The butterflies effect

15th January 2016 at 00:00

Nobody needs the constant reminder that “austerity” is inevitable, even a virtue – and (of course) nothing to do with the bankers. Yet that’s what the government and most media seem to do, despite growing evidence that it’s having a harmful effect on our children, particularly those from the poorest and most challenged families – the very ones that the pupil premium is meant to help.

I don’t mean austerity itself, although reduced family benefits, squeezed school budgets and fewer staff are making it less likely that pupils will grow up to be fulfilled adults. What and how children think is coloured by the communities where they live – a kind of poverty of spirit.

As a teacher remarked to me the other day in a school that makes collections for a food bank that serves some of its own pupils: “It’s as if hope itself has been surgically removed. My children have lived with nothing but austerity and it seeps into their souls. A nine-year-old asked me the other day if it will ever end. Of course, I told her cheerfully it would, that it was her job to change the world for the better and that there was nothing she couldn’t do if she was determined enough and believed in herself.”

The school has straitened finances and is located on an estate with a closed library, a redundant youth worker and a day centre that opens for just one day a week. It is facing further threats to its funding in the next two years as the local council wrestles with the recently announced financial grant settlement. But the teacher rose above all that by displaying what I’d call “unwarranted optimism” – an essential ingredient for all teachers and school leaders.

To work in a school is to have a daily reminder of austerity’s impact. And yet, committed staff make the sun come out for their pupils. As child psychologist and teacher Haim Ginott once put it: “I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I have tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.” Naturally, we know that teachers’ impact is so much greater than the school effect, but that doesn’t mean a school can’t increase the odds of teachers feeling good about themselves and their job: the school also affects the climate.

So at the start of a difficult calendar year, here are three simple things some schools already have tried to do. If yours isn’t doing even one of them, suggest that they try it.

The first stems from the Ginott quote. Why not emulate Bill Posters, who in my youth was always going to be prosecuted? Each half-term when the staffroom is empty, fly-post an A3 quotation about the importance of teaching on the staff notice board.

Second, make sure that you and a colleague attend at least one regional TeachMeet this year: you’ll get some brilliant, simple ideas and meet some cheerful “energy creators” like you who love teaching, despite everything.

Third, in a staff meeting, get some Post-its, recreate the diagram on the left and put ideas into the four quadrants. Focus on the low-effort, high-impact activities first: I call them “butterflies” after the theory that small changes can have big effects. Then tackle the trickier high-effort, low-impact areas: you’ll find plenty. Some may be government requirements that you can do nothing about, but others you can. Then there are those areas such as marking, where you may be able to generate a fresh perspective and move the activity from one box to another.

Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London

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