Accomplishments Education for All General Inclusive education Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Pathways to Justice and Peace

Frank O’Hagan

Can the power of education ‘give peace a chance’?

How can educationalists address the question of why – when in modern times we have witnessed so much progress in terms of academic research, scientific discovery and technological achievements – humankind is so frequently unsuccessful at establishing and maintaining pleasant and cooperative conditions for everyday life? Of the many sayings coming down from Confucius, one which is certainly worthy of consideration goes along the lines of ‘Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.’ In what ways then can education promote self-assurance and trust and, in turn, contribute to peace and concord in society?

Harmful emotional reactions, standpoints and behaviours are not necessarily fixed and constant attributes; they can be modified in positive directions by stimulating and constructive learning environments. Young persons deserve opportunities to develop sympathetic impulses and mature, well-balanced outlooks. If they build and cultivate candid and honest ‘growth mindsets’, they can become more skilled at meeting challenges and postulating possible routes for settling disagreements. Educationalists have important roles to play in putting forward balanced and open frames of reference from which dialogue can begin to explore problematic situations in a detailed and objective fashion.

21st September

Peacefulness –benefits to be found at personal, social and national levels

Peace of mind. At a personal level, tutoring and support can act as a foil against threats to safety and welfare by drawing attention to unsafe risks in hectic, frenzied and over-productive lifestyles. Selected themes and topics for reflection often lessen unwanted internal pressures, enhance self-care and encourage relaxation strategies. Additionally, guidelines and content in this domain have a significant spin-off when they highlight and boost sought-after personality traits relating to self-knowledge, insight and goodwill. These may cover: high-quality judgment and decision-making; tolerance of and respect for others; proficiency in arbitration and conflict reduction; and the virtue of forgiveness which, unsurprisingly, happens to be associated with wellbeing and mental health. It is evident that acts of moderation and solicitude are crucial in the context of interpersonal dissension. The processes of negotiation and conciliation, coupled with compassion, in any form of altercation can manoeuvre to peaceful conclusions and amity on all sides. Resulting rewards include affirmative feelings such as gratification, contentment and sense of belonging.

Peace within families and communities. Building warmth and cohesiveness in and across groups demands attention from one and all. A holistic stance – encompassing the involvement of children and young people, families, schools, colleges, and their localities – is desirable. This perspective advocates that it is wrong not to care about a wide spectrum of household and regional issues which includes intercultural tensions, racial discrimination and unfair employment practices. It regards our biases and narrow-mindedness, to some extent at least, as a cause of communal disunity. Simply wanting to sit on the fence is not an option. Nor is peace without social justice. A shared commitment – facing up to bigotry and unscrupulous customs and progressing with the objective of implementing purposeful substitutes – is not only advantageous but a key requirement. As a consequence, the function and strength of education to provide a comprehensive focus on seeking and appraising remedies should be exploited.

Peace amongst nations. Conflicts and hostilities produce so much misery and destruction in their wake with the innocent and uninvolved, time and again, suffering most severely. In war, even those with supposed right on their side have been known to commit terrible atrocities. Education for peace makes it possible for all of us to comprehend more fully the drivers which bring about rifts between states – poverty and unfairness, corporate greed, climate change and so forth. It can empower learners to reflect, not only on their own individual goals, but also on how to make their civilisations and nations safer and happier. It allows them to move on from self-centred considerations to an in-depth understanding of the responsibility which everyone has in building connectedness at a global level.

“I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1959)

Education as a vehicle for creating and reinforcing respect and trust

The exploration and promotion of peaceful co-existence can take place in our educational institutions by utilising a variety of informative approaches. At all phases, care needs to be taken to ensure that the values of harmony and camaraderie are presented in an age-appropriate manner. For nursery children, these could include story-telling, role play, establishing friendship bonds and triggering collaborative behaviours. As pupils move through the stages of primary education, suitable engagement in areas such as reading, art, drama and project work, comprising both bygone and prevailing events, will extend their knowledge and appreciation of choices for resolving needless turbulence in daily living.

Similarly for adolescents, peace might be a topic in its own right in personal, social and health education (PSHE), wellbeing or psychology as well as incorporated into curricular areas. By its nature it might be organised – particularly in the early years of secondary education – as a cross-curricular theme embracing a range of subjects, for instance: English, the arts and historical studies. In literature, both novels and poetry could provide highly illuminating insights about the origins and outcomes of conflicts; in music, prejudice and reconciliation could be investigated via protest ballads and anti-racist songs; in art and design, posters and paintings could demonstrate the horrors of cruelties or the delights of public accord; and in history, students might be asked to examine recent attempts to establish pacts with regard to international disputes or the reasons behind outbreaks of civil unrest in past ages.

As youthful minds try to come to terms with societal divisions, they strive to obtain solutions to bothersome predicaments. Why is there a lack of openness, integrity and humility among leaders and spokespersons of rivalling causes? How do obstinate and untrue perspectives sustain so much mistrust and belligerence across divided sectors in modern-day society? Why is ‘fake news’ a powerful scourge of honesty? Young people (indeed all of us!) need opportunities to confront falsehoods and inflammatory remarks, including those disseminated to support or incite animosity against beleaguered groups. At national and international levels, the manner in which politicians or military commanders make use of jargon, including stigmatisations and superficial slogans, about hostilities is worthy of analysis. Exemplars of this modus operandi can be found in expressions like ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’ when casualties are shown to have been innocent bystanders. Similarly, pupils can pinpoint devious and furtive statements circulated in misleading explanations or excuses which attempt to provide moral justification after horrendous mistakes have occurred.

Appositely-chosen teaching blocks dealing with common issues about collective welfare will connect with learners’ worries and concerns. Programmes of study which are aimed specifically at fostering citizenship or probing parochial controversies can profit greatly if due account is taken of the recurring cultural circumstances which both juveniles and their parents are experiencing. At a time of ethnic unrest in a school’s catchment area, it could be vital to place a robust emphasis on intercultural empathy and respect in order to boost positive relationships among those from differing backgrounds. Teachers can outline scenarios illustrating the value of empathetic interventions in communities and the benefits of peaceful co-existence. While it may be fanciful to expect immediate or all-embracing answers, current matters relating to bias and discrimination within and between neighbourhoods can be addressed tactfully and judiciously resolved. Open-ended discussion is one worthwhile tactic for ascertaining the motives underlying dogmas and ideologies which sponsor or endorse quarrelsome behaviour, radicalisation and terrorism.

“Justice is truth in action.
Benjamin Disraeli (1851)

Hopeful steps forward to joy and goodwill

Proponents of the ‘violence paradox’ contend that levels of warlike hostility have declined over the ages by means of better governance, advances in social equality and respect for human rights. Of course, this is not to deny that more caring and benevolent norms and traditions ought to be strengthened further. Such headway would be welcomed in well-ordered, liberal societies throughout the world. However, history teaches us that – without warning – stability, cooperation and warmth can disappear and should not be taken for granted. There are various helpful methods, at times overlapping, for prompting awareness and incentives towards a deeper perception of altruistic and philanthropic behaviours. Four of these are touched on sketchily in this section.

