence. Underlying this pre-occupation is an attitude, often unspoken but nevertheless widespread: more intelligent children are more deserving of a quality education, whereas this would be wasted on those ‘less able’. The most recent policy built on this belief is the government’s determination to increase the number of grammar schools, i.e. state-funded, selective schools. The justification is that this will ensure ‘the brightest’ students receive ‘good school places’. In schools, the manifestation is more subtle. Almost universally, we infer intelligence from attainment – a proxy that is fraught with problems. The most important of these is that we can easily make our students bear the consequences of our failures.

In other words, is it possible that our students’ low attainment may be a consequence of our teaching, not an independent entity – one which excuses us from expectations of progress? We do know that the labels we apply to students are readily internalised, and can affect not only their expectations of academic progress but even their sense of identity and their role in society (Osterholm, Nash, and Kritsonis, 2007). It is entirely possible for the system to create an achievement underclass – an underclass overwhelmingly comprised of children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, as the Social Mobility Commission noted.

Take, for example, the case of a student in Year 10, having arrived at secondary school with all his Key Stage 2 scores several years below expected progress. His mean CATs were just above 70, indicating that he was at the bottom of the below average band – nearly two standard deviations below the norm, a long way behind his peers. The intelligence test results seemed confirmed by his reading age – he was reading at a six-year level. Well into his GCSEs, he was unlikely to finish school with anything other than a handful of poor grades. Such a student, you might think, is the perfect example of why we use setting – his particular needs could be accommodated within a small, nurturing environment.

Except that it was the other way around. It was precisely because he was treated as if he had a disability, as if there was something wrong with him, that he had underachieved. His low scores on the intelligence test were in fact because he lacked the tool skills – primarily reading – to be able to answer the questions. His poor academic performance was rooted in the same problem. How do I know? Because, when he was placed in a programme which ensured that he caught up in his reading, his scores across the board increased to the point where he gained five good passes (A* – C) including English and maths. He went on to sixth form and then university. The system had, for ten years, treated his low attainment as a proxy for low intelligence. No one expected very much from him – in fact, he was not expected to last at school until the end of Year 11 because his behaviour was so poor.

I am not offering this anecdote as evidence, but as illustration. For evidence, you can see other examples of students who acquired reading skills very rapidly on the Thinking Reading website. A few minute’s searching on Twitter and blogs will show you examples of remarkably high attainment by non-privileged students at Michaela School in Brent, London. A well-documented example is the Berieter –Engelmann Direct Instruction pre-school in Alabama in the 1960s:

“Confounding the belief that intelligence was hereditary, Engelmann found (and others later confirmed) that the mean IQ for the group jumped from 96 to 121 in one year. . . .” (Barbash, 2012).

Their IQ scores moved when they were taught differently. You can also see the other side of the issue in the telling study by Galen Alessi, reviewing the cases of 5,000 American students who had been evaluated by educational psychologists:

“All 5,000 evaluations attributed the student’s problems to deficiencies in the child and the child’s family. Not one linked the student’s problems to faulty curricula, poor teaching practices or bad management.” (ibid).

 My observation is that within the teaching profession, we hold deeply-rooted beliefs about intelligence and how we can infer it from students’ language, behaviour and performance. However, such low performances are actually likely to be the product of ineffective teaching in the past. I don’t say this to cast blame, but to suggest that we need to examine how we respond to low attainment.

We have only to look at the PISA results from 2012, cited by none other than the DfE, to see that 17% of UK school leavers were below the minimum level for literacy. They were the products of a system that assumed the problem was in the child, not the teaching. The evidence, however, shows this does not have to be the outcome.

We cannot neglect those at the lower performing end of the scale: they too have the right to the dignity and the power of a good education. It is only when we accept our responsibility to change the way we teach these students that the inequality we all decry will be addressed. If we do not, another kind of change will come, one that I fear will be a harvest of resentment, ignorance and hatred.

