On 14th June our outgoing Co-director Colin Morrison attended a roundtable hosted by the Education, Children, and Young People Committee of the Scottish Parliament. A meeting that had a focus on ‘violence in school’.
Having thanked the Parliamentary Committee for the opportunity to take part in their roundtable discussion, our contribution had to start with our disappointment about the framing of the round table, expressed as its concern about ‘violence in schools’. For a Parliament that unanimously passed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill on 16 March 2021 – thank you for that – we would have hoped that all opportunities would be taken to frame our concerns for children and adults with positivity and insight, rather than an easily misconstrued title that so easily results in children being viewed as the problem.
Several contributors to the roundtable used the discussion to point to a number of things we know and understand, and things we already do, that can show our concern and love for every child and adult in early learning and school settings.
The first thing Children’s Parliament urges is to connect with what we (education sector staff, as well as third sector colleagues) know from the national efforts we make across the education system to understand trauma and the power of nurture based approaches. One of the basic principles of nurture approaches is that all behaviour is communication. With this understanding we can ask, what is it children communicate to us when they cannot self-regulate, when they cannot understand and manage their behaviour or their reactions to feelings (like frustration, excitement, anger, embarrassment) and things happening around them? Then, as we work these things out, we can apply what we know about trauma. Behaviour and trauma are associated.
A further part of this initial jigsaw puzzle of considerations must be to consider the impact of Covid-19. Children have been disempowered and disconnected from learning and school, leaving many feeling helpless, without control over their lives, and less likely to succeed.
One of the basic principles of nurture approaches is that all behaviour is communication. With this understanding we can ask, what is it children communicate to us when they cannot self-regulate, when they cannot understand and manage their behaviour…?DR. COLIN MORRISON
The powerful work undertaken by Public Health Scotland in their Covid-19 Early Years Resilience and Impact Surveys (CEYRIS) captures the lived experience of parents and children. Three iterations of the survey give us invaluable insight into behaviour, social interactions and relationships, and children’s mental health. A fourth survey is currently live. What we can learn from this work is the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children and families living in poverty, those with least resources, those most disconnected from support. Papers shared before the roundtable talked about violence perpetrated by 5 and 6 year olds. If we want to understand these children then read the PHS findings, there we see isolation and trauma, things as basic as a child not accessing a green space for play even once in a week. Within this large scale data we can still see real people, see the importance of building relationships and refocusing efforts on positive actions, rather than blaming and shaming.
There is plenty further evidence of the long tail of covid. Work conducted by Childrens Parliament through 2020 recorded the impacts of the pandemic. From children (8 to 14 years old), self-reported evidence showed a significant decline in children’s mental health and wellbeing, and a growing sense of disconnection from learning; this was particularly true for girls. Coming out of Covid-19, these children are now 10 to 16 years old, Children’s Parliament strongly recommended that the education system focus on a recovery/wellbeing focused post pandemic curriculum, but this was not adopted. While we saw many loving and caring adults in schools work to re-establish relationships, we also saw a push on notions of lost learning and an overt focus on attainment. This was a lost opportunity; many teachers and support staff felt this too.
Thankfully, the roundtable was an opportunity to remember and assert that a great amount of work has been done to establish Restorative Approaches, Solution Oriented Approaches and Mentors in Violence in schools, and of course Nurture Approaches. There are other effective approaches such as the emotional wellbeing programme Readiness for Learning (R4L). We have improved guidance on school exclusions in Included, Engaged and Involved Part 2.
Coming out of Covid-19 … Children’s Parliament strongly recommended that the education system focus on a recovery/wellbeing focused post pandemic curriculum, but this was not adoptedDR. COLIN MORRISON
The real opportunity here, surely shared by our adult Parliamentarians, is to use the UNCRC and children’s human rights as law to address children’s wellbeing and make our schools safe for all. Children’s Parliament, with the support of the Gordon Cook Foundation, is working with children and adults to establish rights based relationships across the education system. With learning and tools, reported on our Dignity in Schools Hub, we see a shift from a focus on behaviour, to one on relationships. We have learned through our many years’ work alongside schools, that when children are seen as a problem there will be no insight and no betterment of the experience of school and learning.
No child, nor adult, should fear or experience violence in their learning or work environment. All forms of violence are best tackled with prevention, and prevention is founded in rights based relationships built from kindness, empathy, trust and the core idea of human dignity. When this foundation is established then responding to violence draws on the policies and practices we already have, and described earlier. If there is anything missing here, it could be an acknowledgement that if we have a problem with violence it is a societal problem, not just a problem for schools. Or perhaps we could focus on training and professional learning. Or perhaps we could address resourcing as schools lose funding for additional support staff, or are forced to close their libraries. Considering these matters would mean adopting a curious, problem solving approach, rather than one that seeks to punish or demonise children.
Finally, what about lifting our heads up and thinking big. That’s what our adult Parliamentarians did when they passed the UNCRC Incorporation Bill. If we can talk, as we do, about working to ensure that children have an alcohol-free childhood, or a tobacco-free childhood, what about a violence-free childhood? Those of us who have been around a while might remember a seminal report from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 1995, called the Commission on Children and Violence. One of its Commissioners was our first Children’s Commissioner, Kathleen Marshall. The Commission explored all the evidence available at that time about how children experience violence, and what we can do to reduce all forms of interpersonal violence involving children. It offered evidence-informed, child rights-based recommendations. Maybe this is what we need, because if violence is a problem it is deeply cultural, a symptom of the difficult years we have all been through, and can only be tackled when there is insight and efforts to make rights real, day-to-day, in every child’s life.
Dr Colin Morrison
Co-director Children’s Parliament