Happiness is...a serious subject

17th November 2006 at 00:00
For children to learn, they need to have fun. But how do you achieve that with the curriculum to worry about? Bring on the dogs and chickens, reports Fiona Leney

Cooking breakfast for your teachers, creating a mini-zoo for your children.

They might be unorthodox, but both are signs of a happy school. The problem comes in reconciling fun with the serious business of digesting the curriculum and leaping through the testing hoops that proclaim your school's success to the world - but often make teachers and pupils miserable.

Can high achievement co-exist with fun? The experience of two very different schools shows that it can - and, furthermore, that the two are often inseparable.

Chris Barker, head of Fairfield High School in Herefordshire, says: "How can you expect children to want to come into school when the staff don't?"

He has made the school an extraordinary place to work for pupils and staff alike.

Fairfield, set in rolling countryside six miles from Hay-on-Wye, is an 11-to-16 comprehensive and has 358 children. It may look idyllic, but its catchment area is mixed, containing many small farms, and suffering from social problems such as social isolation and alcohol abuse.

Fairfield's results, however, speak for themselves: more than 80 per cent A to C passes at GCSE for the past few years, and the school is heavily oversubscribed. So what is its secret?

From the moment the visitor enters the school, dodging the chickens pecking contentedly in the school yard, and a squad of enthusiastic Year 7s walking the staff's dogs during lunch break, you feel "the atmosphere", as Mr Barker calls it.

It is the atmosphere of a community rather than an institution. Children's needs and interests are at the heart - the chickens are merely the forerunners of a host of other small animals, such as rabbits, that are joining the school to give hands-on experience to pupils taking qualifications in small animal husbandry. Next March will see the arrival of a pair of Alpaca who will graze the sports field as well as provide wool for art and textile classes; Fairfield is a specialist arts school.

Of course, there is a curriculum justification for this, but ultimately, says Mr Barker, animals simply enrich the children's lives. "For children to learn, they have to be happy. Happiness doesn't guarantee learning, but one thing's for sure, if they are unhappy they certainly won't."

The dog-walking grew from another initiative for staff. Many of Fairfield's teachers have dogs and fretted about leaving them at home all day.

Meanwhile, the school was looking for projects for its pupils taking NVQs in construction.

"I believe in getting children to do useful, practical work," says Mr Barker. So he hit on the idea of getting the Year 10 and 11 pupils to build kennels for staff pets.

"The satisfaction they get out of contributing something useful is really worthwhile," he says. So that's three sets of satisfied customers: the older students who make the kennels; the staff whose pets are cared for during their working day; and new pupils, who make friends while walking the dogs under the supervision of history teacher Alison Naylor.

"This is a different sort of school to work in," Ms Naylor says. "For many of our children, who come from fairly isolated rural backgrounds, socialising with other pupils can be a challenge. It is much easier around animals."

Teachers at Fairfield speak enthusiastically of the freedom they enjoy.

Janet Wright, who teaches science and is deputy head of upper school, says the head's trust in his staff is a powerful incentive, and has fostered a strong sense of teamwork and mutual support.

This translates inevitably into better teaching, the way behaviour is managed, and pastoral care given.

"A lot of responsibility is devolved to staff. If there is a problem, we can pick it up quickly because we work as a team," says Mrs Wright. "We have high expectations and a policy of zero tolerance for bad behaviour.

Kids who are disruptive are sent out of class. Because of teamwork, staff are comfortable that a senior management colleague will be available to deal with them, and will be able to find the time for pastoral care when necessary."

At its last inspection Fairfield was rated as "outstanding". And as for job vacancies, Ms Naylor says: "I think a couple of people have retired during the seven years I've been here, but that's it."

At first sight, Redbridge community school, an 11-16 comprehensive in Southampton, couldn't be more different. Serving working-class estates near Southampton docks, around 60 per cent of its students are on the special needs register. Yet Redbridge, too, has recently been rated as providing "outstanding quality education" by Ofsted. It is in the top 2 per cent of UK schools for contextual added value to pupils.

Richard Schofield, Redbridge's head, also has strong views on the importance of happiness - and a willingness to take unorthodox measures to promote it at school.

In Mr Schofield's case, it is a deliberate policy of putting teachers'

needs before those of students. Once or twice a term he comes in to school early to cook breakfast for his staff members. Staff outings are also a regular feature.

"Breakfast is a way of saying thank you after they've gone the extra mile on things such as parents' evenings or sporting fixtures," he says. The cooked breakfasts and outings are trivial examples of the head's claim that "staff who play together stay together". His management style has a more relevant impact on the classroom.

"We trust people," he says. "We invest faith in people to do their job.

It's a key principle." And that includes allowing staff the licence to try out new or unorthodox ideas.

"We're just about to start beekeeping as a student enterprise project for Years 10 and 11," he says. "The member of staff running it is learning rapidly, but we know that students will respond to anything that takes them out of the classroom."

A measure of the school's success is that it has grown steadily and is hugely oversubscribed. From just over 600 pupils now, it is set to expand to take almost 1,000 in the near future, Mr Schofield says.

This raises another question. Both Fairfield and Redbridge celebrate individuality to encourage achievement among staff and pupils. Is this a luxury which only small schools can afford?

Not necessarily. Redbridge has a house system to split students into "families". As the school prepares to grow, tutor groups have been vertically aligned to create even smaller units within them, with older children nurturing younger ones.

What both schools have in common is that they are not afraid to take innovative steps to ensure the happiness of their staff and children. But, when asked if this has ever caused raised eyebrows at county level, Mr Barker replies, "No, our results speak for themselves"

Do happy children learn more?

There is a growing recognition of the connection between academic achievement and happiness.

In the United States, research published in the journal Scientific American Mind in October last year showed that making students happy increased memory retention.

Two groups were given a list of 30 words to learn. One was shown a comedy video immediately afterwards. When tested a week later, students who had watched the video showed a 20 per cent better recall rate.

Ian Gilbert, of Independent Thinking, a company which produces motivational training for teachers, explains that the results were due to the brain's release of the chemical dopamine, which is stimulated by pleasure.

"It's the ultimate learning neurochemical and a key part of the chemistry of memory," he says. "The adolescent brain is a very dopamine-rich environment. Young people need lots of it."

He is backed by a 2004 study by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) think-tank. The NEF interviewed 1,000 children between seven and 19 in Nottingham, and concluded that there was a close link between wellbeing at school and the sort of curiosity that led to successful learning. And pupils gained as much satisfaction from this type of learning as from getting good academic results.

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