Volunteers returning to teaching: seven practical questions

With so many serving teachers incapacitated with Covid or required to isolate, the Department for Education are asking retired teachers and those who have recently left teaching to volunteer for a temporary return to teaching in order to maintain education for children.

The DfE are asking ex-teachers to temporarily return to the classroom

Whatever our views about this move and likelihood of its success, it raises several practical questions.

How will safeguarding be ensured?

Returning teachers are unlikely to have a current DBS check nor will they have up to date safeguarding training. With DBS checks sometimes taking weeks to be returned, it would help if the DfE could expedite this process.

It might also help if safeguarding training was part of the recruitment process, particularly newer aspects of Keeping Children Safe in Education and the safeguarding considerations in remote or blended teaching. Schools will still need to provide training on local safeguarding policy and procedures and time for this must be taken into account.

How will staff health be protected?

As many have commented, bringing retired teachers back into classrooms amidst high infection rates with little mitigation beyond open windows risks endangering them. Former teachers who have moved into other occupations are also unlikely to view a move into a risky school environment as attractive.

Carbon dioxide monitor.
Image credit: Morn CC BY-SA 4.0

I used to teach in schools and now work in the education teams of a university museum and library. My current employer has introduced measures including active ventilation, HEPA filters, carbon dioxide monitors and protocols for safe levels, provision of PPE, mask wearing in work spaces, social distancing measures, and enhanced cleaning regimes.

Schools do not typically match these provisions, do not have equipment, or have not yet received equipment.

What about working conditions?

While some teachers may have retired contentedly after years of teaching, we know that there is a retention crisis in teaching with many leaving the profession prematurely, often for the sake of their health and well-being, or to restore a reasonable work-life balance. Unless these underlying issues are addressed, a return to teaching is unlikely to be attractive under normal circumstances, let alone with the additional pressures created by the pandemic.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much of a real commitment to improve the situation. One area that could be addressed immediately is Ofsted inspections. The introduction of the temporary returnee scheme is an admission that schools are currently operating in emergency mode. The operation of a school with significant numbers of absent staff cannot be a true reflection of its normal provision. Should Ofsted inspections therefore be suspended for the duration? This would have the additional benefit of freeing inspectors to volunteer themselves.

Who pays?

Schools aren’t just facing a shortage of teaching staff, they have also suffered an unprecedented drain on funds. If the costs of the scheme have to be met by individual school budgets it is unlikely to be affordable. Schools may apply to the Covid fund but must meet strict eligibility criteria to be eligible. Wouldn’t it be better for the DfE to fully fund this temporary provision for its duration. This would allow school leaders to plan ahead rather than having wait until finances reach a critical level before commencing an application.

Why use supply agencies?

The DfE scheme asks returning teachers to register with a Supply Agency. We need to ask what the advantage of this is. While agencies may be able to play a role in matching teachers with schools, this will inevitably lead to a proportion of public money going from school budgets to these private sector companies, rather than directly to teachers.

There can be few school leaders who have not been frustrated by the charges of agencies and many a teacher who has found themselves locked into a contract after realising they could be earning more by dealing with schools directly. It’s perfectly possible to secure supply work by contacting schools directly and these surely will be the first port of call for recently retired staff. Why isn’t this option available?

What about remote teaching?

While the aim may be to place teachers in the classroom, remote teaching should not be excluded. It may well be necessary for schools to move to remote teaching in whole or in part, as was already happening before Christmas. Even if it isn’t, provision will need to be made for pupils who need to isolate at home.

Teachers who have worked during the pandemic have become adept at remote teaching following a steep learning curve. Returning teachers are less likely to be familiar with the technology and may not have developed these particular teaching skills. Training in remote teaching should form part of the overall package.

How will it affect pensions?

A temporary return to work could impact adversely on pensions, especially for those older staff members who have final salary pensions and return to a main scale teaching position having previously held responsibilities or leadership positions.

Mix of coins and bank notes

The DfE should clarify the position on pensions with a commitment that a temporary return to teaching should in no way disadvantage teachers’ pensions.

What is your view on the recruitment of ex-teachers to help schools? What other questions does this scheme raise? I’d be interested to know your views.

