'Schools don't understand behaviour or what "success" should really mean'

The head of a pupil referral unit says his Christmas wish is for a better school system that understands behaviour and what success at school should mean

News article image

I really like my job as the headteacher of a pupil referral unit, but sometimes the magnitude of it hits home. Christmas can be particularly hard when it comes to behaviour.

Three of our pupils are on the verge of homelessness this week. With few resources to take care of themselves and nowhere safe to go, a punched wall or a broken chair might be the way a child tells us just how scared they are feeling about their possible time alone over the holidays.  

Couple homelessness with family breakdown, with drug addiction (to numb the pain), paranoia, death and loss of primary carers and often a seriously shame-based identity leading to a sense of worthlessness and that the good stuff just isn't for them – well, life is hard sometimes in our school. 

But we plan for joy here at Christmas, nonetheless. Feasts, parties and fun. Presents, well wishes and promises we will still be here in January. We hold hope for people where sometimes children and families feel there is none. When others have stepped away because the behaviour of these students - communicating deep rage, shame and despair  - is too much to bear, deemed as delinquent, intolerable and hard to manage – we remain.

We hope to help all begin to make better choices. But what if those not so good choices are the choices that have kept these students alive for the past 15 years? What if trusting again leads to even more pain and suffering?

What a dilemma our pupils have. How hard it is to see the world and relationships differently. How do they even dare to trust again?

Complicated lives

As I write, I worry for those children who know that, before they takes the summer exams, they will likely experience trauma. I'm sure this will muscle its way in and affect their capacity to think and perform, despite their attempts to pretend it has not happened.  

Often, our pupils don't leave us with a bucket load of qualifications from the Progress 8 list. Some do.

Most of our pupils go on to further education employment and training. Some don't. Some go to prison. Some have families early. Some die young. Some give up. Some are abandoned.

No one wants to die young, go to prison or be under prepared for parenthood.  But schools aren't measured on these criteria. We’re assessed on Progress 8. On academic results.

And yet horrible things are happening in our pupil's lives. Right now. This Christmas. Evidence from child development, neuroscience and trauma centres shows that relational trauma does effect the developmental trajectories of our children and their capacity to think - for years ahead.

Not all pupils are in a place in their lives during the crucial examination period - or the 15 year lead in -  to have the capacity to think and learn and enjoy safety in relationships.

Not all pupils who have experienced early relational trauma have developed a mind wired to cope with others, with stress, with exams or even an ever-demanding educational setting. 

Why do we behave as if nothing affects our pupils’ trajectories at all, except good teaching and a broad and balanced curriculum?

At a recent  pupil premium conference the mantra was 'No excuses'.  All will achieve, against the odds, just make teaching, leadership, safety and outcomes good or outstanding and spend that extra few hundred pounds wisely - you'll narrow the gap. 

Advent is about awakening. Noticing. Stripping away denial.  Aren't we more informed about trauma than ever?  We know about PTSD, chronic stress, developmental trauma – so why aren't we applying this knowledge to our education system?

Does a leadership team's capacity to analyse and interpret data mitigate against the effects of 9 years of emotional trauma? Or a recent bereavement? Or two years’ drug abuse? 

Adapting behaviour

The team I work with is amazing. They use data, training and most importantly, themselves to make a difference to the young lives I've outlined above.

Their capacity to sit with a child, chew on their pain, digest it and make sense of it on behalf of the pupil does mitigate against the effects trauma and often, though not always, leads to improved outcomes academically and psychologically. 

What if good or outstanding behaviour for some is getting to school, a place of safety, in spite of domestic violence, family depression, drug abuse and chronic fear? What if we were truly able to acknowledge the effects and treatment of trauma within our schools in an informed and sensitive way?

Please comment below if you think sometimes we need to give time and thought and action to children in need. Please comment if you think we need to not judge pupils because they don't deliver the predetermined success outcomes that make a school look like it's performing well. Please share if this post has meaning for you.

Because sometimes all that's needed is an adult – or better a whole team of adults – who know themselves enough to care enough, to support, listen, understand, say no and really step in to the stormy sea of human emotional life. 

Achievement will come when people feel safe. Let's make sure that safe place is an adequately funded school that is supported by its community. It takes the care of a community to raise a child, especially a traumatised one. Let’s wish for this at Christmas.

Sean Williams is head teacher at The Forge Short Stay School in Worcestershire

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you