In January our School Director Barry Mansfield visited the Bloomberg European HQ in the City of London. Alongside Preethi Nair (Author, Keynote Speaker, MD), Barry discussed navigating the middle years with employees at Bloomberg focusing on human centered approach and insights into managing a child's education. Many Bloomberg employees had further questions and Barry has prepared a response to these questions.
Well-being can be understood in different ways, but in school settings, it is most often described as a remedy (often counselling) for a problem (often related to mental health). One could be forgiven for thinking that a well-being need is really the same as a mental health need. That would not be how we think of well-being. Nor do we think of it as a quasi-medical term, such as a well-being clinic that will put you back on track.
While there is always a need for appropriate support services, we think there’s a better way to approach wellbeing. When we teach wellbeing we are learning a positive mix of personal, and institutional, wellness: a set of skills, dispositions, behaviours and habits of
mind that can be practised and mastered so that each student is empowered with the social and emotional skills to feel fulfilled and have meaning in both every day and the extraordinary. Wellbeing is about having intellectual, social and emotional security, where students and staff can learn how to navigate challenges and where they have a voice and agency in decisions that impact upon them. Where they feel recognised for who they are and have a sense of belonging.
We teach cognitive coaching, which provides students and staff with a process to support reflection and help mediate thinking - teaching thinking and problem-solving skills. Restorative practice builds relationships, so punitive sanctions are replaced with mediation, building key social skills: empathy, compassion, and listening skills. This restores broken relationships and builds community and belonging. Specifically, bullying is managed in this way: giving voice to the victim and ensuring the aggressor is confronted with the consequences of their behaviour. In general terms, this process is intensive and requires investment from the school, but our evidence is that it is inclusive and improves behaviour.
Well-being is about having power and agency, coupled with responsibility and accountability. Our purpose is not just about passing examinations: it is to send young people out into the world with the confidence and skills they need to be purposeful, active members of society, and to be changemakers if that’s what they want. This means nurturing independence at school, so students learn the processes of civic engagement, the political literacies that allow them to negotiate and compromise and lead and, ultimately, have meaning in what they do. Independence means allowing students to run student-led conferences; providing students with access to staff meetings, and giving them a voice in processes that impact them. We are also a very digital school, so we embrace essential technologies that allow students to navigate their world. So, we don’t ban mobile phones; we learn how to use them responsibly.
We have small class sizes (16 as a maximum), but we recognise that we are an independent school and have made a decision to be that way; not every school has this choice and/or can afford to do this. Class size does matter, though, not only for academic reasons: this is also the key driver of relationships, which are so necessary to a sense of belonging and status in school.
Always ask questions that matter to you and your child, and be sure you have good, evidenced answers. Beyond this, you could ask about any of the following.
The school should have a DEI strategy, which someone can talk through with you. Ask about the school’s main concerns, how they intend to address these, and what success looks like. Ask what progress they made last year, and what the goals are this year. There should be some evidence for this, too, so ask to see that. For example, this year, in our school, we have a new student-led DEI conference examining how students manage difficult conversations; and, all staff are completing a second round of training in intercultural competency. Last year, we completed a full review of our curriculum, examining the cultural responsiveness of our teaching and learning spaces.
There should be training for staff so that they can lead culturally responsive classrooms. This idea - being culturally responsive - is about recognising differences in individuals in the classroom, and ensuring every child, no matter their identity can see themselves reflected in the curriculum. This allows children to belong and supports their well-being.
Look for a visible commitment to DEI. If staffing seems to over-represent a particular group or the curriculum is overly centred on a particular place or time or people, or you just feel out-of-place, then raise these questions. Ask about the curriculum, to find out what is taught and what has been omitted, and then question those choices. Every school should have a purposeful rationale for why they teach something, or not, and should be pleased to share this information.
Talk with students and ask them about diversity in the school, and what the school does to ensure that everyone feels recognised. Ask them what happens in the school when someone is accused of racism (or misogyny, harassment, or bullying). Ask them if they are consulted about DEI matters; if not, then ask the staff team why students are not involved.
If we consider the opposite of Restorative practice, which would be rules and consequences (or crime and punishment), it helps us understand what needs to change.
Rules are inflexible, and designed this way so that individuals cannot make changes: they provide systems that are supposed to save time (human resources) and ‘automate’ how we interact with each other. Some of this is plainly not true though, and rules have a habit of creating other rules until the culture of a school - or a business - is less about people and more about systems, which take more and more time to manage. We end up managing the system rather than managing people. Restorative practice is one way we can reverse this unhealthy culture and be human-centred instead.
And, don’t have rigid consequences, because almost all school misbehaviour will be minor enough to meditate, and all of it will be rooted in problems that are entirely unrelated to the immediate issues and any pre-ordained consequence. Automated consequences remove the opportunity to explore and resolve these issues.
Instead of having rules, have principles or values; and instead of having rigid consequences, have mediation. Restorative practice involves spending time with young people to help them understand themselves, understand their motivations and actions, and understand their responsibilities; it involves spending time with those who have been ‘wronged’, hearing their stories and giving them an opportunity to share this with whoever it is who has caused them pain or hurt or discomfort. This takes practice and training, but it rebuilds broken relationships and allows students to have ownership of their social and emotional learning. It is incredibly powerful: my experience with students is that on almost every occasion if they are empowered with responsibility then they step-up; if they are beaten down with systems and rules, then they withdraw and are more likely to embrace an identity that purposefully alienates them from the community.
Also learn how to use a phone responsibly. It is probably the single most powerful item you own: the aggregated knowledge of most of humanity is available on your phone, and it has tools that we use every day to help us navigate the world. Students need to know how to use them, so we use them in the classroom. We also know the safeguarding concerns around phones, and anxieties about social media, but these need to be addressed, and students need strategies to manage these questions. School should be the place to do this; banning phones would be evidence of adults (schools) avoiding their responsibilities. And, it’s worth saying that our examination results are excellent: there is a correlation between mobile phones and academic outcomes
Qualifications & Citizenship
The IB has a core Learner Profile that is a natural focus for us. We also mandate that every student provides some service to the community, either internally (for younger students) or externally: social responsibility is taken seriously enough that students cannot receive their IB Diploma unless they complete their service. The IB also demands that all subjects are contextualised - made relevant to the world around us - so students build citizenship skills through the application of their understandings.
We have a range of co-curricular activities and an institutional practice that provide the basis for social/emotional learning, and this allows students to develop their ‘soft skills’; for example, students regularly present at staff meetings, and will attend Senior leadership meetings, and sit on teacher interview panels. These are essential life skills.
We are still growing as a community, and we’d like to open a primary school. We’d hope to do this in the next 3 or 4 years. We have some information about our strategic plan on our website. I’d direct interested families to our website: we have a lot of extra- and co-curricular activities, and the usual support services for language learners and other educational needs.