Unconditional Positive Regard: the heart of teaching

The dictionary definition of the verb to “like” is essentially to display a favourable opinion or disposition. Yet, in conversations with teachers throughout my career, I’ve met with resistance to the notion of having to “like” in order to be able to teach. One of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed: “I’m not paid to like kids – I’m paid to teach them.”

If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, that is, the effective transmission of information from the teacher to pupil, then one can see how the disposition of the teacher is of no consequence. Yet, we know that the disposition of teachers towards learners has a major impact on their willingness to engage and learn. Even the “traditional” no- nonsense, subject-oriented, results-focused teachers can show through their actions that they care about every child in their class – and the learners respond accordingly.

The reality of human nature is that we tend to “like” people whom we find pleasant or value. In that sense, our tendency to “like” is conditional upon the appearance or behaviour of the person. In the classroom, this can take the form of a teacher changing his or her disposition towards a child in direct response to the child’s behaviour.

But what if the child does not respond to the teacher with equitable response? What if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate? Surely the teacher is entitled to change his or her disposition towards the child, as in “I don’t like that kid”.

The logic that underpins this assertion supposes that it’s human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgments about those whom we will treat with positive regard. So if, in our classroom, there is a child who does not conform to our expectations or standards of behaviour, then we can legitimately express our disfavour through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions.

The problem in such instances is that most children can cope with being told off or punished, as long as it’s fair. However, all too often the teacher will give an additional “punishment” through a noticeable shift in their disposition towards that child on a permanent basis. Such a shift is picked up by the child – and, just as importantly, by their peers.

Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard. Regardless of what their child might do, they will continue to treat them with enduring warmth and not be deflected by the human frailties of their child. Such an approach can be referred to as unconditional positive regard. The true teacher adopts the perspective of the parent, and is able to step beyond the reflexive response to dislike the child for their actions and separate the behaviour from the person. Such a stance does not mean that the teacher ignores or condones poor behaviour, but that they make it clear they still value the child as a person.

I believe a person’s capacity to treat children with unconditional positive regard lies at the very heart of what it is to be a professional teacher. Although, at first glance, the term smacks of psycho-babble, it is actually possible to tease out its meaning in a way that translates very well to the Scottish classroom.

If I am to be allowed one dream, it would be that every teacher, leader and professional person connected with Scottish education set out firstly to treat every child with unconditional positive regard, and secondly, to treat their colleagues in a similar manner. What a place we would have created.

Residential Child Care: Think Local

Let’s start with some numbers: Scotland spends £250 million a year on providing residential care to Looked After children – a rise of 68% in a seven year period. These are children who have been placed in the care of the Local Authority through voluntary arrangements with parents, or have been placed in compulsory care through children’s hearings, a sheriff’s order, or a court ruling. The reasons for placement include care orders, child protection, and offending behaviour.

Around 1600 children and young people are placed in residential care each year. This figure has remained stable over the last seven years, despite the number of children being identified as Looked After increasing from 9 in every 1000 in 1998 rising to 14 in every 1000 in 2009.

Of £250 million total expenditure, which accounts for 30% of  Councils’ Children service budgets, £135 million is spent on providing residential education and secure accommodation, almost all of which is provided by the independent sector, with average weekly costs varying from £800 – £5000 per child, (£41,000- £260,000 a year).

Yet despite this investment we know that the outcomes for children and young people placed in care are incredibly poor, with 1 in 10 experiencing homelessness within two years of leaving care; 25% of our prison population having been in care; 45% of looked after and accommodated children having mental health problems; and half of all such young people failing to achieve a foundation award at either Maths of English.

The challenges facing Local Authorities are twofold: ensuring that they fulfil their statutory corporate parenting responsibilities for Looked After Children, whilst ensuring that they maintain an appropriate balance between quality and cost.

