I’m always looking for books which might change me, by small degrees, into a slightly better version of myself. Last year I read  ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey which describes a life blighted by poverty, growing up on a Glasgow estate . When the complex causes of poverty have been considered; when everyone (including Tory politicians, Guardian readers and Darren himself) have been handed out their share of responsibility for its ongoing perpetuation; when all is said and done, he whittles his childhood dilemma back to its core, ‘Beneath everything, all I was looking for was connection; to feel understood, heard and supported; to feel respected, safe and loved.’ When I’m trying to decipher a child’s behaviour in school (or an adult’s or my own behaviour for that matter), I often find myself hacking back to a list of possibilities not dissimilar to this one. We’re people and very many of us need similar provisions in our emotional larders to get through the day. This is the human level, the basic ‘this is what I need’ level that I believe should always define our thinking and our choices in school. 

Last week I stumbled into a KS2 assembly wholly unprepared. I have a significant back catalogue of scintillating advice (pity the poor children) and story-telling that I can draw on after 18 years as a head teacher but on this occasion my mind went blank so I blathered out the question most on my mind, ‘What should a school be like?’ Second note here to peddlers of the ‘children are troublesome sub-strata’ narrative: give them half a chance and they have answers full of natural wisdom and without some of the fog of adult life impeding their view. The response ran something like this: ‘A school should be fun and full of play…a place to mix with other people…to learn from and with them… a place for friendship and from that the feeling of being connected and supported…a preparation for life beyond by being a positive place.’ Admittedly the word ‘connected’ sounds like one of mine but other than that, this is a fairly accurate precis of their response. 

Being there for our pupils

I feel certain that if you take an average school and peel back the layers, you’ll find faith in humanity and an earnest, open-hearted attempt to create something valuable for people. They are not really places for cynicism or for the self-serving. That is not to say these things don’t exist in a school as uncomfortable folds in the layers; just that they run counter to what really counts and what makes a difference for the young people in their charge. From my experience our young people can respond positively to teachers of all shapes and sizes; of all kinds of pedagogical persuasion; strict or relaxed; traditional or progressive. They respond, as you would expect, as people. When you tap into some of the recent hullabaloo around behaviour issues in schools, the language and the thinking it reveals sometimes appears to sway away from this simple fact, away from an appreciation that children are just young people, towards the less edifying view of children as some sub-strata in the hierarchy that simply can’t be trusted. Perhaps as a teacher or as a parent, on any given day, we are all prone to experiencing this swing in perspective but as a matter of principle (we’re dealing with human beings here, not widgets) and as matter of expediency (human being require connection to function well), we need to hang onto the trust. When I see different teachers teach, the ebb and flow of pupil responses often seems dependent, not on any given strategy, but on whether the answer to the pupil’s question, ‘Are they there for me?’ which flutters just under the surface of the lesson, is answered in the affirmative. By the same token you can beaver away, as a school or an individual, at implementing the most up to date, evidential teaching strategies but if your personal or collective mindset is preoccupied with too much ‘stuff’ other than the pupils themselves, you may look the part but you may well also be failing them as people.

As the head teacher, I look up to my staff. They are the people who do the job here, hold our children so well and make the hard yards at the coal face. They are a creative, committed, humane group of people and I do believe that, for the most part, their thinking and their time is consumed by the children and their strengths and their uniqueness. Your children are a joy and yet again I thank you for them. I hope they enjoy coming to school – this being our primary aim. I sense the whole experience of the last year has reaffirmed for many of them the value of school and that most have returned this term raring to go, especially given the outside world is improving but not quite back to normal. One of our Year 2 pupils wrote this week, ‘My Easter was a bit boring. I wanted to come to school to lean!’ Let’s hope they do a bit of learning too but leaning is fine if that’s what floats their boat.