This piece was written in 2013 when I was working as a class teacher
“The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialisation, and their sense of being loved, valued and included in the families and societies into which they are born.” UNICEF – Innocenti Report Cards, 2007
Reading the report cards from UNICEF, I was shocked and deeply saddened to find that UK sits in the 15 to 21position across 24 countries in caring for its children (based on the outline of the Every Child Matters (ECM) directives: Being healthy; Staying safe; Enjoying and Achieving; Making a Positive Contribution and Economic Well-Being). Why then had ECM been taken out as a measurement of success from OFSTED inspections? Why did we score so badly? And if so, was it correct to do so? Or was it covering up the UK’s massive failings? And if so, how could I as a practitioner continue to use ECM to inform my practice? Should I continue to look after the children in my care beyond the educational?
As a holistic practitioner, from experience I knew the benefits of looking at the child as a whole. My students had taught me that most of the time, their struggles with maths had little to do with their ability rather their wider social problems. As soon as these problems were heard and taken seriously, or sometimes just that there was an adult who believed and cared for them, they were more able to ‘perform’ academically.
So, inspired by a task I had been given in training for THRIVE™, a programme that enables practitioners tore-focus on the emotional development needed for general well-being and learning in children, I used Jenga blocks to look at the problem more closely. I have used different colours to represent the 5 areas of ECM. I have used this in Emotional Literacy lessons to help the students understand how vital certain things are to our academic in school as well as a training tool to highlight the issues these children face.
The green refers to ‘being healthy’ defined in ECM as enjoying good physical and mental health and living a healthy lifestyle. All too often in schools, this is boiled down to looking at what a balanced diet looks like and how physical exercise is important. Whilst this is of course important, what about those children who live with parents unable or unwilling to provide these basics for children? The children with whom I work definitely do not have dinner cooked for them and put on the table. Instead, they often have parents who are out working or are otherwise absent or unable financially to provide meals, let alone healthy ones, three times a day.
The red: staying safe and being protected from harm and neglect. Whilst this applies to the vast majority, what about those who do not have even the basics such as their own bedroom? What about those who have drug-addicted parents who by the nature of their illness have drug dealers, pimps and the like in their houses? How are these children safe?
I know myself as a teacher coming from a fortunate background, nothing could prepare me for the stories I read about the kids in my care. Some of their stories are so unbelievably horrific that even if I were allowed to repeat them, I would find it difficult. And somehow, perhaps as a result of our wealth, these children have become invisible to us, unless that is we work or live amongst them. I do not judge these children or their parents; they are but the product of an awful cycle of neglect and abuse.
So how can my tower help? I have used it in classrooms to speak about children I know. For every time they have had to steal their food or worse still gone to bed hungry or found it in bins, a green block gets taken away. For every time they have been scared to be in their house with their parent either due to domestic violence or the visitors that come to their homes, I take a block away.
I repeat this with all the colours. Every time they have had to make the decision to survive instead of play, a yellow block is removed. Every time they have committed what society sees as anti-social behaviour because these kids are so angry that their own care-givers are unable to give them what they need, I take an orange block away. As for the blue, mostly I am in awe of these kids who are still able to still ‘stand’ and the tower not fall. These children are my heroes as they have overcome all the disadvantages life has dealt them and succeeded.
I explain this to these children using a mixture of stories from others I have read about or known, to make my point. At the same time, I do not teach this to the students so they can use this as an excuse for their behaviour. Rather, I say that is where I and others around the school are here to help them. To help them understand the reasons for their seeming lack of achievement in school, to illustrate what needs to be fixed first (health, a safe place to be, being a kid) in order for them to be academically successful. And they listen. One boy said to me, “So I’m not just ‘bad’ then?” My heart cried. No, none of these children are just bad. Confounding, desperate and crying out for help but never ‘bad’.
These children need adults who will not only love and genuinely care for them; they need us to step in when their homes are not safe, when their care-givers just can’t. And we cannot do it alone and it is not easy. But when adults unite in the finest, most genuine and authentic interests of the child, we definitely can make the changes needed to provide them with a sturdier base from which to succeed.