Emotional skills have boosted performance in a Manchester school. Reva Klein reports
Newall Green high school in Wythenshawe, south Manchester, flies in the face of all the well-worn cliches associated with social and economic deprivation. Yes, it's set smack in the middle of a community bending under the often intolerable weight of ingrained poverty. And yes, a number of pupils live in harsh, comfortless circumstances - some of them in homes without cookers.
But Newall Green is no sink school. In the top 1 per cent nationally for value added, achieving 52 per cent A*-C grades last year and one of only 12 schools in the country to have specialist college status in three subjects (sciencemaths, the arts and vocational training), it's successful by any standards.
It's successful in a less upfront way, too. For years, Newall Green has been prioritising positive social and emotional interactions with its students alongside its more conventional agenda. And as one of three schools in Manchester taking part in the national strategies' pilot focused on developing social, emotional and behaviour skills (Sebs), it may well be blazing a trail for the rest of the country.
The programme is a response to the divide that exists in many secondary schools between social and emotional well-being on the one hand and an achievement culture on the other. This dichotomy is false, says Judith Harwood, senior regional adviser on the secondary strategy for school improvement. "A central plank of Every Child Matters is that children are entitled to feel safe at school and it is teachers' responsibility to ensure the emotional and physical wellbeing of their pupils so that they can achieve their full potential at school."
Newall Green already had a head start, because it has focused on the social and emotional wellbeing of its pupils for some time. Says headteacher Neil Wilson, "We get good exam results because the relationships between teachers and pupils are very good."
A Year 8 class was chosen to take part in the pilot at the beginning of this school year. Their 18 teachers meet every fortnight to set Sebs learning objectives for each subject, which are put alongside the subject learning outcome for each classroom session. In the eyes of Liz Neesom, head of the school's gifted and talented programme, the parallel outcomes give a positive message to students. "Seeing these so-called 'soft'
personal skills listed on the whiteboard next to the curricular outcomes gives them substance and value."
The teachers also discuss individuals' progress. For Kate Donovan, head of Year 8, the meetings have been both illuminating and productive. "We pick up on issues and address them in a way we couldn't have without formalising these exchanges. The class has benefited from this, too: hardly any children are brought to me for bad behaviour now."
Newall Green's teachers have found creative ways of applying Sebs which may well be different from other schools. The pilot was designed to give guidance rather than expecting teachers to adhere to proscriptive frameworks. Jill Tordoff, one of Manchester Education Partnership's lead consultants on Sebs, believes this flexibility is key. "We learned not to force things on teachers, so they decided which Sebs skills came into their subject. For example, the English teacher might decide that a text would allow her to talk about empathy."
Another Sebs-inspired innovation was Calm Waters, a series of three sessions in which Year 7 and 8 pupils take time out to reflect on positive thoughts. Explains Liz Neesom, "A lot of our students have busy homes with no space. This gives them a chance to think about how to overcome difficult situations. We hope to roll it out to all the year groups in timetabled sessions."
Sebs hasn't come out of the blue. It is closely linked to Every Child Matters and has drawn on existing initiatives such as the national healthy schools standard and the behaviour and attendance strategy, as well as being grounded in cognitive and psychological research. The pilot ends in September 2007 but from January of that year stimulus materials will be available to schools.
This will present challenges for many schools, so the behaviour and attendance consultants will be trained to support them. "There will be schools that will say 'we can't possibly take on Sebs because our science department is underperforming.' The consultant will help to unpick these issues," says Judith Harwood. "There are very few schools who could say 'Sebs is not in my plan', because Sebs is relevant to basic teaching and learning issues."
And if the Newall Green experience is anything to go by, its influence on teachers is powerful. "Sebs shows children different ways they can choose to behave and because they've changed, my behaviour with them has changed, too," says head of modern foreign languages Rachel Thomas. "It's made me reflect on my behaviour. Normally, you don't have time to reflect on how you're projecting to your class. Sebs has given us the space to do that."