Does staff and pupil wellbeing affect pupil outcomes and how can we use what we know to improve wellbeing and outcomes?
For in excess of 20 years I knew that something was holding back the children I worked with in deprived communities. We had investigated and supported children with barriers to learning, such as SEND, to the point where they made good progress but still, we struggled with groups of children that we would now call ‘disadvantaged’. The term disadvantaged is bandied about as if it is clear what is meant by the term, but for a long time it was purely equated to those who had free school meals, which was a crude measure as there were always children who broke the mould as disadvantaged.
What we now know is that there is a chain of interconnectedness that the reductive approach from policy makers has failed to pick up and address. Instead, inspectors and policymakers often prefer to categorise schools with large disadvantaged groups as failing. However, in many cases they are failing because they feel compelled to respond to the reductive narrative they are given by the same inspectors and policymakers. The approach to disadvantaged learners (compounded by the FSM narrative that these are poor families) has been to drill for longer. Intervention groups and after school catch ups funded by pupil premium has seen limited impact and progress has plateaued. Disadvantaged children have stopped catching up. Indeed, the latest data suggests that the gap between disadvantaged and their more advantaged peers has grown during the pandemic.
So, what do we mean by disadvantage?
If you are from a poorer family you are likely to have more physical health complications and miss days in school and the likelihood is, that this poverty is generational. We also know that those with poor health, physical and mental health, have lower wellbeing on average and we know that lower levels of wellbeing affect attainment. The link between pupil health and wellbeing and attainment PHE November 2014.
It is often the case that generational poverty leads to generational ill health which then leads to learners having caring responsibilities too, which in turn has an effect on the young carer’s ability to learn. The situation is nothing if not complex and can’t be reduced to one word, disadvantaged, but we need to find solutions to each of these barriers if we are truly to break the cycle of disadvantage. We wouldn’t now class all SEND learners as having learning difficulties and treat them all the same, we differentiate to address the barriers that they have to their learning so that we can help these learners to overcome their barriers and learn more effectively. We need to be doing the same for disadvantaged learners and the issues and barriers to learning need to be far better understood by the whole system from central government to those working in our schools if we are truly to improve their wellbeing and from there, outcomes in the broadest sense.
“There is convincing evidence of a relationship between wellbeing and academic attainment.” Lindorff 2020 – Oxford University
To really address the barriers to learning which stand in the way of roughly 1 in 5 of our children, who either are ‘disadvantaged’ or who have mental health barriers to learning, we need to know what those barriers are. Once we know we can start to plan to meet their needs.
At present there is a process whereby those learners who are deemed to be disadvantaged (and I include all those who are managing some form of mental ill health or trauma affecting their ability to learn in school), have poor wellbeing and their outcomes both academic and otherwise are often not what their potential suggests they should be achieving.
A conventional, all children sitting facing the front, arms folded being filled with knowledge by the teacher to pass a test, assumes that all children are able to process and remember this knowledge. However, if you are being abused, have seen abuse, live in a violent household or any one of the traumatic situations that 1 in 5 of our children face, you are unable to effectively process knowledge and learn. You are in fight or flight mode.
Therefore, we must start at the end and work our way back. If we want strong outcomes, both academic and otherwise, we must ensure that the wellbeing needs of all of our pupils are being met and we do that by building a supportive wellbeing curriculum that gives them agency, autonomy and builds self esteem and resilience. We can’t solve all the home life traumas and stresses that learners bring into school. We can help to ease them and create at safe learning space in school where it is ok to make mistakes, where interpersonal relationships are supported and where every learner is valued.
“There is also strong evidence to suggest that whole-school approaches to promoting wellbeing can have positive effects on a wide range of other student outcomes, including mental health, self-esteem, self-efficacy, motivation, behaviour, and decreased probability of dropout.”
There is now emerging research to show that building a wellbeing approach to relationships in school and building wellbeing into the pedagogy used by teachers can have a dramatic effect on attainment and wellbeing for all learners. Not only does it improve academic outcomes, but it builds self-esteem, motivation and resilience, all those things that we have wanted to address for so long for those hard-to-reach learners.
“The single biggest indicator for happiness in adulthood is happiness in childhood.”
Not only does this work for learners but staff, previously racing against the clock to get children over an arbitrary line by the end of a key stage, see the value of educating the whole child, ready to take their place in the world, not just preparing them to take their place in the exam hall. This radically changes a teacher’s sense of purpose and leads to greater job satisfaction and fulfilment. In short, it improves teacher wellbeing too.
We have to challenge the reductive nature of the narrative we currently have from policymakers. Education and especially the education of those most vulnerable of learners is complex. It needs a differentiated approach rather than a one size fits all model.
If we can address the wellbeing of our learners and create a whole school wellbeing culture that allows our children the security to learn and a level of ownership over their learning and their lives then we have a real chance to address the needs of those categorised simply as disadvantaged. We allow them to access learning. The alternative is to continually drill with little chance that those most needing support can access the learning and to continually be told that the progress of the disadvantaged isn’t good enough.
The current system isn’t working, it is time to be bold and take on what we know from research, works. Our children, especially those most fragile, deserve it.