Problem-solving strategies. These call for students to: analyse alternative outlooks; research aspects of frailty and weakness in our global family; and suggest options which point to improvements. They also pose questions about moral issues concerning prejudice, poverty, malnutrition, torture, and on customs which permit antagonism to thrive. Violence, when contagious, requires urgent solutions. Problem-solving sessions may provide a springboard for ideas to emerge – the likes of ‘safe streets’ initiatives to counteract unprovoked attacks in disorderly quarters or how ‘contact theory’ has been applied, as with sports, in trying to reduce sectarianism. Additionally, developments in new technologies – for example, the use of drones or robots in so-called ‘cutting-edge’ warfare – undoubtedly call for youthful thinkers to adopt fresh approaches with respect to ethical deliberations. In lessons, while taking due account of the abilities and maturity of learners, challenging questions can be raised. ‘What are the powerful forces which promote tension and trouble in our locality?’ ‘How insightful are we be about the attitudes and ill feelings of opposing factions?’ ‘Can we understand how wild conspiracy theories might have arisen?’ ‘What could we do as agents of change to counter deceitfulness and misinformation?’ Pupils are often found to be skilled in identifying barriers to equity, diversity and inclusion and in outlining well-thought-out recommendations to augment a culture of impartiality and truthfulness.

Teamwork. Assignments produced by partnerships examining the nature of peace, aggression and confrontations offer opportunities for youths to whet their investigative talents. There is a multitude of motivational themes and subjects for collaboration with effectual use made of statistical data, documentaries on contemporary interests and records kept in libraries. Attention can be directed as to how best to evaluate political arguments or national concerns. Such chores enable students to think creatively about how remedies can be found and purposeful, evidence-based mediation implemented. One line for scrutiny could aim at verifying how certain occurrences or situations – abuses of civil rights, criminal networks, climate change, trade wars, victimisation because of religious beliefs, etc. – have given rise to conflict and international hostilities. In some cases, coursework might be related to the endeavours of historical figures – Bertha von Suttner (1843 – 1921) who was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, Mahatma Ghandi (1869-1948) and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, or more recent well-known advocates who have resisted brutality and sought concord.

 ‘Slow thinking’/ ‘Slow speech.’ These terms are sometimes used, not to highlight the speed with which reasoning takes place, but rather to stress the need for thoughtfulness and attention to detail, especially in taxing situations. Tranquillity and open-mindfulness allow areas of dispute to be reviewed from the perspectives of diverse sides. Individuals or groups ‘agree to disagree’ while expressing their attitudes honestly. Antagonists consent to remain on speaking terms and to ensure that interactions do not become unfriendly or intimidating. Learning tasks examine why the manner in which people exchange feelings, facts and opinions is of great consequence. Words, jargon and context carry emotive weight as when careless or imprudent remarks, albeit when made in jest, become an unintended cause of discord. In fragile conditions, they easily lead to resentment, indignation or create an excuse for an opponent to justify a breakdown in further dialogue. In contrast, trustworthy undertakings will foster reflection on what attributes might be developed in order to negotiate and treat rivals with proper dignity and integrity. In a calm and serene climate, peace may come ‘dropping slow’.

 Conflict resolution. An added interesting approach has been the deployment of responsive systems which encourage negotiation and reconciliation. Ideally, and very briefly, these methods involve the enhancement of competences in listening, interpreting differences and seeking common ground in a flexible and even-handed manner. Two confronting parties, in turn, have the opportunity to express their views as clearly as possible. After a presentation, the other side then reflects its particular understanding of what has been conveyed. The process can be repeated, with the assistance of a facilitator, to clarify perspectives and sort out misapprehensions. In this way, both units have opportunities to explain their positions and pinpoint the divergences which need further elucidation. Overall aims are to define the benefits of agreement and identify the procedures by which divergences can be settled, or at least accepted, in a harmonious fashion. In discussions, it may be appropriate to refer participants to the function of formal truth and reconciliation commissions in attempting to ensure that restorative deeds and fair-mindedness prevail.

Concluding comments

In general, though they may not always articulate what is of importance to them, children and young people have shared interests in their futures and in how living circumstances can be improved. Through example and meaningful learning, they develop a deeper respect for values associated with kindness, tolerance and supportive interpersonal connections. The study of bridging frayed relationships contributes to investigating and mapping out how everyone – by means of realistic, open and justifiable courses of action – can advance solicitous and compassionate practices. It challenges simply maintaining ‘normality’ (whatever that might mean?) and focuses on enabling humanity to flourish. When fulfilled, its outcomes relate closely to wholesome mental health and wellbeing and are characterised by the endorsement of an authentic dedication to the pursuit of collective happiness.

“Happy those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:10)

Effective and worthwhile schoolwork concerning JUSTICE and PEACE can be summarised as consisting of: Promotion of positive values; Enthusiasm and drive for upgrading friendships and alliances at personal, communal and national levels; Acceptance of evidence-based research regarding what needs to be undertaken; Commitment to delving into how ground-breaking transformations can be accomplished; and Engagement in activities which further inclusiveness and harmony. To be achieved successfully, this agenda presents a complex and demanding set of tasks for educationalists. Hopefully, their endeavours will lead to highly enriching results for learners of all ages; the fruition of their aims is vital for the greater good of communities and civilisations.

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Learning Together – A Radical Approach to Inspections

Chris McIlroy

A big question faced by the recent review of aspects of Scottish education was ‘What kind of education inspection do we need?’ Commentators argue the inspection process should be ‘robust’, ‘independent’, ‘transparent’ and ‘evidence-based’. Its purposes should be to ‘focus on improvement for learners and good practice in teaching’, ‘ensure accountability’, ‘report on standards’ and ‘engage stakeholders’. This is too great a burden for an inspection to carry and some features of these aspirations often can conflict with others. It is intended that the collaborative approach to school inspections advocated in this paper eliminates any undue stress or overwhelming pressures which can be associated with these occasions. Rather, the aim is to focus on how best to enhance the future wellbeing, growth and culture of our schools. It is time for a fresh look at what makes a good inspection and to concentrate on what matters.

‘Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.’ (Benjamin Franklin, 1706 – 1790)

Evaluating, communicating and promoting improvement: are our schools working well?

It is important to children, families, communities and councils that they know that their schools are operating effectively. In modern Scotland, with well qualified teachers who take part in a range of professional learning, we should be able to get to the heart of an educational establishment’s health without an inspection becoming too burdensome or comprehensive. An important indicator that a school is in good health is its track record in improvement. Which aspects are improving and how has that been achieved? Which are in a steady state? Which are stubbornly resisting improvement efforts and why? Moreover, the slow pace of educational improvement is a major issue for Scottish education highlighted in national and international comparisons. Future inspection models should therefore focus much more on evaluating improvement as a gauge of a school’s health and less time on ‘reading the metre’ to describe quality indicators and attainment standards – a major focus in recent years. By building a shared account with teachers of a school’s improvement work, inspectors and teachers will contribute to accountability and respect the professionalism of schools.

Good inspections lead to improvements in the quality of learning and in learners’ achievements. If an inspection does not improve these, it has not been worthwhile. Inspections are expensive in time and emotional energy so they must show their value. Let us be honest, despite the emphasis in recent changes to inspection, not every inspection leads to significant improvements, and promoting improvement still lacks prominence as the core activity of inspection. The best gift an inspection can give is to leave a school with the confidence to improve, feeling inspired and with a clear pathway of ideas to benefit learning and teaching. Inspections that focus on improvement have recurring discussions about the school’s success in making advances and in identifying ways of adjusting procedures where authentic progress is hard to make.

(Aristotle, 384 -322 BC)

Harnessing the powerhouse of professional learning

The powerhouse for improvement in schools is often professional learning. Where teachers reflect on learners’ responses and seek their views, engage in focused observations of their colleagues, try out and evaluate ideas to enrich practice, participate in dialogue and debate, significant improvements occur. How do I know? Since retiring, I have been working with over 300 classroom teachers in Glasgow along with two able leaders in applying these ideas on the ‘Improving Our Classrooms’ course with great results. The implications for inspection are clear – inspections should have a much stronger professional learning emphasis in which teachers and inspectors together discuss features of practice and justify and illustrate their judgements with evidence from the classrooms.

‘The ratio of We’s to I’s is the best indicator of the development of a team.’ (Lewis B. Ergen)

Inspections also are well placed to evaluate generic issues in learning and teaching, curriculum, meeting different needs and assessment which are key to improvements in learners’ understanding and achievement. They are best addressed strategically, keeping to the high ground to avoid drowning in detail. Investigating together issues – such as the pace of learning, challenge and support, feedback on progress in different classes or subjects – is a good test of a school’s teamwork applied in the classroom. The quality of development of skills for learning, work and life in the twenty-first century, including personal and social competences, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, reasoning and understanding is a penetrating indicator of curriculum relevance and worth.

Inspecting together: good professional relationships

Inspections which lead to improvements are often associated with collaborative professional relationships. Close links and rapport matter because inspections involve learning together and tackling hard questions about improvement which include openness, honesty and mutual respect. Where teachers play a full and active part in inspections, they are more likely to understand and ‘own’ ideas for improvement and are keen to make them work: in other words, effective relationships are necessary to facilitate learning together. The combination of good relationships, partnership working and a focus on improvement is modelled in a successful inspection.

Teachers’ experience and knowledge of their school should play a major part in directing improvement. The idea of bringing together those involved in teaching and learning with inspectors who have wider experience of learning and improvement in schools is sound. Yet the way that power is assigned in inspections may make it difficult to achieve professional partnerships. There may be tension, even fear, and an assumption that inspectors are there to demand justification from teachers or that they ‘know the answers’ and their wider experience enables them rather than teachers to make judgements about ‘how good’ things are. Where inspectors recognise the equal but different value of contributions from teachers and themselves to evaluation and improvement, genuine partnerships for advancement can develop.

Supporting educational priorities

Schools and inspections are designed for a purpose: to improve education, communities and society. The needs of society and the context of important national issues in education should influence the response of schools and the shape of inspections. Inspections should conclude, therefore, by evaluating and recording how the school, its community and society are benefiting from its work and how the inspection will add value to its improvement work.

We know that most pupils do well out of Scottish education but the system fails some pupils and the gaps in educational success between more and less affluent families are an enduring social issue which has defied resolution for over 50 years. The recent pandemic has also highlighted the impact of mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing on significant numbers of children and young people. Key issues for discussion towards the end of inspection will therefore include ‘inclusion’ and closing the poverty-related attainment gap. There is a strong case for a later evaluation of the success of the inspection to focus on these issues and for that evaluation to involve two independent evaluators, one from another education authority and a neighbouring headteacher who has been trained in evaluating impact.

Concluding remarks

An inspection model, based on evaluating and professional learning in a collaborative and pragmatic manner, has much to offer with regard to ensuring high levels of improvement within educational provision for children and young people regardless of their ages or stages. It operates through positive, trusting and inclusive principles towards fostering engagement and raising standards among two of society’s most treasured assets – skilled teachers and motivated learners.

‘Progress is not inevitable. It is up to us to create it.’ (Anon)

Footnote: Chris McIlroy was a teacher and headteacher in primary schools in Glasgow and later a Chief Inspector in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education. He also has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Strathclyde and a consultant with many education authorities across Scotland. Among his previous published articles are two relating specifically to inspections:

McIlroy, C. (2013) ‘The Scottish approach to school improvement: achievements and limitations’, in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fourth Edition: Referendum. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McIlroy, C. (2017) ‘The National Improvement Framework and the Return of National Testing’ in T. G. K. Bryce, W. M. Humes, D. Gillies and A. Kennedy (eds), Scottish Education, Fifth Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Accomplishments Education for All Inclusive education Learning

Education Really Matters: The Mental Health of Children and Young Persons

Frank O’Hagan

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” Albert Camus (1913 – 1960)

A real-life scenario (amended to ensure confidentiality)

Assessment, observations and background information of the primary school child clearly indicated that she was experiencing worrying features of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and confusion. During her early years, she had been severely neglected by her natural parents. Some of the treatment to which she had been subjected could be described as akin to torture. As a result, she had been taken into care. Both the child’s new parents and school were perturbed by the scarcity of professional backing available to help them in their endeavours to address her evident distress. Her mother, when interviewed, concluded a moving description of concerns about her adopted daughter’s mental health by saying, ‘We thought that love was all that was needed to put things right. But love is not enough.’ The power of her affectionate, yet despairing, poignant remark has remained with me.

 Things can only get better?

The subject of provision has been and remains a fraught and troubled topic with many issues requiring to be investigated and settled in a satisfactory manner. I hold it to be a scandal that so many young persons are denied crucial direction and left to fend for themselves. A brief sample of pertinent questions would include the following. Has too much emphasis been given to medication at the expense of psychological contributions and care? Can educational inputs bring about significant changes for the better? How far can resources be moved from institutional settings to community-based services? How should society develop effective intervention and rehabilitation strategies across families, schools and communities?

In recent years, there has been considerable criticism of what has been called the ‘medical model’ or ‘disease model’ as having placed excessive concentration on diagnosis followed by associated types of prescriptions. In this conceptual framework, problems pertaining to mental health have tended to be viewed as an illness in search of pharmaceutical remedies. Convincing arguments have been put forward to beware of medical domination at the expense of relevant alternative factors. For instance, there have been serious misgivings about the levels of drug use recommended for childhood depression or disruptive behaviour, especially when not accompanied alongside supportive therapies. In contrast, an ‘individualised psychosocial approach’ would place a sharper alertness on sensitive and nuanced judgments which are more tailored towards meeting personal, emotional and social prerequisites. It suggests that there are dangers in treating mental pain as if it was merely a bodily ailment which can be ‘cured’. Better to listen to what individuals want to convey and to take a holistic stance by focusing on their overall wellbeing and burdens, upbringing and educational attributes, interests and friendships. This latter school of thought also highlights the roles of positive family and community alliances and participation.

Psychosomatic upset can occur in various contexts such as inadequate parenting, physical or sexual abuse, victimisation, racism, substance dependency or other traumatic mishaps. There is little doubt that the force of environmental ills, including deprivation and inequality, can have a devastating impact on welfare and feelings of security. However, the causal effects are not always apparent as individuals might respond differently within similar situations. Nonetheless, regardless of the origins or causes, society ignores the necessities of vulnerable young people at its peril. The outcomes of abandonment pose hazards not only concerning their futures, safety and happiness but also because of long-term communal and economic consequences. The good news is that there appears to be an increasing acceptance of the fact that there has been a lack of attention given to the requisites of children and young persons who are experiencing mental suffering. Their struggles rightly are being considered with disquiet from both national and global perspectives by many commentators.

Understanding, Kindness, Compassion, Action

Promoting good mental health

Education authorities have indispensable duties to undertake in ensuring that schools and colleges are compassionate and empathetic organisations with staff adroit in identifying and assisting students who are living through unresolved or previously hidden anxieties. At the same time, it would be absurd to keep piling additional tasks relating to mental wellbeing into the remits of educationalists without ensuring that there are sufficient means and opportunities for continuing professional development. Adequate funding, training and supervision must be made accessible, particularly for those engaged in pastoral care, in order to acquire effectual skill sets.

Staff are frequently the first to raise their apprehensions about the emotive state or unusual mannerisms of a pupil in turmoil. They can provide an insightful starting point for feedback from parents and external experts in a process of healing and restoring an attitude of belonging. Usually, early intervention is highly desirable as is proficient communication among all those involved, including the young persons and their families. Three common approaches – focusing on counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness respectively – can be effective. Very general descriptions of them are outlined in the appendix. It should be noted that they do not suit everyone and may take different forms when employed in separate settings. Of importance is regarding personal, biological and psychological aspects holistically rather than responding as if these were isolated features. Furthermore, scarcity of resources and delays in referrals underline the value of having community-centred schemes which advance advocacy and teamwork.

Teachers will realise that life in school can give rise to detrimental strains such as unwanted or dishonest demands from peer groups or excessive expectations to achieve high grades in national examinations. Some staff will be highly adept in managing procedures and coordinated processes with respect to individualised safeguarding and child protection. For instance, they can contribute to assessing risks, keeping records and formulating oversight of clearly stated objectives. However, without extra collaboration from external agencies, there often will be no irrefutable guarantee that their efforts will lead to fitting and faultless courses of action.  

Making educational inputs more beneficial? 

It is a given that education’s role is to provide stepping stones towards establishing and maintaining learners’ esteem and dignity – and certainly not to contribute in any way towards erecting potential stumbling blocks. Many elements of a school’s curriculum offer useful platforms to investigate ways in which the societal stigma associated with mental health might be reduced. Relevant inputs enable pupils to come up with ideas about how to extend empathy and tolerance in both school and the wider community. Topics on personal, social and health education can convey clarification and guidelines on how to manage difficulties pertaining to anxiety, tension, hostility and hurt.

Engagement in activities dealing with composure, competences and decision-making all have a place in strengthening emotional buoyancy. Together, inspirational teaching and authentic learning advocate and promote: satisfying lifestyles; sensible eating habits; staying fit; self-compassion; affirmative relationships; connectedness within society; and skills in obtaining necessary support. Age-appropriate projects – for instance, on healthy routines, citizenship, relaxation exercises or confidence-building – also present those in need with opportunities to come to terms with particular dilemmas which might perturb them. Membership in sports, art, dance and other interest groups during recreational periods can do much to foster mutual understanding, empower resilience and endorse a sense of camaraderie. Well-delivered lessons, discussion sessions and contributions from visiting specialists offer diverse outlooks and challenges to enhance self-worth and to boost fortitude during times of stress.

There have been snags with the introduction and continuity of contemporary forms of assistance as teenagers grow older, move on from school and enter adulthood. These too ought to be highlighted and settled. Designated teachers with responsibilities for informing adolescents of services which are available for care and back-up after leaving formal education are essential. One conceivably vulnerable cluster of youths running the risk of experiencing long-term behavioural problems or mental health discomforts are those not in education, employment or training (a recommendation – let’s render the unfortunate acronym of ‘NEET’ obsolete). Productive routes for action including work placements and follow-up programmes to evaluate progress are required. Without a comprehensive strategy, an unacceptably high cohort of young adults with budding abilities and talents could be marginalised. 

Depending on circumstances, traumatic incidents – such as a tragic event in a learning community or its catchment area – may have an enduring impact on an individual or a peer group. An important factor is how well key staff respond with sympathy and proficiency in their tactics when dealing with such challenges. Can they discern the ordeal and its level of pain as perceived by students? Probe, and if apposite, share views and enable them to detect possible solutions? On occasions, from a very testing and tense state of affairs, both learners and staff can discover personal capacities and inner strengths of which they previously had been unaware. 

Getting by with a little help from our friends?

All forms of curative or restorative endeavours profit from sensitivity, kindness, flexibility and, critically, an attentiveness to the prospective risk of adverse effects. Skilled practitioners are well placed to cooperate with staff in schools, for example by introducing tried and tested counselling methods with teenagers. What frequently has been missing is consistent, joined-up partnerships across strategic groupings – including teachers, social workers, police, psychologists and psychiatrists – involved in the general guardianship of those exhibiting onerous quandaries. Institutional rigidity is a perilous occurrence.  So often, in official reports on breakdowns regarding the proper protection of vulnerable children, the lack of adequate communication is cited as one of the reasons for failures. Conversely, the stimulus of effective solidarity can result in advancing shared goals, reducing complex and bureaucratic protocols, and extending best practices.

Through responsive styles in tackling the challenges encompassing an individual’s or a family’s pressures and predicaments, combined support teams can reach a speedy consensus on planning and in delivering beneficial advice and direction. Ideally, they will operate through evidence-based policies, deal with links between physical and mental health, and be in a position to restructure provision to match identified requirements. In this process, a well-placed teacher may have the principal tasks of closely monitoring variations such as behavioural improvements during the school day and of reporting back on progress. If additional supervision is necessary, nominated personnel can take steps to ensure that they are ready and willing to unite forces with those who appreciate their expertise. All have to be aware of who is acting as ‘lead coordinator’ and of the implications of shouldering collective responsibilities.

” … the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -” Franklin D Roosevelt (1882 – 1945)

Reasons to be cheerful?

