We waved them off at the end of last term exhausted but happy. They headed for the cloakroom, an excited herd of bobbing bobble hats and reindeer hairbands on their way to family, food and fun.
The sight of a happy class departing for the holidays is one to gladden any teacher’s heart, but watching one child go made me strangely reluctant.
Off the children went to spend Christmas with their nearest and dearest. Families that aren’t always fully functioning but that contain at least one adult who is simply always there for them; a constant – and expected – source of care and love.
Not every child has this. Although memories of the festive period may be slipping from our minds, it’s worth remembering that for some of our children, Christmas was spent with adults who are kind and supportive but who aren’t and never will be their parents. These children don’t have a family home to go to. They have files and funding and social workers. Too often, they also have traumatic early memories and an uncertain future.
It’s no surprise that the chances of these pupils struggling – socially, emotionally or academically (and often all three) – are abnormally high. Schools have support in place but if a child is struggling socially, one of the things you can do is to try to foster a bit of empathy and understanding in the children around them.
I saw this being done recently by a wonderful pastoral support worker. She started off by asking the children to name the people who cared for them and the groups and organisations that they belonged to. Parents came first and this was drawn on the whiteboard as a central circle. Overlapping circles represented school, friends, extended family, doctors, nurses, and so on.
“Do we all agree this is what our support structures look like?” she asked the class. A room of heads nodded vigorously in agreement.
“And if you had a problem, where would you turn first?” The general consensus was family. “Now imagine this doesn’t exist,” she said, erasing the central circle. “Imagine how you’d feel if this part of your support system was taken away, or had never been there. Imagine you had a problem that you just couldn’t solve, no matter who you asked for help. What would that feel like?” They looked truly shocked. I was shocked. I’d never thought about it like that.
Sometimes, between the data and the marking and the targets, you forget what some children have to cope with. Even when pastoral care is good, a school’s attempts to be in loco parentis will always be limited by the fact that this parenting only happens between 9am and 3.30pm five days a week and stops entirely for six weeks every summer. The truth is, even our best efforts can be woefully inadequate for a child when the centre of their world has fallen away.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands