'The secret to the success of my school? Laughing, laughing, laughing'

2nd December 2015 at 10:59
picture of smiley face
Why have so many teachers been allowed to forget that encouraging our students to love school is a key part of our mission, asks one headteacher

Recently, we were visited by a group of teachers looking at moving their school from good to outstanding. My staff and I were asked many varied and diverse questions. One stood out, however: "What do you think was the most strategically important decision you took that helped you make the step up?" 

My answer didn't come straight away, but then I woke up one morning with a smile on my face and it hit me: as a school we laugh a lot and encourage children to do so, too.

If we wander back to our childhood, what do we remember? We certainly remember traumatic events, but also, just as clear-cut, are the funny ones. This idea intrigues me as my school has always been a place to smile, to laugh and giggle – but also a place where we work hard. 

I wondered if any research had been conducted on laughter in the school environment. Not a lot in the UK, I found, but in America it would appear they recognise how necessary humour is for the creation of well-rounded establishments and individuals. One thesis talked of the contagious nature of humour and how it develops a sense of community by lowering defences and bringing people together.

In many areas in our society we recognise this as essential, but I visit too many schools that are oppressive places, with assemblies devoid of any spark, few close relationships and not a smile to be seen. 

It is time to bring humour and laughter back to our schools. 

'School is meant to be fun'

This approach runs through the very essence of my school. Both staff and children see it as a vital part of each and every day. And it brings other benefits. It activates our sense of wonder, it relieves underlying stress, it encourages an atmosphere of openness, and it improves teacher retention and develops divergent thinking. 

Neuroscience research reveals that humour systematically activates the release of dopamine in the brain and is linked to goal-orientated motivation and long-term memory.

Enough of the facts – let's look at the reality of our work environments. We all hopefully try our best to ensure every individual reaches their potential. Does this need to be in a regime of oppression? Certainly many of our children experience enough of this in their everyday lives. We can do something about it. 

Visitors to my school all join in the fun. They have no choice, no matter who they are. Even Ofsted teams have joined in (well nearly always) and I have even asked one inspector to marry me during an inspection. My children see this as part of school life, and why shouldn't they? School is meant to be fun. 

Over time too many in education have forgotten this. We forget our core purpose is, and always will be, to get our pupils to want to be at school and to want to succeed.

This enjoyment of both life and school can be contagious. Our local authority inspector actually smiled the year before last, although not many saw him do so. Our staff treasure the time they have in this job. Our school community shares and benefits from this ethos and the sound of laughter resonates both inside and outside the school building. In fact our parents love it the most. 

As we approach the time for New Year's resolutions may I offer one to all heads and teachers: let's make 2016 a better one by smiling more and making our pupils do the same.

Colin Harris is headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Havant, Hampshire

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