Unfortunately, there is no ‘magic bullet’ or straightforward Holy Grail to pursue when responding with thoroughness and commitment to all those children and adolescents who are encountering difficulties in connection with mental health. As suggested earlier, it would be a mistake to regard their setbacks as simply an illness; their everyday environments and debilitating lived experiences also must be taken into account. Nevertheless, a central aim of this article has been to indicate that much can be achieved by dedicated staff in learning communities. Effective therapeutic networks will help to lessen inflated demands to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ troublesome situations through untested or unavailable interventions. Constructive contributions offering hopeful pathways can bring about life-enhancing changes. These include:

  • building and augmenting ‘can do’ mindsets through providing a positive and optimistic interwoven mix of an empathetic learning ethos, effective pastoral care and well-judged tasks and leisure activities
  • avoiding fads and concentrating on reliable and advantageous tactics which cultivate and refuel confidence, decision-making and self-worth
  • celebrating both small and significant steps forward, particularly when young persons are going through periods of discomfort and darkness
  • arranging successful involvement and events in conjunction with external organisations – health practitioners, sports clubs, charities, voluntary societies, and so forth – to ensure suitable ongoing assistance at weekends and during holidays.

Concluding comments

So, was that young caring mother correct when she implied that love was not enough? Love is certainly of immense value but its impact can be greatly enriched when parents are aided by schools and appropriate professionals. Medication can be worthwhile but undoubtedly more reinforcement is needed to: help distraught youths to accept and understand their noticeable or hidden hardships; attend to the disturbing conditions in which they find themselves; enable them to overcome undesirable or injurious habits; participate profitably in relevant therapies; and reach a secure position where traumas, substance dependency or intra-personal conflicts can be dealt with successfully. Schools, along with families and external agencies, can and do commit themselves to embarking on productive efforts within the overall process of making life more tolerable and affirming. There are trustworthy and genuine strengths in the collaborative endeavours of united and altruistic teamwork. Often this ’collective love’ is what is really essential.

Positive thoughts help create positive lifestyles.

Appendix: Very brief summaries of three common supportive approaches worthy of further investigation and consideration

There are many forms of therapeutic interventions. In practice, distinct variations occur within and between them so different descriptions and styles exist. Care and training are strongly recommended in order to implement them competently and successfully. However, at times, it is advisable for individuals not to take part.

Counselling is sometimes described as a ‘talking therapy’ although I prefer to deem it to be a ‘listening and talking’ one. It is a dynamic, two-way interaction which is liable to suffer if both aspects are not functioning effectively. Young persons usually benefit from encouragement to be at ease, open up and join meaningfully in these sessions. When they do, they can develop a deep relationship and trust with their counsellor. Well-targeted use of questions may be employed to enable obstacles to be clearly expressed. Through welcoming the opportunity to discuss and examine their own personal dilemmas and distress, individually or in groups, participants can seek and hopefully find their own ways forward. Depending on the circumstances and the wishes of the young persons, this work can be undertaken in school or other locations.

Cognitive behaviour therapy is an umbrella term for a range of therapeutic methods which, as the term implies, focus on improving specific features of an individual’s processes of cognition and unsolicited behavioural impulses or outcomes.  Proponents contend that mental health problems, while being linked with set patterns of behaviour, are also influenced by emotional and cognitive factors. In general, they aim to clearly address difficulties arising from habituated and conditioned behaviours and spurious thoughts, ideas, moods and feelings. Their action-based practices are widely used to assist those experiencing a variety of psychological matters such as panic, suppressed anger, depression and eating disorders. Success can be achieved though challenging negative beliefs and enhancing positive thinking.

Mindfulness has much in common with Buddhist and meditational practices. It is associated with the development and cultivation of a person’s or group’s active, continuous, open and non-judgemental awareness. This state of mind is maintained and ‘flows’ from moment to moment as if in an ocean of peacefulness and contemplation. Attention is given to techniques relating to breathing, inner consciousness and relaxation. Advocates of this approach stress its usefulness in amplifying wellbeing and in alleviating various personal hindrances such as anxiety and constant worry. Both relevant guidance and extended, well-directed practices are recommended to reap the full advantages of its usage.

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Inclusive education

Education Really Matters: Social Deprivation and Education

Frank O’Hagan

How far have we progressed?

There is a painting in The Louvre in Paris entitled ‘The Clubfoot’ (also known as ‘The Club-footed Boy’) by Jose de Ribera who is renowned for his depictions of the human condition. It is a portrait of a vulnerable youth and conveys stark observations on both hardship and physical disability. There are differing interpretations concerning this magnificent and moving painting. These range from the view that it expresses dignity and defiance under duress to the opinion that it is a bitter comment on the degeneration of dutifulness and care. For my part, I think that both of these positions are credible and can be reconciled. Neediness gives rise to people displaying distinct features of perseverance and personal worth but also of melancholy and desolation.

Although De Ribera’s painting dates from over 300 years ago, to a large extent it reflects issues and conundrums relating to prevailing attitudes on destitution and misfortune among the underprivileged. It might be felt that we have advanced far as a society and that such adversities are now under control. While it is true that there have been many changes for the better, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that numerous challenges remain. Is it right to feel annoyed at the present state of educational provision for children who are deprived? How can we respond to and build on the capabilities and resilience of juveniles with significant needs?

Addressing poverty and marginalisation

A common misunderstanding is to equate communal affliction simply with financial deficiencies. Deprivation has many guises. It is a complex and intractable phenomenon which also covers affairs dealing with health and welfare, parenting, housing, infrastructure, urban and rural dysfunction, inadequate schooling and unemployment. Ironically, policymakers are generally aware of what should be undertaken to rectify recognised concerns. Mere tokenism occurring in officialdom ought to be treated as unacceptable.

All learners, regardless of age, require to: be well nourished; live in reasonably healthy and safe environments; be able to obtain essential services without major inconveniences; and be actively engaged in educational or training programmes which are aimed at enriching individual circumstances. Breakdowns pertaining to any these factors can result in distress coupled with a sense of hopelessness and, on occasions, of annoyance and anger. Education is a critical route in the direction of amending matters. The burden of responsibility also reaches across a wider spectrum of local and national administrative services.

Recent research and media outlets frequently refer to ‘hard to reach’ families and suggestions are offered on ways in which helpful dialogue can be initiated on their behalf. Though the term ‘hard to reach’ is usually well intended, it can sound rather patronising or even act as a label. If professionals are to use it, then the converse must be conceded: that they themselves also can be difficult to contact as far as needy people living in stressful situations are concerned. It is a two-way problem. One does not have to look too far to find a deep-seated lack of trust regarding specialist practices within disadvantaged groups. Care has to be taken to avoid inadvertently creating or reinforcing a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Empathic responsiveness is imperative in ensuring that interventions are not perceived as holier-than-thou interferences.

Actions speak louder than words

It is too easy for the ‘haves’ to reproach the ‘have-nots’ as being lazy and short-sighted. The tendency of some is to assume that the fault exclusively lies with those who are suffering from impoverishment. For those in a privileged position, it is plain sailing to worry less as to the present and to be able to concentrate on long-term planning, for example, in saving for fees to cover the cost of their children’s future education. In contrast, when tackling the ubiquity of poverty, zealous educationalists aim to fix attention on social solidarity and the transformation of ill-fated, lived experiences. They take relevant account of contextual factors and never ignore the tribulations created by environmental tensions. They are fully aware of why their students are distracted by the makeshift and changeable conditions which they have to endure.

