The Headteacher: There’s more to schooling than the curriculum

Ian Wright, Headmaster Of Pocklington Prep School
Ian Wright, Headmaster Of Pocklington Prep School

When someone asks “Are you okay?” how do you respond? If you’re not okay, do you say so? And if so, what next?

It’s pretty widely accepted these days that the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality does no one any good. Talking about feelings and getting any issues out into the open is the first step towards resolution.

The link between children’s emotional well-being and educational attainment is also pretty clear; children who feel good about themselves and their lives are more engaged at school and therefore tend to do better.

At Pocklington School, we strongly believe there’s more to schooling than the curriculum. We take very seriously our responsibility to promote the spiritual, mental and emotional wellbeing of the children in our care. As a day and boarding school, we think we have particular insight into the challenges youngsters face.

We’ve spent a lot of time coming up with the best way of ensuring children come into school feeling happy and enjoy their day, which brings us back to my opening question.

Youngsters today have many reasons not to feel okay. Learning to live and work together poses challenges for all young people. Yet a strong caring pastoral school structure allows staff to support these pupils as they grow into resilient characters.

As has always been the case, many of challenges stem from outside the classroom, but if they affect the child’s sense of well-being, it’s our problem, too.

Today, for example, digital media means issues that might once have been resolved face to face are made public in an instant, adding to the pressure of any friendship tensions. Social networking outside school hours allows increasingly younger children to reach a wide audience, but a simple absence of ‘likes’ to one of their updates, for example, can reinforce a sense of isolation.

Add to that the pressure to perform well in exams, the early obsession with body image, a whirl of after school activities, exposure to home concerns like financial worries, and there’s no wonder mental health issues, from anorexia, to self harm and beyond, afflict so many schoolchildren.

Family life has changed radically in that both parents often work and meal-times round the table are becoming less common. When children ‘chat’ with their friends, even their family, it’s often online rather than face to face.

But if a child or young person’s not feeling okay, it’s vital they know they’re not alone. They, like us, are perfectly entitled to ‘off’ days. But if something’s troubling them, it’s important they know we’re there to help.

Pocklington School uses assemblies and PHSE lessons to let children know it’s okay to approach us, whatever the problem may be, and to ensure they feel confident they’re in a safe and caring environment and help is close at hand.

If there’s a particular adult they feel happier talking to, we make sure they’re accessible and set aside time to listen. A simple conversation, a feeling they’re understood, may be all the child needs to feel safe again. Sometimes we decide to bring in someone with more expertise in a particular field, but not without explaining to the pupil and their parents or guardians why we think this will help.

Parents and carers should always be an integral part of a school’s welfare policy. It’s important, they, too, get in touch to tell us about any problems, so we can work together with an on-going dialogue to provide the best support for the child.

We have two clinical psychologists who do a brilliant job in providing confidential advice and support to our pupils. Where necessary, they will also share information with parents and staff, to help them understand the needs of that child.

Older children can make appointments with the counsellors themselves but, for our Prep School pupils, the sessions are arranged in consultation with them and their parents. If a family issue is at the root of the problem, parents can be assured this is absolutely not about attributing blame, just finding the right way to support the child.

We also work with external visitors to reinforce our message that help is at hand. AFTA Thought, a drama-based training group which uses role-play to bring issues to life, impressed us so much during an inset training day with staff, we asked them to come back and work with our pupils.

They led age-relevant workshops with both our Prep and Upper schools to dramatise issues like those mentioned above, and involve pupils in working out the best way to respond to them. In every case, the emphasis was on the importance of sharing problems rather than holding them in, and on letting children know help is always there.

Clare Swann, Head of Middle School and Designated Safeguarding Lead, and Sarah Cobb, the Prep School’s safeguarding officer, both worked with AFTA Thought to ensure the situations their actors brought to life in short dramatisations were instantly recognisable by pupils as challenges they were facing or might do in the future.

As well as chatting through appropriate ways to respond in a given situation, the workshops re-emphasised our message that help and support was readily available, as well as the means of accessing it.

Pocklington School Foundation’s aim to Inspire For Life is met by supporting and encouraging every pupil, whatever difficulties they might face, as well as instilling the self-respect and self-belief they need to emerge as confident, capable adults.

So while children will inevitably face challenges during their school life, we can manage them together. Not only is it okay not to feel okay, asking for help is the first step towards making things right again.