Gavin Williamson clearly doesn’t know what school children need

Williamson may claim that children have lacked behaviour and discipline during the lockdown – but is that not true of every single human being on earth? (Picture: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

It seems like it was too much to hope for that any lessons about mental health and caring for one another would be learned from the pandemic. 

As someone who has both worked in schools as a behaviour specialist and teaching assistant, and worked in child psychology, my blood turned cold at Gavin Williamson’s declaration that he was spending £10million on a so-called behaviour hub for all schools. 

The programme is being introduced with the aim of ’embedding a clear, sustainable behaviour culture’ throughout schools.

The Secretary of State for Education wants to take action on the ‘out of control’ situation.

After the year we’ve had, of course the way children are acting isn’t going to be ‘normal’. But coming in hard with discipline and telling children to change isn’t the way to go about it.

Children are not robots and their emotional development will have changed course during the disruption to their lives – these won’t be the same children coming back to school. If the children have to adapt, so do the schools. 

I have witnessed first hand through my support of parents and through mentoring and teaching children during the pandemic that the pandemonium of the situation has not been able to be avoided.

Children have fallen into cycles where they have become fatigued by the constant changes and uncertainty and have played up due to frustrations about not seeing their friends.

There are also those that are more distracted, and others who have retreated into their shell as their confidence has faded.

Williamson may claim that children have lacked behaviour and discipline during the lockdown – but is that not true of every single human being on earth?

When children are forced to adapt to uncharacteristic change – and one that their caregivers are unprepared and largely unsupported for – it is perfectly natural that their reactions to being home schooled and taught by their mums and dads will vary.

Suddenly moving a classroom into their home environment and taking away their routine, social time, teachers, friends and consistency is a completely head-messing concept for a child – and that is without the anxieties of an ongoing pandemic being taken into account.

Mental health woes among children have risen during the pandemic and I have seen it first hand. There is anxiety around returning to school and confusion about whether to treat parents like teachers and vice versa.

We have all heard parents and carers discuss the struggles of homeschooling. 

Children are more comfortable with their parents, more liable to feel safer in playing up and more likely to push boundaries.

This is a way of children finding their place in a confusing situation and finding something they feel they are in control of – their own behaviour.

The impact of this playing up at home will have led to inevitable family tensions and parents struggling to switch between all of their assigned roles.

If he has £10million in his pocket to invest in children’s return to school, let’s spend it on supporting their wellbeing and mental health

It is confusing for everyone and so when children suddenly have to return to school, a military style approach full of punishment and consequence will only cause more aggravation. 

This old-school, ‘let’s go tough on them’ routine is only going to damage children’s comfort and feeling of safety even more and disassociate many more than ever before from the education system.

By turning the blame on the children for a situation that was out of their control and introducing measures of added discipline and punishment to the school day, we are effectively telling them that this was all their fault and they handled the pandemic wrong.

There has been a huge negative reaction online – particularly from teachers and unions who know the system and the children they work with the best – to Williamson’s plans, which focus on ‘exercise and good, old fashioned play’.

I think his recommendations are frankly much too vague and have too much emphasis on punitive measures, neglecting any approaches to mental wellbeing and acknowledgement of how emotionally impacted children have been by the pandemic. 

If he has £10million in his pocket to invest in children’s return to school, let’s spend it on supporting their wellbeing and mental health, not on creating lessons in how to keep them conformed.

Williamson stated: ‘Maintaining good discipline is an absolute must in any classroom and is one of our key priorities. Out-of-control behaviour will also destroy the wholesome and happy environment that every school should have, leading to bullying, and turning playgrounds from a place of joy to a jungle.

‘That’s why I am totally behind schools and colleges taking firm action to create a disciplined and calm environment, and putting in place a strong behaviour culture where students are taught how to behave well and are clear about what is expected of them.’

An interesting sentiment – but there needs to be a transition period; children need time to adjust, encouragement, someone to talk to and understanding.

No other recent generation has had to go through so much at an age of crucial development, so making kids think they have been ‘naughty’ for losing focus while being off is something that will stick with them.

The long term impacts of even losing a few months of positive school experience can, for many children, create a sense of resentment and rebellion to figures of authority.

Education is important but a school’s job is equally supposed to focus on a child’s personal development.

Nobody is suggesting that schools should be a ‘jungle’ but the best way to induce calm moving forward is through empathy and communication, not law and order in the classroom.

If children have hated lockdown and want desperately to return to school only to find it is now a place they no longer recognise, they will lose their passion and confidence. 

Similarly, those who are already fearing going back will come to believe they were right to be worried and that their school is more interested in keeping them in line than caring for their wellbeing and creating an atmosphere of support.

I can’t think of many teachers who want to dive back into school to start confiscating phones, raising their voices and putting children in detention. 

Going in hard is an approach that rarely works in any environment. But when it comes to vulnerable children coming back to school after a confusing lockdown, there is absolutely no way that it will help their state of mind and their confidence in learning to feel like the people in authority are out to punish them.

If we can afford to splash the cash on disciplining kids, it would be so nice and heartwarming to think that someone in government might consider spending just as much on supporting and understanding them.

How about extra funds for teaching assistants to support learning and behaviour, and an investment in mentoring schemes so children have someone to talk to and understand them.

That has to be a more feasible and humane approach to the generation who has suffered more than many and who are meant to be the future of the country. 

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