Bags of love
When Helen Gubby was growing up in Exeter, her teacher gave each child in her class a small tartan bag to take home. It wasn't the bag itself that pleased Helen; it was the contents that she really treasured. Inside was a selection of notes written by her classmates during a special lesson that took place once a week. All of the notes said something complimentary about her: that she was considerate, thoughtful and happy.
Thirteen years later, and now a primary teacher herself, Ms Gubby still has the bag. She remembers how good these life-affirming words made her feel whenever she read them. They made such an impression that she decided to use the same idea for a "special person assembly" with her Year 6 pupils at St Monica's Church in Wales primary school. St Monica's, with just 100 pupils, is one of Cardiff's smallest primaries.
There's a row of little bags, each with a photograph of the child it belongs to, neatly pegged on to a line in a corner of the Year 6 classroom.
On the front of each bag is a child's name, followed by the words "is special because..." Inside are 20 or so folded statements that other class members have written about the owner. Pupils can read the contents of their bag whenever they feel the need; 10 minutes' reading can act as an excellent antidote to any negative feelings they might be experiencing.
Every Friday morning, before lessons begin, Year 6 have their "special person" assembly. The class sits in a circle and one child is given the task of lighting three white candles. Another child selects a name from a decorated purple box. Today it's Pearl's turn to get the VIP treatment. The atmosphere is calm and quiet, and Helen Gubby reminds the class to think carefully for a moment before they write down what it is that makes Pearl a special person.
The children think hard. Some shut their eyes; some bite their lips; others occasionally glance at Pearl for inspiration. Everyone is fully engaged and enthusiastic to start writing. There is silence as Ms Gubby asks them to "write about one special quality Pearl has".
"I wanted to see if the assembly would have an impact on the way the class responded to each other," she says. "The results have been dramatic: it definitely works, as the whole class has bonded well and are friends. In fact, they really look forward to it.
"In other classes there are friendship groups, but in this class they all look after each other; if one of them is sad, then they all cheer each other up. Some of the children have difficult backgrounds and benefit from being able to share their thoughts and feelings with the others."
The notes, written in felt-tip pens, are often personalised with a picture.
The words "kind", "grateful" and "helpful" crop up regularly, as do the phrases "Pearl is always there for me", "She tries to cheer me up" and "She makes me laugh". When everyone's finished writing and the pieces of paper have been collected, Pearl changes places with Ms Gubby and sits on the teacher's chair. The little girl's litany of virtues is read out by another pupil. If a word appears that Ms Gubby feels needs further explanation, she gently does just that. In Pearl's case, the definitions of "generous", "loyal" and "reliable" are all explained. It's a simple but effective lesson in values. Pearl's smile broadens when she hears that one of the boys has written about her "being there for her friends when they are upset".
Very softly she tells me how surprised she is that her classmates have noticed so much about her. She says it makes her feel good when she hears the remarks read out loud; "not in a big-headed way", but because she feels appreciated and wanted by the rest of the children.
"The children learn to respect each other," says Ms Gubby. "And the fact that they are part of a caring environment raises their self-esteem as well. It's part of social education, encouraging them to care for and support each other. What they really like, though, is having their bags to take away with them."
But doesn't this type of assembly encourage the children to be too soft? After all, next year they will move to secondary school where they'll need to be tougher. Headteacher Kate Bates says not. "The attributes the children develop at St Monica's will stay with them throughout secondary school and beyond. I realise that life can be hard, but tact, thoughtfulness and considering other people's feelings can help defuse difficult situations." The theme of respect for others is further developed every Friday afternoon when the whole school gathers for the headteacher's awards.
"They're a celebration of the week and of each other. One child from each class is acknowledged for thoughtful behaviour," says Ms Bates. "It reflects the ethos of the school and reinforces the fact that we expect children to value and support each other." The head is under no illusions; some eyebrows may be raised for her extolling these old-fashioned principles, but she remains convinced that valuing others and fostering self-worth works well and is an antidote to bullying. "It's character-building. If you don't have these values, no matter how academically gifted you might be, there's going to be a void in your life if you can't relate to others.
"Our children are praised for who they are, not for what they achieve.
That's not to say we ignore academic or sporting prowess; we don't. But we realise that not all children can be captain of the team or get 2020 for every test. If those were the criteria by which we gave out awards, then some children would never experience success. What matters is that they do their best and they are valued for their own individual gifts."