So, how can a rich and plentiful – but divided – society accurately take cognisance of and operationally counteract the impact of penury on educational opportunities and achievements? To initiate steps forward, there has to be a sincere political judgement of the hurdles being encountered. Approaches to overcoming barriers in pragmatic and realistic ways require to be both gimmick-free and, as far as possible, evidence-based. Some leaders in education have been going on about ‘closing the gap’ for a considerable time now, sometimes merely with the purpose of aiming ridicule at their opponents. Rather than empty words, no matter how heartfelt they are meant to sound, we need positive and efficient action.

Beware of the myths which surround the new paternalism of ‘up-levelling’. For a start, legislators cannot accomplish any substantial progress without the backing of low-income families, communities, schools and voluntary agencies. Available channels towards obtaining the most suitable kinds of resources and assistance are very limited in times of austerity resulting in a lack of sustainable livelihoods and cut-backs to public services. What is more, there is no single pathway which can overcome all the complications posed by societal ordeals. Without taking proper evaluation of, and responding positively to, the variations across the characteristics of young persons and their circumstances, schedules for improvements will falter.  

Key strategies for development and implementation

The cost of carrying out policies and projects is always an important factor. Additionally, their operation must focus on how to establish and maintain a high standard. Otherwise, devolved finances can be wasted on a valid idea which has been poorly executed. Nonetheless, various options are promising with the following eight proposals being offered for deliberation. Space only permits a very general outline of their content and functions.

1. Early identification and support. When experiencing restrictiveness due to existing in a state of paucity, it is little wonder that parents and guardians have much to deal with – for starters, managing to pay for food, rent and energy bills. As a result, infants can unwittingly receive insufficient attention or even suffer from neglect. All phases of human development are important and, given appropriate intervention, the previous negative effects of privation can be overcome. Inclusion, engagement and enjoyment are pertinent driving forces on the road to success. A nation’s focus must always be on the right of every individual to have the best possible start in life.

The ‘flexible’ mind is sustained by life-affirming opportunities to grow, develop and flourish. In particular, the pre-school years have been highlighted as a key period to help those from underprivileged backgrounds. It is a stage when both free play and organised activities can evoke interest and provide motivation to acquire autonomy, emotional suppleness, creativity and competences. It is also a time when fathers and mothers (a caution: the role of ‘fathering’ must not be side-lined) regularly need updates and are willing to discover more on positive nurturing skills. For many of their children, encouragement in ‘learning how to learn’ will be decidedly gainful while in pre-school provision and beyond.

2. Promoting resilience within family units and communities. The impact of want and malnutrition varies among youths and the influences of parental upbringing are complex. Collaborating with and empowering all residing in impoverished districts are essential. The bolstering of beneficial features – shelter, safeguarding, and compassionate care – can do much to strengthen youngsters in surmounting daily obstacles. Involvement in well-suited programmes should aim at breaking intergenerational cycles in respect of marginalisation, low expectations and academic failure.

Partnerships will be welcomed in connection with the overall enhancement of domestic life and in suggesting out-of-school pursuits, for example, adults and adolescents together profiting from advice on financial management covering topics on budgeting, welfare payments and the avoidance of debt. Unlocking concealed talents and indicating routes out of the entrapment of destitution must remain unwavering aims among all civic commitments.

3. Extending additional educational support. Schools under pressure warrant the means to ensure that they are not receptacles for passive acceptance of failures or shortcomings caused by administrative systems. If anything, it is fitting that they are sustained in a position of having even higher than normal expectations on behalf of their pupils. In the media, there are often tactless references to ‘failing schools’ and, over and over again, these appear to be serving poorer catchment areas. Educational establishments which have to meet with the demands posed by harsh economic conditions merit extra funds and should not be evaluated by the same academic criteria as others situated in more well-to-do locations. They have a claim on planned compensation as regards the allocation of teaching specialists to aid anyone encountering substantial difficulties and designated assistants to promote inclusive practices. The expansion of trained staff for literacy, mathematics and personal, social and health education in primary schools – and also in selected subjects in the secondary sector – should always be kept under review. Above all, it is valuable for the power of education be let loose to counteract misfortune by enabling learners to identify their troubles and, in time, to overcome them through gaining the knowledge and skills necessary to augment their wellbeing. The young have dreams and aspirations which deserve to be recognised and fully endorsed.

4. Developing communal integration and participation. There is a strong case for establishing more efficient and coherent services across health, education, social work departments and voluntary groups. Interventions aimed at alleviating disadvantage are obliged to be dynamic and multi-faceted in providing solutions across an extensive range of predicaments. Unfortunately, collaboration among agencies to develop and enrich distressed zones can be fragmented and time-limited. If information and directives are not competently distributed and understood in neighbourhoods, many may fail to know how best to become meaningfully involved. Perseverance, openness and transparency are indispensable ingredients for the implementation of constructive methods when engaging households in the process of improving the quality of everyday lives.

5. Effective use of public assets. The affluent and well-informed do make first-rate use of accessible municipal assets to supplement their children’s overall educational erudition. However, it would be expedient if there were more openings for everyone living in rundown localities to have better contact with these amenities and to benefit from them in genuinely purposeful ways. In general, insufficient use is made of the nation’s stock of regional resources to advance their chances for stimulating out-of-school learning. Museums, art galleries, libraries having computer-based facilities to counter ‘digital poverty’, historic monuments, science centres, sports programmes, apprenticeship courses, coaching schemes and the like can all be put to good use in reinforcing the drive and enthusiasm to succeed.

6. Utilising the expertise of altruistic volunteers. Another initiative aimed at narrowing the gaps in enterprise and scholarship is the deployment of unpaid helpers, including retired professionals, as mentors or advisers to interact constructively with young people. Thoughtful scrutiny is necessary to recruit from a wide variety of current or previous occupations and to select those who have the proficiencies which can inspire and transform lives. There are many conceivable inputs which committed citizens could contribute: tutoring to upgrade accomplishments in literacy, numeracy and technology; revising lessons during evening sessions; offering guidance on job interviews, employability skills and careers; preparing students for formal examinations in specific subjects; assisting with applications for tertiary education and the world of work; and so forth.

7. Increasing admissions to tertiary forms of education and training. The inhabitants of economically deprived surroundings require greater admittance into tertiary forms of education across colleges, universities, formal vocational courses, and industrial placements. For instance, it is well documented that places in universities for school leavers from the poorest districts remain stubbornly low despite much hullabaloo about this scandalous issue. More radical measures for estimating aptitude and academic ability are urgently needed. These could include better use of holistic assessment processes organised by universities and the commercial sector to gauge hidden flair and talents.  Instead of allowing a slide towards any lowering of standards – a topic which has been raised by some businesses – valid, alternative procedures for determining authentic potential in identifiable areas of instruction and study should be instigated. Of particular disquiet is the danger of teenagers not embarking on the most appropriate courses for entry into future, gainful livelihoods.  

