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Learning to Care

Nicola Biggerstaff

This week The Herald reported that a survey has found over half of parents are concerned for their child’s mental wellbeing, with 80% believing that some form of wellbeing education should become part of the curriculum.

The survey of over 2,000 parents, as well as over 300 primary and secondary teachers, also found that 76% of teachers surveyed did not have the time to provide said education, while one third said they did not feel adequately trained to provide it.

As we discussed last week, while this experiment of introducing wellbeing elements into the current curriculum as it stands was tried and tested with the Curriculum for Excellence, it was not given the time and space it required in the curriculum to fully embrace these principles, instead being treated as equal to, or even still less than, the overall attainment of our pupils. This has dampened the overall value of Scottish secondary qualifications as a result. While attainment is not an illegitimate goal for a good education, this does not equate to a well-rounded education either. What is the point in being able to calculate vectors if we aren’t even able to recognise within ourselves a decline in our mental health?

Schools are increasingly becoming focal point of our wider social failures. In which pupils from varying backgrounds are placed together, their only common factor being their current proximity, and suddenly community-wide issues become issues in schools. Poverty, malnutrition, abuse and neglect, mental health problems and language skills among others, are increasingly impacting teachers’ ability to provide a good quality education as the subsequent disruptive behaviour impacts everyone around them, including fellow pupils.

This burden should not be left to teachers. While some do feel adequately trained to deal with issues regarding welfare, and some are adequately compensated for doing so, it is simply not their purpose within a school. They should be able to identify problems, but the responsibility of resolving said problems should not be left to them. Allowing qualified professionals to share the responsibility, as we propose in Sorted, by taking the responsibility for pupil wellbeing away from teachers and expanding pastoral services to include social workers embedded in schools, disruptive behavioural problems, and their root causes, can be effectively dealt with before they even enter the classroom. Allowing teachers to teach, and pupils to learn, creating a strong, healthy environment in which creativity and skills can flourish, unburdened.

By integrating Common Weal’s basic care and wellbeing principles into our education system, we can alleviate this burden by allowing teachers to refer potential behavioural issues and have them resolved directly through the appropriate care channels. Being able to care for our pupils first and foremost will provide the basic foundations necessary for them to fully absorb information that is presented to them and build up a well-rounded and comprehensive knowledge and skillset for the wider world.

We need to readjust our focus when we consider the implications of an ‘attainment gap’, what exactly does this entail or insinuate? On the brutal face of it, it is an admission that, on average, poorer schoolchildren will not do as well in educational settings as their wealthier peers. This is unfair, unjust, and a travesty that it has only been allowed to widen under this government. Committing to tackling the issues listed above is therefore, naturally, a commitment to tackling poverty in this country. This requires a robust policy overhaul which simply will not be entirely accomplished through the means of educational reform. It also requires a firmer commitment, through the above mentioned caring principles, to pupil wellbeing. By reframing this as a ‘wellbeing gap’, it better encapsulates the problems we face in our education system.

This must start at a young age. As discussed last week, we propose a delayed start to formal education as we know it, in line with systems seen in Scandinavian and Nordic countries, until at least the age of seven. Prior to this, a gradual introduction to basic numeracy and literacy principles through play and natural curiosity. By letting this lead from an early age, we can instil in our young people a natural enjoyment of learning and inquisitiveness, rather than have these forced upon them from as young as four. This early stage will also be a good opportunity to introduce integrated social work into these settings. By having children familiarise themselves with the idea that education equates to care, learning will become much less daunting and carries endless potential for positive experiences.

This should continue into mainstream primary and secondary education, continuing that positive association with education, the idea that a child will always have a support network available to them outside of the home which will truly benefit them if needed, with a side of a good-quality education which adequately prepares them for life.

We would like to take the opportunity to thank our Schools Working Group for their continuing assistance in developing Common Weal’s policies on education. If you would like to find out more, you can purchase your copy of Sorted: A Handbook for a Better Scotland, here.

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