Jonathan Wood: School about more than being academic

Some of Scotland's local authorities are delivering counselling and mental health services in primary schools.  Picture Michael Gillen.
Some of Scotland's local authorities are delivering counselling and mental health services in primary schools. Picture Michael Gillen.
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CHILDREN learn about life, socialising, building relationship and what a working day looks like, writes Jonathan Wood

Nicola Sturgeon’s recent speech (August 2015) committing her government to closing the attainment gap must be an encouragement to schools across Scotland working with children living in poverty. It is also an encouragement to professionals working in the field of mental health and wellbeing, as sadly mental ill-health and poverty go hand in hand. Mental health issues disproportionately affect families where economic security, educational aspiration and equality of opportunity (for employment, good housing and diet) are missing.

We know schools are not simply places where education in the traditional sense takes place. They are also places where children learn to socialise, to build relationships beyond their immediate families, and what a regular working day looks like.

There are many learning programmes in Scotland which aim to raise the standard of what is called “emotional literacy”. This term is a bit of a misnomer. Emotions, it perhaps suggests, can be taught. They can’t of course, but we can learn to read them. They can be named and identified. They can be understood as the key drivers behind all our behaviours. And further, most concerning emotions can be traced back to trauma that many of our children have to face daily. Chaotic households, unsafe communities, looking ahead to only the bleakest of futures – all these take their toll. While one part of education is the imparting of knowledge (easily assessed by testing), there is another kind of learning going on in schools. This is about the kind of person we are or will become. It is about the way we carry ourselves, our self-respect and respect for others, our sense of our own dignity, the way we express strong feeling, and whether we reason or lash out when we are ‘up against it’. This part of education takes place through example and through the ethos and culture in our schools. It is very difficult to measure. Barriers to learning often arise in these less acknowledged, more implicit areas of knowledge.

A child without boundaries – one who cannot contain their anger or distress – is unlikely to learn without extra support. This is because their attainment gap is filled to the brim with emotional turmoil. Counselling and mental health services, rooted in play and creativity, and delivered as part of an early intervention strategy within primary schools, have been shown to make a significant difference to a child’s learning, in this widest sense. It is to the credit of far-sighted local authorities and health boards, Glasgow, Edinburgh and North Ayrshire amongst them that such services are in development or being delivered in some of their primary schools.

But why is it so important that such services are delivered in schools? Simply, this is where children and their parents go. This is where educational difficulties – by and large – are ironed out. So why not emotional difficulties too? When you pass on these issues to agencies outside of the school, you risk low rates of attendance appointments, premature medicalising, and stigma, for example. No child wants to be marked out as so different that their school cannot handle them. After all, they come to school to learn how they fit in – how they might have a place in the wider community. It is surely our duty as adults to do our utmost to ensure this happens, given the high stakes here.

For some children, school and the relationships that they have there, represent a kind of safety not present elsewhere in their lives. The school is as vital for their personal growth as for their academic progress. Let’s hope that this courageous emphasis on closing the attainment gap is able to prioritise these two kinds of learning – academic learning and skills coupled to a child’s self-knowledge and understanding – so that these new resources can support the whole child.

• Jonathan Wood, national manager for Scotland, Place2Be