Perhaps the last word is best left to the founder of intelligence testing, Alfred Binet:

“Some recent thinkers…[have affirmed] that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we must try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.”

I can think of no better way to describe a system driven by assumptions about student inability than ‘brutal pessimism’.


Barbash, S. (2012) Clear Teaching. Education Consumers Foundation.

Osterholm, K., Nash, W. R., and Kritsonis, W. A. (2007) Effects of Labeling Students “Learning Disabled”: Emergent Themes in the Research Literature 1970 Through 2000. Focus on Colleges, Universities and Schools 1 (1).

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8 DIY Steps to Build a Reading Culture

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy  – Hamlet

Many UK schools have invested in online ‘reading acceleration’ schemes which claim to foster a richer reading culture and to improve students’ motivation to read. Such a scheme will likely cost the school considerably more than the price tag of the licences, in IT equipment, librarian time, teacher time, and of course the books that the school must buy in. (See here for an estimate based on an EEF study).

Schools may find some value in this, especially if funding is readily available and the new product helps students to feel that they are part of something novel and exciting. It feels positive to have a display of students’ reading mileage; and when Ofsted comes calling it is always helpful to hand over a sheaf of statistics showing how reading levels and mileage are being tracked.

These are, of course, advantages of form, not substance. The reality is somewhat different. Any novelty will certainly wear off with time. There are other ways of tracking student progress in reading, and with more depth and greater reliability. Crucially, the success of the system does not actually rely on the software – it relies on the motivation, organisation and enthusiasm of the staff promoting it.

Then, of course, the big question is: do such schemes actually assist reading progress? The answer appears to be, not much – and for the weakest students, not at all. (See this post for example). If you are a student reading three years behind, this approach will not enable you to catch up during your entire five years at secondary school.

The fact is, we don’t need to import a system when we already have able and intelligent staff who know their students. Points on an IT system will not motivate most teenagers for long. It is the interactions between staff and students that build motivation, and that provide the foundations for a reading culture. Limited resources should be targeted where they are most needed.

Here are 8 steps to building a reading culture without resorting to an unnecessary software package :

  1. Use standardised tests already in school. Some of the pre-packaged test scores bounce around a lot which makes them difficult to use for tracking progress. If your school lacks a good standardised reading text, it is a high priority to obtain one.
  2. Teach students how to work out if a book is too hard for them (e.g the five-finger rule). But don’t stop them from reading challenging books!
  3. Use free online readability calculators to check the appropriate reading level for each book. Show students how to use this method for themselves.
  4. Have students write quiz questions for books. Store these quizzes centrally in the school library for use by others. If stored digitally, they can become a modifiable ‘wiki’ resource.
  5. Have a wide range of activities available for students to respond to different books. Use the resulting performances, talks and displays to keep raising the profile of reading across the school. An example list is here.
  6. Award recognition according to students’ needs, not a pre-determined formula. Consider effort, obstacles and improvements in attitude as avenues for recognition. Celebrate all forms of progress, and take into account students’ circumstances in a way that software can’t.
  7. Have students keep a diary, log or “passport” to track what they read and when. Have parents support by listening to their children read, signing the passport, and talking to students about book recommendations.
  8. Track overall attainment through school-wide standardised testing. Ensure progress for low attainers is tracked as part of a suitable, age-appropriate intervention. Independent reading on its own is not enough to help those reading two or more years behind to catch up.

It may seem that all this relies on the strength, commitment and enthusiasm of the school librarian and the English staff. That’s because it does – they are indispensable to the success of any reading promotion scheme. Handing over the ownership of that process to the team who will deliver it is much more likely to bring long-term success than asking them to fit into the pre-programmed systems of a multi-national software company. And you won’t have to hand over thousands of pounds every year.

You may also be interested in . . .

If you are interested in other ways to audit spending, target resources more effectively, or choose appropriate interventions, you can join this one-day workshop for literacy leaders.