8. Evaluation and accountability in the application of policies. As implied earlier, policy decisions and initiatives ought to have built into them a formal outline of data and predictions concerning the ‘socio-economic duty’ of the official bodies which hold the purse strings. These should include clearly stated targets and measures of what will be achieved with reference to the promotion of collective equality and the enhancement of occupational prospects. As plans are put into operation, they will entail impartial appraisal to ascertain how effectual they are in relation to what they set out to complete. Transparency and the addressing of unpalatable facts are fundamental in bringing forward essential improvements. Everybody has the right to be kept up-to-date on whether undertakings have matched expectations or fallen short of declared objectives.

Concluding remarks – or will we be fooled again? Further action research to identify the most proficient means of delivering and supplementing evidence-based methods would be advantageous. It is crucial to determine what combinations operate best and in what circumstances. It could be argued that all, or almost all, of the eight discussed strategies have been around for some time in one form or another with various levels of realisation. What have been missing are comprehensive, integrated and enduring forms of engagement which effectively eliminate the prerequisites of deprivation in different settings. We owe it to today’s pupils to ensure that promised solutions are fully executed and that they are not misled as were the generations which have gone before them.

How would the youth in Jose de Ribera’s portrait feel about the progress which has been made since his days as a street urchin? While, in general, being pleased with societal and educational developments, he may wonder why they have not been more successful. He may think that as long as there are dog-eat-dog economies – whether capitalist or communist – the poor and dispossessed will always be present. Nevertheless, I am sure that he would call for educational programmes and reforms which place a stronger emphasis on everyone’s worth, efficacy and dignity. He also might wish to highlight the prospective benefits in terms of wellbeing, happiness and economic advancement within a more unified and contented world.

Footnote: Other relevant articles in this series cover: quality in the curriculum; inspirational teachers; the promotion of authentic learning; potential, attainments and achievements; and diversity, equity and inclusion. For some links, please see below at “Related”.

 (Dr Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)

Accomplishments Education for All Educational development Learning Teaching skills

Education Really Matters: Raising Potential, Attainments and Achievements

Frank O’Hagan

Crisis? What crisis?

Criticism has been made that the term ‘attainment’ often is used and interpreted in too narrow a fashion. This view suggests that it is construed as applying primarily to measurements arising from formal assessments in traditional curriculum areas as language and literature, mathematics, social subjects and the sciences. There is no suggestion that these subjects are unimportant; simply that, if and when they are over-emphasised at the expense of other key constituents in education, evaluations made on the competence of many learners may be misjudged or undervalued. For these reasons, all-embracing phrases such as ‘potential, attainments and achievements’ have come to be regarded as more appropriate by many educationalists. 

Some media outlets seem to take to an open delight in distributing news about falling standards and highlight what they perceive to be a general decline in the overall accomplishments of young people. Given the manner in which various assertions are made, they may well reflect a lowering in the quality of research and reporting among sections of newspapers and social networks. To justify the claim of deterioration in any subject, it has to be convincingly established that the current position is being compared with an equivalent benchmark using relevant criteria. Instead of conjecture and speculation, unambiguous and valid verification has to be presented to the public. Too frequently, damning comparisons fail to convince. However, despite their usage and analysis regularly being highly misleading, there is a positive aspect to data on results being so eagerly awaited and cited in the press and internet. It is that appraisals of students’ abilities and talents are clearly matters of repeated concern and worthy of further investigation.

There numerous reasons as to why contrasting measures of the past with those of the present are extremely hard to substantiate. They cover:

  • using flawed or differing sampling techniques;
  • the adjusting and modifying of methods of assessment over a period of time;
  • altering and amending the contents which are taught in a particular subject making it nigh impossible to compare like with like; and
  • the evolving demands from commercial businesses concerning modern skills-based training as witnessed in science, computing, technology and engineering.

Contemporary industrial societies expect leavers from schools, colleges and universities to possess a range of knowledge and expertise which is dissimilar to that of previous generations. Of course, these observations do not assert that current achievements are as elevated as they could or should be; only that references to discrete cohorts can so easily be unreliable or invalid. There is a crisis but it is a continuing challenge which is twofold in nature, namely that: (1) the urgent requirement for more inclusive and effective improvements in educational provision is forever with us; and (2) standards have never been deemed by politicians or the public to be at sufficiently high levels.

Fake news, league tables and misuses of statistics

Areas of disquiet are publications and ensuing disagreements which arise with regard to ‘league tables’, based on published results for educational establishments. At times, these procedures can amount to heralding a series of nationwide humiliations! Once again, there are many occasions when scrutiny and analyses ought to be undertaken in a more cautious, honest and professional fashion. On closer inspection, judgements sometimes have to be treated with suspicion or simply not be given credibility. Educational statistics are an illusion if they do not take full account of social and environmental factors influencing school populations.

Inappropriate conclusions can be drawn when, for example, differences and contrasts are made of results from comprehensive schools with other institutes which rigorously select their pupils. The use of statistics to highlight the so-called benefits and merits of selective and private schools or, for that matter, ‘elitist’ state schools can be downright dishonest. Such schools are generally associated with high academic results. Nonetheless, a breakdown of the data can demonstrate that in fact a so-called higher achieving school should be doing much better when other features, for instance deprivation rates, are taken into the reckoning. Moreover, some schools serving impoverished neighbourhoods are succeeding remarkably well, given the tasks which they are expected to undertake and the resources available to them.

Another case in point relates to conditions concerning the organisation of national examinations. It has been well known for many years that local authorities and schools vary in the percentages of their pupils who have special arrangements in place when they sit tests. Schools serving more affluent localities and private schools are in a favourable position to make use of assessments to identify pupils experiencing dyslexic conditions or other additional support needs. Consequently, the pupils may well have extra time allotted to them in exams and/or scribes to help with writing. How then can these schools be evaluated fairly against those in more deprived areas where pupils with similar difficulties have been less likely to have had comparable support and assistance? Some divergences are so extreme that the comparisons make little sense due to the advantages gained by the more privileged pupils.

 ‘Closing the gap’

In recent years a great deal of political debate has been concerned with what is commonly referred to as ‘closing the gap’. Issues on this important matter are generally considered and conveyed in terms of academic subjects rather than the much wider range of capabilities and personal qualities required in daily living and employment. A recurring mistake by policy-makers and the media has been to deliver their announcements as if there is only a singular gap. In the real world, within different social groupings in urban and rural communities, there are multiple inequalities in prospects for intellectual growth, academic qualifications and training options. A restricted focus on the outcomes of formal appraisals presents both a handicap and a disservice to learners. Moreover, it curtails a central aim of education, namely, to develop and establish a truly unbiassed, flourishing and mature society.

An institutionalised, rigged system exists and must be unravelled and reconstructed. If the powers that be are serious about closing gulfs and expanding opportunities, they can start by ending child poverty which is continually at scandalous levels. How can impoverished families focus on future advancement in the here and now of a ‘postal lottery’ when they are struggling to survive?

Addressing various disparities, while raising standards, will give rise to a host of predicaments which demand a sequence of appropriate, evidence-based interventions. After careful deliberation on the circumstances and specific drawbacks existing within schools and their locations has been undertaken, suitable resources need to be supplied and well-targeted strategies implemented. If weaknesses are to be fully remedied, attention has to be given to the needs of all learners which implies that ‘within-school’ fissures also have to disappear. After all, neglect of even a small number of learners creates an unwelcome gap. Efficient and connected approaches, along with the on-going belief and commitment of staff and students that ‘together we can do it’ are crucial in advancing towards increased success rates. Levels of quality across the curriculum can be raised but, like many other desirable purposes, collective endeavour and willpower are essential.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Educators from nursery to university have a sense of duty and resolve to promote long-lasting satisfaction and happiness within learning processes. A continuous prominence on the love of learning and on fulfilment through personal progress provides a firm foundation on which norms and outcomes can be upgraded. When students experience sensations of immersion and total involvement in learning, sometimes referred to as ‘flow’ by advocates, they are enabled to map out pathways for steady improvement and to constantly add to the sum total of what they have already accomplished. Nonetheless, at times, there may be too much stress on positivity. Hopes, alas, are not synonymous with dreams; optimism and high expectations need to be balanced alongside pragmatism and moderation. Pupils usually are aware that it is best for them to be well prepared for arduous times and unexpected circumstances. They realise that it is advisable to give some consideration to possible outcomes which might not be as good as previously had been anticipated and that, if this turns out to be the case, to remain composed and geared up to forge ahead.   

The impetus for advancement in knowledge and applied skills can be found in some key ingredients which are already present in current practices. These include students: feeling confident and well supported; being sufficiently involved and challenged, but not overwhelmed, in their studies; and having a genuine belief in the usefulness of selected curricular activities. Involving them in regular, sensitive and insightful checking of their endeavours and contributions is one proven means of fostering success. Passing on greater responsibility to self-evaluate and monitor progress is an integral component of a thriving learning environment. Effective ways of doing so take account of: (1) constantly enabling students to participate in making  decisions on their individualised targets; (2) ensuring that they are well acquainted with the goals which, with sufficient effort, they can realistically achieve; (3) establishing confidential feedback mechanisms, including the use of up-to-date technologies, which are easily accessible to them, their parents and guardians; and (4) encouraging them to draft and analyse a model curriculum vitae and then to decide on what curricular route they need to follow towards fulfilling their well-grounded aspirations.

Towards an agenda for improvement

Most would agree that governments should strive to adopt and implement improvement policies which endorse a desire to learn, the expansion of skills, creative thinking, and open and flexible mindsets from infancy to old age. The promotion of an abiding and authentic culture bestows real benefits regarding human capital, prosperity, health and wellbeing. 

Prerequisites change considerably as learners grow older and move along distinct steps from nursery through primary and secondary schooling to vocational programmes, college or university and beyond. Moreover, prospects associated with further tutoring and professional enrichment for workers and adult students have to figure in any far-reaching innovations. The quality of recording evidence of progress is important all the way through these inter-linked phases and is critical in the embellishment of existing capabilities and proficiencies.

During the infant, primary and early secondary years, children generally experience broad play and/or learning programmes and often work on integrated topics which cover a variety of subjects; there is a tendency to concentrate on developing their knowledge and understanding across curricular areas. Towards the end of secondary education, they can begin to focus on and specialise in specific subjects of interest. For those who wish to undertake commercial or industrial training, while the value of some traditional skills and trades has diminished, new avenues have become accessible. At college and university, openings to follow distinctive routes abound. Through all these stages, objectives will be reached if learners are given worthwhile opportunities to take advantage of the serendipitous breaks and options which come their way. At the same time, society needs to acknowledge the folly of excessive usage of computational schemes when assessing individuals. There is an urgent necessity for better methodologies to be initiated through applying a greater significance to more eclectic and value-based approaches.

The ‘measurement agenda’, when it dominates the comments and observations of evaluators, limits perspectives and fails to place a spotlight on the numerous hidden but valuable abilities and attributes of many young people. Alternative recording routines for transitional phases need to be introduced to provide more accurate and holistic profiles. As indicated earlier, an over-emphasis on quantitative analysis risks accentuating unnecessary competitive attitudes and dubious, judgemental conclusions. They also have a propensity to nudge some examination boards towards resembling number-crunching accountancy firms using dodgy data and superficial algorithms. Additionally, education authorities must continue to beware of suspect inter-school comparisons and their deleterious effects, particularly if based on unfair suppositions. Crucially, teaching staff deserve to have a more direct say and responsibility in relation to the content of courses of study and on the types of qualifications and post-school destinations which are most meaningful to their students.

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The following quotation which often is attributed (though probably incorrectly) to Albert Einstein seems apposite when discussing quantitative and qualitative assessment procedures. ‘Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.’

Learning communities together with their students must remain at the centre of all deliberations. Educators are fully aware that, in addition to reflecting on how well their educational establishments are functioning, it is imperative never to ignore the abilities, aptitudes and development of every student. Each one has the capability to move forward and it is the accumulation of individual endowments which generate overall performance. (In fact, simply encouraging pupils from more deprived environments to turn up for examinations has been found to boost the degree to which a secondary school has progressed!)

A clear benefit of targeted support and guidance for learners from diverse social backgrounds is that, as participants, they can profit through becoming more engaged, responsive and forthcoming. Attempts to upgrade benchmarks must include all concerned, including young persons who appear disenchanted and/or rebellious. They may feel that there is little possibility of them fitting in with any kind of ‘culture of excellence’ – whatever that might mean to them. Fairness and inclusiveness demand that a thorough account is taken of the feats of those experiencing difficulties relating to physical or mental health. Acceptance of, and commitment to embrace, those who are profoundly neglected or in need of assistance will greatly enrich society as a whole. Everyone matters!  

Concluding remarks

Undoubtedly, the prospects for learners, regardless of social background, can be enhanced in many ways. A key factor is to ensure that there are first-rate chances for both young and old to have authentic ownership of and control over their futures. We only have to note the remarkable transformation which has occurred due to greater female emancipation and the subsequent entitlement to studies from which girls and women were previously barred.

The following points are worthy of further enquiry when the topic of potential, attainments and achievements are discussed:

  • accomplishments and successes are about much more than results in tests; there should always be appropriate consideration given to other relevant factors such as aptitudes, interpersonal skills, giftedness, practical know-how and participation in sporting and cultural activities
  • thoughtful analysis and scrutiny must be assigned to the use and reporting of statistics, especially when the outcomes seem to be sensationalist or melodramatic; in particular, caution is necessary when contrasting current learners with those of previous generations or when one educational establishment is compared with another
  • there are many reasons to be optimistic as to how advances can be taken forward so long as inspiring programmes of study and suitable resources are made available to enable all learners to follow their aspirations and augment their talents
  • the recognition and celebration of potential, attainments and achievements, when coupled with efficient independent governance by a national agency, are extremely significant and advantageous not only for individuals but also for families, local communities and a state’s cultural and economic growth.
Everyone can be a winner!

(Frank O’Hagan previously was the Adviser of Studies to Bachelor of Education students at the University of Strathclyde. Later, he was a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education.)