Things to look forward to in Summer Term 2021

I’ve been writing these ‘start of term’ posts for a while now. This time, more than ever before, it feels like we’ll all be looking forward to making the most of what summer has to offer as we emerge not just from winter, but from over a year of tackling Covid.

Times remain difficult and much that would normally happen this term must be postponed, or happen in a different way. Nevertheless, I hope that there is still a lot to look forward to.

The clocks have gone forward and each day is a little longer than the one before. One thing to enjoy is more waking up and coming home from work in daylight. Longer (hopefully) sunlit days help lift our mood, so it’s a good idea to try to make some time to get outside each day; even if it’s overcast, natural sunlight will do you good.

For 2021, The Big Pedal, organised by the charity Sustrans, runs from Monday 19 April to the end of the month. This annual event challenges primary and secondary school pupils to cycle, scoot and wheelchair as many miles as they can. You can find out more, register and pick up free resources from the Big Pedal website.

If you prefer two feet to two wheels, Walk to School Week is back to it’s usual time in the calendar, spring, running from 17-21 May. You can order a classroom pack now from the Living Streets Website.

While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the many changes in the natural world as spring turns into summer. Which plants are coming into bloom? Which berries and fruits are starting to form? Which birds, bees and butterflies do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike. You can even use an app such as iRecord to add your nature sightings to the National database. If your pupils are feeling inspired by nature, the might want to submit a poem for the Into the Green Poetry Project that I’m involved with, run by The Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden to celebrate 400 years of plant science in Oxford. You can download a project pack from the Bodleian’s website. The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2021.

Connecting with nature is one way to look after our mental health and ‘nature’ is the theme of UK Mental Health Awareness Week which, this year, runs from 10-17 May. You can find out more from the Mental Health Foundation who are asking us to share images, videos and sounds of nature on social media using the hashtag #ConnectWithNature.

Lockdown and travel restrictions have highlighted adverse effects of fossil fuel use including air pollution and the climate emergency. The UN World Environment Day is on Saturday 5 June and this year marks the start of the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. This could provide a focus for learning activities about human impact and the environment. You can find out more at worldenvironmentday.global #GenerationRestoration

THERE ARE MANY FESTIVALS, HOLIDAYS AND EVENTS THIS TERM:

  • Ramadan has already started and is observed by Muslims until Eid ul-Fitr on, or near 13 May
  • Stephen Lawrence Day is on Thursday 22 April
  • St George’s Day is on Friday 23 April and this is also Shakespeare Day
  • May is topped and tailed by bank holidays, with the Early May Bank Holiday on Monday 3 May and the Spring Bank Holiday on Monday 31 May
  • Friday 7 May is the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot
  • The Christian feast of Pentecost is on Sunday 23 May
  • In the UK, Fathers’ Day is on Sunday 20 June
  • Monday 21 June marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year
  • Tuesday 22 June is Windrush Day which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948 and celebrates the British Caribbean community
  • Tuesday 20 July is Eid ul-Adha, or greater Eid

Many of the most memorable aspects of school life usually happen during the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts and productions, PTA barbecues, sports days, enrichment weeks, proms and end of year awards.

These enrich the curriculum and help build communities. This year these events will be very different, and some may not be possible at all, but schools will find ways to celebrate their own unique community and the landmark transitions for years 6, 11, and 13.

Hopefully, by the end of the summer term, teachers and pupils alike will be able to enjoy a well-earned summer break after an extraordinary school year.

Holidays and Health 3: Why Teachers need a Summer Holiday

A few years ago I wrote a post about the impact of the summer holiday on my health called Holidays and Health. I followed this up with a second post in 2018, Holidays and Health Revisited, after my move to museum education, where I showed that my health seemed to be better over the summer, even though I was working running a Summer school for part of the time. I concluded that teachers might need the six-week summer holiday for the sake of their health.

This year there was some discussion about whether there should be a long summer holiday. Some argued that children had already missed a lot of school time and that a shorter holiday would be an opportunity to ‘catch up’. Proponents of this view Often didn’t seem to take into consideration that schools had not closed, remaining open to children of key workers, and teachers had worked harder than ever.

