The way we treat students with challenges is a bit fishy

2nd March 2018 at 00:00
There is a fine balance between helping people and creating a system of overdependence that disempowers pupils, writes one headteacher

There is an old proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

This is a powerful message, rooted in the idea that education is a tool for empowering people. But I notice that there is a trend within education today, not of empowering people, but of highlighting their apparent weaknesses.

Increasingly, we are talking about the challenges pupils face around a wide range of issues, from gender to economic background. Guidance on supporting pupils to overcome these challenges is given to schools by the government and local authorities. As a result, professionals and agencies become increasingly involved with vulnerable individuals, with the intention of helping them.

But in becoming “helpers”, I worry that we can sometimes disempower the very people we are trying to help. Of course, there are times when most of us would relish having our problems solved by someone else. Yet, it is in the face of helplessness that we are most likely to discover inner resources that previously lay dormant within us; resources such as perseverance, courage and acceptance.

The danger of overdependence

There is no doubt that bigotry in society must be tackled head-on. And it is clear that overarching factors, such as poor economic growth, have seriously detrimental effects on individuals and communities. But there is a fine balance between helping people and creating a system of overdependence, which ultimately results in disempowerment.

Surely it is the ambition of anyone supporting someone else to eventually no longer be needed. Isn’t that what we do as teachers?

My late father was the son of working-class Irish immigrants. He grew up in Manchester during the Second World War and his father fought in the Battle of the Somme. I grew up with stories of hardship, but also of triumph over adversity.

Whenever I had a problem, my dad expected me to solve it for myself. Whether it was a death in the family or a financial challenge, the message was always the same: you have the power within you to survive and succeed. It is a message I still carry with me.

As school leaders, we must keep up to date with society’s agendas and adhere to our legal obligations. But I also believe that any help we give should be empowering. So, the next time you launch an intervention or a community outreach scheme, ask yourself: is this teaching people to fish, or just handing over a fresh catch?


Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School, which was Tes School of the Year 2015, and author of Playing with Fire: embracing risk and danger in schools

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