A longer version of this post is available as a PDF download here.

A PDF of sample reading response activities is also available here.


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The Search for Research Literacy

“Sit down awhile;

And let us once again assail your ears,

That are so fortified against our story . . .” – Hamlet

‘Research’, like any other word, can acquire and shift meanings. In the last few years we have seen a shift in usage from research as quantitative evidence to much more fluid ideas around qualitative and descriptive ‘data’.

Likewise, we used to talk about ‘research-based’, but now we talk about ‘research-informed’ practice. But unless we have criteria for establishing what research is worth being informed by, the phrase is meaningless. Like every other semantic shift in the endless parade of political ideas masquerading as educational practice, placing ‘professional judgement’ and ‘teacher autonomy’ above – or even on a par with – hard evidence is a way of giving ourselves permission to do whatever we like. It only takes a few vacuous blogs, effusive ‘Principal’s Welcome’ pages on school websites, or a glance at school performance appraisal policies to see that very fuzzy ideas abound in education.

At this point the common objection is that hard evidence is impossible to come by in education; that we have to accept that learning is primarily a social interaction, that the relationships in the classroom are the most important thing and that each teacher has make a judgement in their context as to what they will do. While relationships are obviously important, that is true in every human context, and it is an entirely separate issue from whether teachers engage in the most effective practices. The refusal to believe that there are some practices which are more effective than others is a deeply held conviction by many educators, at least many that I have worked with, and many I have encountered on social media.

Can there really be a set of effective practices? What would they look like? How would we know? And even if there were, wouldn’t it be a terrible loss to teacher creativity and classroom spontaneity, which are much more important to student motivation?

In short, yes, there are such practices, and some of them have been validated over decades, replicated through single-subject and group designs. The evidence in favour of certain practices is very strong, but knowledge of this research within teaching communities is scant to say the least. As Professor Graham Nuthall said, teaching is more of a craft than a profession, and we build our practice more on folklore than on evidence. It takes time to get to grips with decades of research literature, and teachers are busy people.

We wouldn’t, of course, accept this approach in, for example, medicine or aeronautics. No one these days would expect to see a doctor who cares more about autonomy than evidence, or to fly in an aircraft  designed by an engineer who values creativity above correct procedure. The old chestnut that medicine is a ‘hard’ science and teaching isn’t, is plain wrong – medicine is intensely personal, highly subjective and often requires a great deal of inference. Doctors still get things wrong, but the improvement in medical practice, and its impact on society over the last century, have been nothing short of astounding. This did not happen because the medical profession argued about what research is, or what good practice is. It happened because there was a consensus to learn from evidence, or people would suffer and die, and that wasn’t acceptable. Yes, there are plenty of examples of poor practice, but they stand in contrast to the enormous progress that has been made.

Teachers, too, could take a more robust view of what constitutes evidence, and a much clearer view of what constitutes effective research. Neither busyness nor philosophical arguments should deter us from a fundamental quest to equip our students with the best tools we can, as early as possible. The alternative is to accept the status quo: 20% of students in secondary school struggling to read and write; millions of adults unable to deal with daily reading requirements of the most basic nature – signs, forms, newspapers. The great majority of these students – usually labeled ‘dyslexic’ – need nothing more than effective teaching. If we knew the evidence, we would act differently, and students would have better outcomes.

There is a commendable move afoot to establish research leads in schools, but there is also a risk that the movement will falter and fade because the initiative had too much freedom and not enough rigour. Schools do not need so much to conduct research themselves as ensure that their staff are familiar with the most important literature and that they are required to implement the findings of robust research faithfully. That may reduce some teacher autonomy, but autonomy is less important in education than it was; the more we know as a body, the less room we have to exercise our own preferences in spite of the evidence. Until we are familiar with the literature, and how to sort the wheat from the chaff, we are not in a position to decide what further research needs to be carried out. Through knowledge, we will save ourselves enormous work, and our students will not need to be guinea pigs whose education is sacrificed by our ignorance.

Can we imagine how the profession might be different in two or three decades? Perhaps we might have a truly research-informed profession, where all new teachers require at least two additional years of training to master’s level; where a year of becoming familiar with educational research and how to evaluate it is compulsory; where a year of actually undertaking research and submitting it for academic assessment ensures that teachers have a grasp the practical difficulties. There would be a major shift in the way in which teacher recruitment and training are resourced and organized; the master’s level pathway would be slower, and more costly, but likely result in greater retention and more effective practice. School managers, who currently often have a very good grasp of the latest Ofsted handbook but less so the useful findings of the last fifty years in educational research, would have to be a different breed in order to lead professional debate rather than suppress it.

It cannot happen overnight, but it must happen, because otherwise we are saying that our personal choice is more important than our students’ outcomes. But we are not consumers in a market; we are those in whom a great trust has been placed. A future with more of the same grinding inequality will perpetuate outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society. We have the opportunity to establish a different future, but I sense that the window is closing fast. The democratisation of education through social media and debate may have already seen its heyday; increasingly, the discourse is aggressive, and increasingly, the bureaucrats are gaining back control of the levers of power.

Knowledge of educational research is the best way to challenge political and ideological initiatives that do not serve students, that squander resources and stunt the growth of the profession. All teachers have a responsibility to confront the issues. We do not have to agree – not at first – but we should be working towards a professional consensus based on the best knowledge we have.

I am optimistic, if only because there really isn’t any alternative.

PS: This post by Jon Brunskill resonated with me and articulates some key reasons why primary school education will benefit from greater exposure to the findings of robust research.












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How Whole Language Lost the War

Ere I could make a prologue to my brains, they had begun the play. – Hamlet.

On an otherwise empty table, under a bare electric bulb, the machine sat squat and solid. Impregnable, inscrutable, the keys ranged along its front were like so many blunt tusks, giving it an air of silent pugnacity. It was called Enigma.

The young mathematician stared at it from the shadows. He had been working on the machine for weeks, and slowly, grudgingly, it had begun to yield its secrets. The underlying principles of the code were, he knew, almost within his grasp. He rubbed red-rimmed eyes, and flexed his fingers. He had had his short break; it was time to get back to work.

Just then heavy steps sounded on the wooden steps of the hut. The door creaked open and the burly figure of Major Goodman hurried in, accompanied by a blast of freezing air. The door slammed shut. Goodman stared at the machine for a long moment, then turned to the young mathematician. “Well?” he barked. “Got it sorted yet, Turing?”

“We’ve begun to make good progress. We’ve worked out that the key changes daily, and that’s why the apparent irregularities – ”

“Begun, begun! Never mind beginnings. We’ve been at the beginning for weeks. The top brass is breathing down my neck. We need to generate some messages, d’you hear me?”

Turing rubbed his forehead wearily. He could never reconcile the major’s overbearing confidence with his utter lack of understanding. “There are over ten to the power of twenty-six possible combinations if all five wheels are employed – ”

Goodman cut him off again. “Look, Turing, no hard feelings, you’re a nice enough young fellow and I’m sure you mean well, but it’s all a bit dull. We can inject some colour and energy into this exercise by looking at it from another perspective.”

Turing stared blearily at the major’s florid face. His mouth moved, but his brain could not formulate the words to describe the hours of back-breaking, concentrated labour that he and his team had put in, twenty-four hours a day, in bare huts and isolated from friends and family. It was a labour he was prepared to offer, if at the end he had developed a system for decoding any message that the enemy cared to send. But Goodman had moved on.

“Come. Look at these messages. You see this? What’s that mean?” He had unfolded a set of papers and jabbed a stubby finger at the jumble of letters and numbers. Turing studied it.