As a Director of Education and Children’s Services I share the corporate parenting responsibilities with elected members and other senior officers.  I would actually extend that responsibility to every employee of the council; and perhaps go even further by extending that to every member of our communities in East Lothian

Nevertheless, from a statutory perspective I have a range of responsibilities for this group of children and young people, namely, to safeguard and promote their welfare; make use of services that would be available to children were they cared for by their parents; promote regular and direct contact between a child and person with parental responsibilities; find out and have regard for the views of the child, his/her parents and any other relevant person when making decisions which might affect them; and finally, take account of a child’s background.

Yet there is one additional responsibility set out in the  Looked After Children (Scotland) Act  2009 – with particular regard to education which is, perhaps, the most difficult to fulfil, it reads: “They should also receive additional help, encouragement and support to address special educational needs or compensate for previous disadvantage and gaps in educational provision.”

 This last line presents both a challenge and a dilemma for someone in my position. Firstly, why haven’t we tackled a person’s disadvantage earlier to ensure that they have had the same opportunities as all other children? And, secondly, why do they have gaps in their educational provision?

 These are not rhetorical questions. These are uncomfortable truths. For the reality is that we have not addressed these questions in anything like a rigorous enough manner.  For we know that inadequate parenting in the first few months of a child’s life has a devastating impact upon their future. We know that that subsequent gaps in children’s development emerge before they commence school. We know that these gaps extend and accelerate once they get into school. We know that Looked After Children are more likely to be excluded. We know that such children will occupy the bottom sets in subjects such as Maths and English. We know that they are more likely to be known to the local police and to be causing problems in their community.

 Yet when the system- not the child – has really failed we send them off to secure accommodation at a cost of a £260,000 a year – the equivalent to employing six teachers for a year.

 I wonder how a group of headteachers might respond to the offer of having an additional quarter of million pounds a year on condition that no child or young person would be sent to secure accommodation from their community? Of course such a scenario would be difficult to manage given that some secure orders can be made by a Children’s Hearing or Court, depending upon the offence or circumstances – but it does provide food for thought.

 The reality is that residential care is a legitimate part of the care continuum we provide to children. However, if we are to fully address our obligation as corporate parents it is not enough to accept that some of these children will inevitably end up in a residential school or secure accommodation.  I wouldn’t accept that for my own children and I don’t think we should accept for those who are placed in our care.

 Children and young people belong to their local communities. They belong to their schools.  We should be doing everything in our power to ensure that Looked After Children stay in their schools and in their communities – and experience a childhood which mirrors the opportunities, love and support which we would expect for our own children. Now no-one said this was going to be easy?

Education and Children’s Services – “stretching” and “reaching”

I had cause to ponder the other day whether or not education is enhanced by a direct link with children’s social work (children’s services) as part of an integrated department – and vice-versa.

In East Lothian the two services were brought together nearly eight years ago. It was formed by hiving off those members of staff who worked in children’s social work from those who worked with adult social care. The simple – and continuing logic – was that there was much to be gained by enabling all those who worked to meet the needs of children to be linked together into a “seamless” service. Of course the theory in such cases is always easier than the practice but over the years the benefit to children has been recognised as a positive – most recently in the inspection of services to protect children in East Lothian.

Nevertheless, it’s important to continually review whether such logic stands up to scrutiny in changing circumstances. And so it was on Thursday that I listened to Angela Constance speak to Scottish Directors of Education. I was encouraged by what she had to say about the aspirations of the government to focus upon Getting It Right For Every Child (GIRFEC) as a cornerstone for improving the outcomes (achievement and attainment) for children and young people being educated in Scotland. I suppose this is reflected in the Government’s decision to place Children’s Services under the portfolio of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning – whereas the responsibility for older people lies with the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Well-Being and Cities.

Angela Constance’s input was preceded by Sir Peter Housden, the head the civil service in Scotland, who made a powerful case for adopting an outcome focused approach to public service. In relation to education in Scotland he highlighted the huge discrepancy between highest performing 20% of young people and the lowest performing 20% – which is the amongst the highest in the developed world. For me the only way we are going to address this scandalous statistic is to see education within the wider context which is Getting it Right for Every Child.