This made me think about my old blog post and whether my two year comparison might have been a fluke. I decided to gather data from my Fitbit over the last two years. In 2019 I had been working part time in a secondary school and part time in the Education team at The Bodleian Libraries. This had included a writing school for young writers (14-18) from local state schools during the summer holiday. 2020 started with a similar pattern, but in the spring I moved to working full time for the University, splitting my time between the education teams at the Bodleian and the Museum of Natural History. A planned summer school was converted to the virtual Six Legs of Summer resource, but we did work with children at summer school run by a local community association who wanted to help local parents and carers get kids ready for school in September.

My resting heart rate over Summer

As the graph shows, it looks like the 2018 graph wasn’t a fluke. My resting heart rate has remained lower that when I worked full time in school and does not seem to vary much across the holiday period. Perhaps significantly, it is lower than at any point during any point in the summer of 2017.

Resting heart rate is only one measure of health and these results are from only one individual. It would be interesting to see wider research in this area. Nevertheless, this data does seem to support my original view that teachers need a lengthy summer break in order to experience a positive impact on their health.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not the length of the holiday that’s the issue, but what happens in term time that requires six weeks to recover!

Coronavirus, cool heads and ‘reopening’ schools

Much is being said and written at the moment about whether schools in England should ‘reopen’ on 1 June. Of course, the question isn’t actually about whether they should open or close because they are already open to vulnerable children of key workers. The real debate is about the conditions and timescale for the safe extension of opening to include more children. There are no plans to extend school opening on 1 June in other devolved regions of the UK.

Unfortunately, the discussion has not been helped by some sections of the media, with the Daily Mail taking the lead, attacking teachers. This could make the issue appear polarised but it is far more nuanced and, in my opinion, with two issues at heart: is the government’s guidance based on the best science available? Secondly, have plans drawn sufficiently from the wealth experience of teachers doing the job.

In reducing the issue to those two issues, I am not discounting other points that have frequently been raised, I just don’t think they are real points of contention. I don’t think there is any doubt that teachers want to teach. All the teachers I hear or read want to teach. I don’t think there is any doubt that parents want their children in school and learning. I think we all care about children, especially vulnerable children, and understand the dangers of missing education. The thing is, we know that teaching and learning needs to happen in a safe environment.

Is the guidance based on the best science?

The problem here is that COVID-19 is new, our understanding of it is developing at a rapid pace, and many scientific results in the media are unreviewed pre-prints. That said, there are several points of certainty:

  • There is no vaccine for Coronavirus. Protection therefore relies on limiting transmission through social distancing and the use of PPE
  • There is no treatment for Coronavirus itself. Current treatments involve supporting organ systems while an individual’s immune system fights the virus.
  • The average value of R in for the UK is less than 1, but closer to 1 than 0, and varies considerably between different areas and contexts. This means the number of infections will reduce, but slowly.
  • In comparison to other countries, the spread of Coronavirus in the UK (also US and Canada) is atypical. There have been many more deaths and a much slower decline in the UK than elsewhere. This means we should be highly cautious about using other countries as models for extending school opening. For example, Denmark has been given as a model, but has had hundreds of deaths rather than tens of thousands, and a lower R value when schools reopened.
  • There is consistent evidence that young children are less at risk of serious illness or death from Coronavirus. However a 30x increase in a previously-rare inflammatory condition which has led to a number of child deaths globally is a cause for concern.
  • There is mixed evidence on how infectious children are. Some studies indicate they spread the disease less than adults, others that they do so equally.

It is consideration of this evidence that has led the British Medical Association to endorse the stance taken by the National Education Union that insufficient regard has been made of the available evidence and that the timescale for extending pupil numbers in school is too rapid.

Do plans draw sufficiently on the experience of teachers?

The government says that it’s guidance has been drawn up in consultation with school leaders. As is sadly so often the case, it is not clear who these leaders are or how they came to be chosen as consultants. This has led many to the suspicion that they are an echo chamber of the favoured few whose views already chime with those in office. Without more information it is impossible to comment, but certainly the despairing reaction to the drip-feed DfE guidance from so many school leaders suggests that the consultation was not wide enough.

School leaders, teachers and other school staff have already worked incredibly hard. They have simultaneously adopted new ways of working within school, got to grips with a new world of remote working, and implemented other aspects of the response such as free school meals vouchers and the disappearance of the Easter holiday. They were already planning how their schools could be open to more pupils before any government announcement, with the benefit of full understanding of their context and in the light of their experience in school since March. While some of the DfE guidance will be helpful (if late), much of it seems unnecessarily constraining and not to take sufficient regard of the wide variety in school accommodation and contexts that exists.

I do wonder if the top-down model that government seems to be applying is simply inadequate in current circumstances. We have seen that central government perception of the the threat posed by Coronavirus, for supply of PPE, and of the needs of vulnerable groups, such as care homes, was at huge variance with the view of those working in health care. As a result, those on the ground had to act to address deficits in central planning and response. Hospital managers sourced PPE and ventilator parts from alternative sources, medical teams worked out new protocols, and volunteer community groups arose spontaneously in local neighbourhoods to support those in isolation.

I think the lesson from that experience should be that when planning a progressive easing of lockdown, both for schools and in other contexts, planning by central government departments will be much more effective, and safer for us all, if it starts with a lot more listening.

A way forward?

It is good that all parties are currently on discussion, although as yet the government does not not seem to have altered its stance on any point.

It seems to me that there are numerous points of obvious compromise and that agreement is possible. For example, the wording on PPE could be adjusted to give schools more discretion to use it. The commitment to ‘only when safe to do so’ could be reinforced by removing the dates for latter phases and making it clear that next steps will be taken in the light of evidence gathered. Heads who plan to use rota systems should be listened to (they have good reasons), and, in my view, whole school return cannot be considered until there are agreed plans in place to make that safe.

Lastly, while it’s good that so many people are talking about the importance of education, the welfare of children, and the benefits to families, the loudest voices in the media do not seem to be those of parents and carers, still less those of children themselves. We can only arrive at a solution by listening to the needs of families (not just a lone quote supporting an editorial stance), and our care for children must include a consideration of their hopes and concerns.

Why do we get sick in our holiday?

It’s the half term break and my Twitter feed is full of the usual story: teachers falling ill as their long awaited holiday starts. Is this just coincidence, people get sick all the time, so some will in their holiday, or is this a real effect? Are teachers actually more likely to become ill during the break from school? More importantly, if it is real, what can we do to prevent it?

Leisure Sickness

This term ‘leisure sickness’ has been coined by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets to describe the widespread anecdotal experience of becoming ill when we have a holiday. This isn’t a condition formally recognised in medicine but while there isn’t a straightforward mechanism to explain a link, we do know that illness can be induced by the effects of stress. It’s not the holiday itself that makes us ill, but the impact of stress in the run up to the holiday on our immune system.

Stress and Illness

In 1984 Janice Keicolt-Glaser demonstrated a link between exam-related stress in medical students and reduced immune function. Sheldon Cohen then demonstrated that people who reported stressful events in their life were more likely to become infected when intentionally exposed to cold viruses using nasal drops and were also more likely to develop clinical cold symptoms. Cohen’s research later showed that a range of chronic stressors (ie persisting for a month or more) increased our susceptibility to the common cold. The most significant stressors investigated in this study were those related to work.

So there is good evidence that chronic stress can impair immune function and increase susceptibility to infectious disease, but what about teaching? In a study of almost 300 US teachers, Dworkin et al (1990) found that illness increased proportionally to job stress. This supports the idea that workplace stress in schools contributes to teachers becoming ill.

Since a half-term is typically 6-8 weeks, workplace stress for teachers typically persists for over a month at a time, falling into Cohen’s definition of ‘chronic’. This is enough time for our immune system to become impaired do that we become more susceptible to infection. Add to this the incubation period for most cold viruses, and that’s the right timescale for teachers to begin coughing and sneezing just as their holiday starts!

What can we do?

The good news is that research indicates that there are several things we can do to reduce our chances of becoming ill.

1. Looking after our work-life balance during term-time rather than waiting for down-time in the holiday. We need to balance the demands of work with our health needs all the time. Easier said than done! Significant steps include being able to switch off from work and getting enough quality sleep.

2. Looking after our health. This includes making time for exercise, eating healthily, and avoiding things which have an adverse impact on our ability such as smoking. Cohen’s research shows that all these have a protective function. Initiatives like Teacher 5 a day can be a big help here.

3. Looking after each other. There is good research evidence that social support can provide protection against the effects of stress. If we all take some time to look out for each other, perhaps especially towards the end of term, we will all fare better. Those in leadership positions may have a special role to play: Dworkin’s study found that there was significantly less stress-related illness among teachers with a supportive School Principal.

You might also be interested in my posts on holidays and health which explore differences in resting heart rate during term-time and holidays.

Image: Pixabay

Teacher Holidays & Health Revisited

Could it really be that, even on summer holiday, school teachers experience more stress than educators in other roles who work through August?

Last year I wrote a post Holidays and Health, about the impact of the six-week Summer holiday on my health. I had been using a Fitbit heart rate monitor and I showed that it took the whole of the six-week holiday period for my resting heart rate to return to the level it had been before the start of the year.

Since then, a lot has changed in my professional life. Throughout the Summer I have worked as an Education Officer at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’ve written about not missing the long summer break because my new role isn’t subject to the same ridiculous pressures that teachers are often subjected to. In my post Summertime and the living is easy? I speculate that it is a combination of relentless pace, too few opportunities to collaborate, and lack of control over the education agenda, that result in teachers needing to recover from the school year, no matter how much they love teaching.

I knew I felt better this Summer, but I wondered whether there was a measurable physiological difference between this year and last. During the Summer term this year I did outreach work with KS2 & KS3 classes, visiting a range of primary and secondary schools, usually working with a class for a day. During the school Summer holiday, we did outreach work with a charity that organises holidays for children from economically disadvantaged families in cities, and we ran a week-long summer school at the museum and other university facilities. I only took the last week in August as holiday. In addition to my Museum role, I also started teaching part time at a secondary school close to my home. How did this compare with 2017?

As this graph shows there was a real difference:

My resting heart rate was much more stable this year, and was lower over the period I worked over the summer than it had been when I was on holiday from school last year. It very much looks like I was under less stress working through this summer, than I was by being on holiday from school last summer!

I appreciate that in the general scheme of things one measure on one individual is hardly going to be statistically significant, but when the individual is me, I hope nobody will argue with me feeling it’s important. I do think this is food for thought for all of us in education. Could it really be that even on holiday in the summer, a school teacher experiences more effects of stress than an educator in another role who works through the holiday? If that is the case, something is wrong.

I think this also show us that we need to keep an eye on our health. I’ve found the NHS Five Ways to Wellbeing a useful way to do this. The five strands are shown in this image from Wales NHS.

I have particularly enjoyed Martyn Reah’s work to encourage us all (in a profession which puts others first) to look after ourselves through #teacher5aday. With so many of us now wearing fitness trackers, these could be another way that we can not only monitor the ‘Be Active’ element, but also gain an insight general health and wellbeing.

Summertime and the living is easy?

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work.

School has broken up for Summer but I’m on the bus to work. That’s because this year included a momentous change for me. After over 25 years of teaching in secondary schools, I left to work as education officer at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I’m still teaching children, but visiting different schools, rather than working in one. You can read more about this here.

This Summer, we’re working with a charity that organises holidays for children. We’ll also be running our own summer school.

Not surprisingly, there are many differences between my old job and my new one, but as I read all the end-of-term posts by teachers on social media, the long school holiday, which is no longer part of my terms and conditions, is uppermost in my mind. Not because I’m missing it, but because I’m not.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to start moaning about teachers getting long holidays! That struggle to the end of term is all too resonant in my memory, together with that weird paradox whereby the number of tasks you have to complete seems to multiply exponentially as the time left to do them dwindles. I know that teachers absolutely need the Summer holiday, and so do the children they teach. What I’m wondering is why education is run in such a way that teachers need at least six weeks every summer to recover from the academic year?

From the perspective of my recent job change, I think there are three main reasons.

1. Relentless pace

This won’t be a surprise to any teacher, but the pace of work – by which I mean that there is often too much to do in the available time – inevitably means that teachers end up using their evenings, weekends, and ‘holidays’ to work – planning and assessing. We do this because we want to do a good job and do the best for the children in our care, but the danger is that we end up chasing the horizon, too frazzled to be effective and on our knees by the end of term.

In my new role, I find that my team leader insists that the work we plan is sustainable. My line manager is concerned that we build in enough time for admin tasks in our schedule, that outreach visits are timed so as not to exhaust us, and that sufficient priority is given to reflective evaluation. Staff are encouraged to take a proper lunch break and we were recently reminded to set ‘out of office’ messages on email when we aren’t at work.

The result of this is that I’m s much more effective teacher, the children have a much better learning experience, and the next day (after spending quality time with my family) I have the energy to do it all over again!

2. Too few opportunities to collaborate

One consequence of that unremitting pace, is that there is too little time to hone our practice. I believe the best way to do this is through collaboration. As Robert John Meehan says:

The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.

We can spend so much time trying to stay on top of the work, that collaboration and improvement get squeezed out. Worse still, we can come to resent meetings as a distraction rather than fantastic opportunities to create better ways of working.

Each week, there is a wider team meeting and a specific project meeting. Both are opportunities for colleagues to share updates on projects, encompassing both strategic and operational elements. There have been several occasions where input from others has been significant in moving the project I work on forward, both through ideas and practical assistance. I hope that on occasion I have been able to help others.

3. Lack of control

I believe that one of the key sources of stress within the teaching profession is lack of control. Teachers are given a lot of personal authority in their classes, but often it seems that it’s everyone else and their dog telling us how and what we should be teaching! This can leave some wondering why, when they were appointed for their individual expertise and creativity, they are then treated like programmable automatons. For schools the challenge is to achieve a consistency of pupil experience without stamping out the individuality of teachers. I think the answer is supported autonomy, creating conditions where teachers can thrive. Others have written eloquently about this topic, including this recent blog post by John Tomsett on solving the recruitment & retention crisis.

in my new role I and my colleague have experienced this by being given freedom, within the objectives and budget of the project, to plan and implement outreach days. That doesn’t mean our work isn’t open to collaborative input, evaluation and constructive criticism, but it does mean that we have ownership of it.

The result of addressing these three elements, ensuring workload is manageable, that there is effective collaboration, and that team members experience supported autonomy, is that the project is proving very successful, with significantly positive pupil outcomes and excellent feedback from participating schools, and that I’m happy on my bus ride into work, looking forward to the day ahead. Even during the school holidays.

Investing in Secondary PE: good for both health and academic success

In January, I wrote a post about the clear evidence for the link between regular physical exercise and improved academic performance by children in school.

Last month, the Youth Sport Trust (YST) published the report of its survey of UK secondary schools: PE Provision in Secondary Schools 2018. The report, based on a survey of teachers in secondary schools, highlights a worrying decline in Physical Education:

  • Curriculum time for PE has declined over time, most markedly at KS4.
  • Curriculum time for PE reduces as students move from KS3 to KS4, and beyond.
  • The main reason given for the decline was that additional time was given to core subjects or EBacc subjects.

The YST report concludes that these findings confirm a continuing ‘spiralling downward trend’ in the curriculum time allocated to PE in secondary schools, and that the good work seen in primary schools was rapidly undone. Primary schools will welcome the continuation of the Primary PE and Sport Premium, but there is currently no equivalent financial incentive for secondary schools.

The report focuses on the negative impact this will have on students’ health, particularly in the light of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan which aims for an hour of physical activity a day; 30 minutes of which are in school. The average for KS4 quoted in the report equates to barely 20 minutes per day, most likely achieved in one or two sessions a week. While this is hugely important for the health of young people and the future impact of obesity on the NHS and other services, I believe that it will also be detrimental to academic performance in school. Research has shown that devoting curriculum time to physical exercise rather than having a detrimental effect on GCSE subjects, is in fact linked to improved performance by students in English, Maths and Science (Booth et al, 2014).

The YST report calls on the government and school leaders to do more to promote PE and the benefits of a healthy, active lifestyle. I think it’s also worth adding that we should take time to understand the research showing that what may appear to be an easy “quick fix” to meet academic performance targets is likely to be counter-productive.

How schools can help tackle knives

I wrote this post in February 2018, then updated it in April to include information about the Home Office #KnifeFree campaign launched in March. This new UK-wide anti-knife campaign picks up on many of the themes of the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives campaign, which I mentioned in the original post, and forms part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

Knives and Children

This post is about a difficult topic: knives and children. Often thought of as an issue for schools in urban areas, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge in knife carrying and knife crime among children and young people across England and Wales, with knife crime increasing by 21% overall in 2017, despite increases in sentencing. In part, this has been driven by ‘County lines’ operations by drug gangs seeking to recruit children outside of large cities. As a 2017 National Crime Agency report describes, ‘County lines’ is characterised, among other features, by the exploitation of children and vulnerable people and the use of violence, with 85% of police forces reporting drug transportation and knife carrying being synonymous. The Children’s Society has more information about County lines on their website and have also produced a guide for parents who are worried that their children might be being criminally exploited.

Prompted by a lack of publicly available demographic information about those who died from knife attacks, The Guardian newspaper ran a Beyond the Blade campaign throughout last year. This collected both figures on knife crime and collected individual stories of those affected by its effects. As it turned out, 39 children and teenagers killed during the campaign, the worst year in 40 years. For each of these young lives lost there is a poignant story of a lost future and a family left to grieve.

Positive news from Scotland

In contrast to the worrying upward trend in knife crime reported in England and Wales, the Figures in Scotland are in decline, with no deaths of young people due to knife attacks in 2017. Scotland has a national approach to knife crime which addresses it as a social policy issue, rather than just a criminal justice issue, and attempts to address root causes. This approach was originally adopted in response to a 2005 UN report identifying Scotland as the most violent country in the developed world. The Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) has adopted a public health approach where the police, health, social services & education work together to address the issue by tackling the causal factors. Scotland also has a national knife crime information website: No knives, better lives. It provides information for young people, as well as separate sections for parents and practitioners, and allows conversations to start and information to be given, both anonymously. It’s well worth giving it a look, whether or not you live in Scotland.

This approach has had considerable success. During 2006 – 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in Scotland, but during 2011 – 2016 this number had reduced to just 8. Incidents of individuals carrying knives dropped by two thirds in same period.

Initially, policing and prosecution led the approach with harder sentencing and more stop-and-search, although less than 2% found with knife. The VRU did not stop there however. The police mapped all the gangs. Those at risk of prosecution were invited to a meeting which started by warning gang members that if thy continued would be convicted and go to prison, but then went on to educate. Police officers spoke about the injuries they saw and bereaved mother spoke about the loss of her son to a stabbing. The gang members were then offeredhelp – education, employment, housing. VRU is state funded, not charities competing for funding.

I think the positive impact of the national, collaborative approach taken in Scotland offers a model for the future in the rest of the UK. We haven’t yet got a national strategy, but we can make a start where we are by using the same elements:

  • Education about the impact of knife use and the penalties under law
  • A strong stance on prevention
  • Lines of communication and approach for children and young people
  • Collaborative work to provide real alternatives and a way out for those involved

What about schools?

So, what does this mean for those of us working in schools who have seen an increase in knife carrying and maybe violence among young people, perhaps as a result of ‘county lines’ linked activity? These are my thoughts on what is important:

1. Recognise that the behaviours we see are part of a bigger picture. It may also be the result of exploitation (whether or not the young people recognise it). The solution to such behaviour is far likely to come from a coordinated multi-agency approach, involving police, schools, social services and other parties. Schools can play a key role in working with others to help children understand the risks associated with knives.

2. Take a strong stance on safety. Of course there is a very real safety issue here, and I’m certainly not proposing that knife carrying is tolerated because those doing it may be exploited and/or afraid. The Scottish model shows us, however, that a strong legal stance is unlikely to work on its own, but is successful when combined with education and real initiatives to provide young people with a way out. Schools also need to think about how seriously they take the safety of pupils and staff: there are many institutions that would permanently exclude a pupil for possession of a knife, but are reluctant to use metal detectors (wands or knife arches) for fear of how this will be perceived. The DFE has recently updated the guidance on Searching, screening and confiscation with a particular emphasis on tackling bullying. This new guidance confirms the legal right of schools to use metal detectors without the need for consent from parents or pupils, and to refuse entry to those who do not comply.

3. Work with others, not in isolation. When a crisis hits a community, it can be tempting for everyone to hunker down in their own silos. This can sometimes lead to a blame game which solves nothing and hinders the communication and cooperation between education, police, social services, and the community which are vital to success. Schools also need to work with each other, recognising that issues affect whole communities, rather than just individual ‘problem’ schools. Teachers in particular can play a vital role in picking up early warning signs – even in helping to map involvement within a community – and communicating these to other agencies.

4. Help provide a way out to a better life. Distraction from drug-related and or gang activities can be useful, but there is a lot of evidence to indicate that once children are entangled financially, this is unlikely to be successful. The VRU project went as far as rehoming people when necessary. Local projects may not have the facility to do this, but schools can play a big part in providing alternatives through education and training, even for youngsters who may be the most challenging.

I also think it’s high time that teachers and school leaders started discussing this nationally. I suspect that the problems that have emerged for schools in Oxford, where I work, are being mirrored in towns and cities across the country – anywhere in easy reach of a big city by rail or road. Some great work is emerging in tackling knives, drugs and gang culture. There needs to be a way of sharing this.

April 2018 Update – #KnifeFree Campaign

In March, the Home Office launched a new anti-knife campaign called #KnifeFree, using advertising on social media and digital channels and the new KnifeFree website. This campaign draws on the Scottish No Knives, Better Lives format to tackle misconceptions about knife carrying and to provide routes to advice and further help. In particular, it uses real-life stories of young people who have made the choice not to carry knives to explore the consequences of carrying a knife, and to inspire young people to make the positive choice not to. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd has announced that this campaign will form part of the governments forthcoming Serious Violence Strategy.

I think that this campaign to raise awareness of the consequences of knife carrying is a welcome step towards tackling the issue. The successes of the approach in Scotland have been achieved through an integrated approach. Advertising campaigns and websites formed only one part of this and I believe that the rest of the UK will need to adopt a similarly collaborative approach between services, at both national and local level, if it is to achieve the same success in reducing the number of deaths, injuries, and violent crime among young people.

Holidays and Health

Image: pixabay

I have written a number of posts about things teachers can do to stay well in the face of the demands of the job (which you can find in these posts about wellbeing), but I haven’t previously considered school holidays. 

Are school holidays good for our health?OK, that might seem like a daft question! Like most teachers, I believe that school holidays are good for my health. Much as I love teaching, they are a chance to relax, recharge and spend time with friends and family. That’s got to be good for me.

This year, thanks to a Christmas present of an fitness tracker, I have been able to look at some quantitative evidence to back up my subjective feeling.  One of the things it measures is resting heart rate. Generally, the lower our resting heart rate the better (although clearly zero isn’t something to aim for). I have quite a slow heart beat. I’d like to claim that this is because of a rigorous athletic regime, but it is in fact something I’ve been fortunate to inherit.

“It seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to recover.”

This graph shows my average resting heart rate from the start of 2017 to the last week of the school Summer holiday.

As you can see, we weren’t long into the spring term before my resting heart rate rose, and it stayed high for the rest of the academic year. What interests me though is that it seems to have taken all six weeks of the Summer break for my resting heart rate to come down to the point it was at the start of the year. I did try to get all the school work I needed to do completed in the first two weeks of the holiday, but the recovery seems to start pretty much from the end of term. 

The graph also seems to indicate dips in testing heart rate for half term breaks in spring and Summer, and for the Easter holiday at the start of April, but it doesn’t recover to the original 52bpm it was in January. My heart, it seems, needs those six weeks!

I appreciate that a study of one person doesn’t mean much in the wider scheme of things, but doctors agree that it is worth each of us keeping an eye on our resting heart rate. This is because several studies, including this one by Nauman et al (2011) of over 29,000 participants, show that increases over time are a significant risk indicator for coronary heart disease. It occurs to me that many teachers now wear fitness trackers (if my own school is any indication) and it would be possible to collate data from these devices. You don’t need one of course: you can measure your resting heart rate by taking your pulse at the same time each day, ideally just before you get up in the morning.

Heart rate and Ofsted? Just for a bit of fun, see if you can tell when Ofsted were in, just by looking at the graph. If you give me your guess as a comment below, I’ll tell you if you’re right!