“The first thing to do is to determine the date it was sent. Then when – ”

“Beginnings, beginnings, Turing.” Goodman plumped himself into the chair in front of the machine. “You’ve been looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope. I mean, does the government need the code, or the meaning of the message?”

“Well, it’s not possible – ”

“Of course it’s possible. Consider: We’re trying to read German messages. Reading is a psycholinguistic guessing game.  It involves an interaction between thought and language.  Efficient reading does not result from precise perception and identification of all the elements, but from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time.”

“Who said that, sir?” Turing asked distractedly. He had an unpleasant feeling that he already knew the answer.

“I did. Now, we know that this was sent just before major troop movements in Normandy. So it’s about troop movements and those troops did in fact move. We can now predict, d’you see! Look, this part here seems to be about where the troops went to, and this part here . . .” He paused. “Not really cricket of the bally Germans to leave out the pictures,” he muttered. He searched the page. “This part here – this V O R – that’s probably Von Runstedt, their Normandy commander, what what? And here, these dots – if you stand back and squint, they form a sort of a picture. Looks a bit like . . . well, a bit like a wave breaking on the beach, and here would be the beach huts – obviously that’s the secret bit – and over here, looks like a man walking a dog.” Goodman slapped his forehead. “Great Scott! That’s it! Von Runstedt will be working his men like dogs on the beaches of Normandy.”

“Remarkable,” Turing said mildly. He felt he had lost even the power of sarcasm.

“Not remarkable at all,” snorted Goodman. “Efficient reading results from skill in selecting the fewest, most productive cues. These cues are selected from perceptual input on the basis of the reader’s expectation. They are guided by constraints set up through prior choices, his language knowledge, his cognitive styles and strategies he has learned. And while these cues provide partial information, the reader forms a perceptual image using these cues and his anticipated cues. Elementary!”

“Mmm,”said Turing.

“Then, the reader searches his memory for related syntactic, semantic, and phonological cues. This memory search may lead to selecting more graphic cues and to reforming the perceptual image.”

“Oh? Why?”

Goodman became grim. “Don’t be clever with me, Turing. These cues are necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time. And so they are. I now have a clear message to show to the top brass. Just get on with using the psycholinguistic guessing approach, and send me some more messages. Right, tip-top, must get this to HQ.”

“You have constructed a message, sir,” said Turing, leafing through the remaining papers. “But we’re guessing and the Germans aren’t. If we don’t know exactly what they meant, the intelligence is no use, and we’ll lose the war.”

But the door of the hut had swung closed, Goodman had disappeared into the night, and the machine stared back at him smugly from the table. A chill engulfed him that had nothing to do with the frosty night.

Enigma 2

You can read the real Kenneth Goodman’s thoughts on reading (many reproduced above verbatim) in his 1967 paper Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. These ideas formed the basis of the whole language approach to reading that has seen a consistent fifth of students arriving at secondary school unable to read at the necessary level. For a more entertaining critique of Goodman, you may wish to read Martin Kozloff’s paper, Rhetoric and Revolution.

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To everything, a season

And he . . . Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,

Thence to a watch, thence to a weakness, 

Thence to a lightness, and by this declension

Into the madness wherein now he raves,

And all we mourn for.  – Polonius, Hamlet.

Anecdotally, there seems little doubt that we are seeing a major rise in mental health issues amongst adolescents. Whilst there may be some truth in the suggestion that some of these ‘needs’ are manufactured, there is also some evidence that there has been a sharp rise in both the number and severity of mental health cases. In my own school, the number of severe case has more than doubled this year.

In response to this situation (some would say crisis), we hear again the plaints of those  demanding that schools ‘need to do more’, just as schools have also been asked to ‘do more’ with sex and relationships education, drug education, healthy eating, radicalisation, British values, character, financial education, community cohesion, equality, diversity, and citizenship – to name but a few of the many additional tasks that schools are expected to take on – in addition to the more ‘core business’ of raising academic standards, preparing students for an endless, churning mill-race of curriculum and assessment changes, narrowing the achievement  gap, meeting floor standards, succeeding in Ofsted inspections and competing in league tables.

