Keep your sympathy - we want emotion

31st October 2003 at 00:00
HELPING KIDS HOPE. By Nancy E Gill. Scarecrow Press pound;24.95.

THE EMOTIONAL LITERACY HANDBOOK. By James Park, Alice Haddon and Harriet Goodman. David Fulton Publishers pound;18.

RESTORATIVE PRACTICES IN SCHOOLS. By Margaret Thorsborne and David Vinegrad. Incentive Publishing pound;20.

Remember Margaret Thatcher's dictum: "Bring me solutions, not problems"? That's what we want from books that address life in schools. By the end we want to feel that we have replenished our reserves of idealism and gained some practical strategies.

Nancy E Gill's Helping Kids Hope aims, I think, to be inspirational, but in fact proves to be gloomy reading. An American college professor, Gill has spent 24 years "adopting" groups of students who find school discouraging and boring. She catalogues their woes in exhaustive detail and clearly feels huge empathy for them. As she says, "all of them seemed to long for someone who would just listen to them without criticising and judging them". She takes on the role.

This is all very well, but there's a Star Trek-like unreality about it.

Nancy E Gill beams in and out of these classrooms at will, dishing out sympathetic vibes. Some of her responses seem quite dodgy. When she encounters a girl who cries because her teacher won't let her write about her deceased mother, Gill's response is: "I wrote down my telephone number and handed it to her, told her she was welcome to call if she ever felt lonely and just wanted to talk to somebody. She thanked me, and slipped the piece of paper into her purse."

To me this is a woeful abdication of responsibility which doesn't begin to address the real issues. Shouldn't Gill be drawing the issue to the attention of the class teacher and school management? How is a 30-second exchange with an outsider going to help the girl? And we all know how inappropriate and potentially damaging this blurring of pastoral responsibilities can be.

The book ought to be an inspiring read, but I found myself irritated by its glibness. It assumes that if only we read more poetry to children, listened more to their problems, and ignored their spelling mistakes (rather than correct them in an authoritarian fashion), their worlds would be better.

Unfortunately social alienation runs deeper, and it is naive to assume that even the most sympathetic visitor will come close to addressing it on a fundamental level.

By contrast, The Emotional Literacy Handbook is a model of responsible and useful educational publishing. Emotional literacy is a way of helping students to learn how to deal with their feelings, resolve problems and relate more effectively to others. If that all sounds pretty wet, this book makes a strong case for the positive impact it can have on students'


The authors, members of a group called Antidote, which is developing emotional literacy work in schools, take on the sceptics using a question-and-answer format. The first statement to be addressed is, "There are enough emotions floating around my classroom without my stirring them up even more." The response to this and similarly cynical attitudes makes a convincing argument for building work on emotional literacy into every school. Supported by case studies, grids of helpful and unhelpful practice, and further recommendations, the book provides a huge range of resources in an extremely usable format.

There's an initial sinking of the heart when you open Restorative Practices in Schools to read that it's a "conference facilitator training manual", imported from New Zealand. But its relevance quickly becomes clear as it argues that schools currently deal with behaviour issues in a quasi-judicial manner: deciding what the offence is and meting out the punishment. Instead it advocates a restorative approach to justice in which "victims are empowered to have their needs met; offenders are able to make amends; and the community can seek ways to ensure that the incident does not happen again". As in The Emotional Literacy Handbook, the aim is deeply educational. Rather than the school focusing on being seen to act by punishing the offender, there is an opportunity "to educate young people about the consequence of their actions on others as well as on themselves".

The handbook outlines a procedure for holding conferences with students in which victim and perpetrator confront the issues with a host of supporters.

It even suggests appropriate seating plans.

Margaret Thorsborne and David Vinegrad challenge many of the assumptions inherent in the way we often deal with behaviour in schools and provide an alternative solution to a cycle of exclusions. It would be a bold step for any school to switch immediately to entirely restorative techniques, but the authors make a convincing case for starting to work towards this approach.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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