Quite understandably, it is a cause of some disquiet to teachers that serious, potentially life-threatening, and time-consuming issues should be tossed into that mill-race. Apart from the risks to the students, attempting to intervene in mental health issues could severely compromise teachers’ abilities to effectively carry out their ‘core’ functions of planning, teaching and assessment. And it is not as if teachers’ own mental health is exactly in tip-top shape, particularly under the often soul-destroying pressures pervasive in the current incarnation of the education system. Teachers are being responsible when they resist calls to become counsellors and amateur psychologists.

And yet.

It is not so simple in the real world, where we are not able to neatly segment our lives, and our students’ lives. We should maintain professional boundaries, but this does not mean that we can ignore the pain in front of us. Most of us would do our best to support a colleague who was experiencing mental health problems. Why would we ignore our students? The fact is, we can’t.  Mental health is a specifically named set of needs in SEND legislation, and students are entitled to support where such needs affect their ability to access the curriculum. There is also a swathe of guidance from the DfE on safeguarding, so any teacher who thinks that they can ignore mental health issues in their classroom is likely to be on very shaky ground.

So – what do you do when confronted with a student with mental health needs?

The answer, of course, depends on the needs, and the situation. Is there an imminent risk of harm, or has the student already been harmed? How are other students being affected? To what extent is there support available from home, and what support services are in the school? Being able to ask ourselves questions like these, and knowing who to go to for advice and referrals, are the equivalent of a mental health first aid kit.

Schools have policies on safeguarding, child protection, bullying, and wellbeing. Linked to these policies should be clear procedures for referring students’ needs to the appropriate service within the school. Ideally schools will have specialist staff who are trained and who are linked with external agencies to ensure that a secure net of support is woven around the student both at school and at home.

So we would hope – but of course, in reality, the agencies are overstretched, in-school provision is patchy at best, and specialist staff are not only hard to come by but funding to employ them is being squeezed. In these circumstances, there are two dangers: that we attempt to do more than we should in response to the urgency of the need, or that we attempt too little because we are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In the former scenario teachers can get in over their heads very quickly, sometimes with painful results. In the latter, apathy allows disaster to engulf young lives when the right conversation could have led to better support.

So how should schools deal with mental health?

First, schools need pro-active policies in place to ensure that mental health needs are understood as normal human experiences, and that it is healthy to seek support when you need it, whether informally through friends and family, or formally though pastoral services. Secondly, all staff need training in the basic ‘first aid’ procedures for mental health: assessing the immediacy of risk, notifying appropriate personnel, and managing incidents to minimise harm and disruption. Thirdly, schools need to have sound provision in  place for students who need specialist support, and a clear procedure for inter-agency working to ensure round-the-clock care where it is needed.

The last item is the one that costs the most money. And even if we find the money, who will deliver the service? This paper by the DfE sets out principles for setting up a service in a school that is embedded, but independent (see p.21). We use a similar model in my current school and I’m very grateful we have it.  I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that we can’t improve, but even with the many compromises required to keep a small organisation working within a much larger one, the service does an excellent job at holding students who would otherwise not be able to access the opportunities that school has to offer. In other words, we keep them coming back to school. They haven’t given up.

Should teachers attempt to take on the roles of counsellors and therapists? No. But nor can we ignore the needs in front of us. As responsible adults, we should ensure that systems, procedures and resources are in place to protect the most vulnerable. This is good safeguarding practice, and not optional. While I understand the desire for teachers to maintain their professional boundaries, and work within their expertise, school leaders have a responsibility to ensure that provision is in place and that everyone knows the process to follow when we become aware of student needs.

Slogans and dismissals won’t do. In the world of broken, mixed-up people we work with (people like ourselves), effectively responding to mental health needs can literally be a matter of life and death.



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