Teachers and schools cannot – and will not – be able to dent these figures alone. Simply thinking that Curriculum for Excellence – even if taught by fantastic teachers – is going to be enough to help Scotland compare favourably with other countries is doomed to failure.

That’s why we are working in East Lothian to create a service which is genuinely built around the needs of child and not around the needs of the service. Such an approach requires professionals to think very differently from how they have in the past where the first thought was often to think of the professional boundaries – which would prevent them from working in a certain way – as opposed to adopting a positive perspective on how to solve problems.

What we are attempting to build in East Lothian is a way of working which meets the needs of people and their families from pre-birth to 18 (and beyond) which has “stretch” and “reach”. By “stretch” I mean a journey for every child that is not characterised by “clunky” transitions from one discrete organisation/agency to another, which only serve to hold them back, but a service, which can stretch forwards, and back in anticipating the needs of young people and understanding the impact of their developmental history. By “reach” I mean a way of working which can reach beyond the professional location and traditional parameters of practice, e.g. a school which can reach out to the family, or a social work team who can reach into a school.

By seeing ante-natal care, early years, parenting, health and well-being, additional support for learning, severe and complex needs, social and emotional behavioural difficulties, attainment, the curriculum,  corporate parenting adoption and fostering, alcohol and drug misuse, positive destinations, etc, as inter-connected issues which impact upon children -  as opposed to discrete elements which need to be managed in isolation from one another – we have a much greater chance of really making a difference.

Child Protection, shared services and accountability (1)

One of the things I really enjoy about my post is the extent of joint working with colleagues from health, police, voluntary sector, children’s social work and other organisations and groups with a common interest in improving services to children and families.  This form of joint working can be characterised as “integrated service delivery” 

Yet integrated service delivery leads one naturally to consider the potential for “shared service” delivery.

The drive for shared services can be traced back to the Gershon Review which considered efficiency in the UK public sector in 2004-2005. It was founded on the assumption that certain functions of government were identified as offering good opportunities for savings through the use of ICT: such as tax collection and benefits payments. Aggregating and reorganising other functions were seen to offer the promise of savings in procurement, buildings and facilities.

In Scotland this was followed by a consultation paper published in 2006 by the Scottish Government in the form of “A Shared Approach to Building a Better Scotland” . The main focus of the paper was upon inward facing services such as finance, procurement, HR, facilities, ICT and professional services, e.g. legal, audit.  There was a second area which addressed operational support systems and processes which would allow shared services to be established, areas identified in this respect included:

social care administration/client management, Criminal Justice, Education administration, Housing administration, Transport/highways maintenance/management, Police Operational Systems, Fire Operational Systems, Customer Contact/ CRM, Payments systems, Corporate performance management/reporting , Grants and funding administration, Tribunal administration.

The same paper went on to specifically focus upon social care and child protection:

“There has been a long term move towards an integration of the Social Care services provided by Councils and NHS Boards and for the effective sharing of data on vulnerable children between Education, Social Work, Police and Health. The selection of common standards, processes and operational systems and the shared deployment of these will play a key part in these developments and we will support initiatives with this aim.”

Certainly within our integrated service approach in East Lothian there has been a move towards shared processes, standards and operational systems.  Yet our progress had been hampered by the fact that the police and health services extend across more than one council area, i.e. our boundaries are not co-terminus.  For example the police division covers Midlothian and East Lothian.

From an objective point of view there appears to be an inescapable logic that East and Midlothian need to develop common standards, processes and operational systems in order to facilitate effective joint working with our key partners, which may or may not take the form of “shared services”

In my next post I will explore the benefits, risks and possible solutions of this direction of travel.

 

 

 

 

Developing my role

As Head of Education I had a very clear and unambiguous role, i.e.  I was responsible for everything which came under the banner of education of children and young people from 3-18 years of age.  In my new role as Acting Director of Education and Children’s Services I have a much wider remit which includes the oversight of education but also gives me responsibility for the social care agenda for children and families in East Lothian.  I’m fortunate to have two outstanding heads of service in the form of Alan Ross, Head of Children’s Services, and Maureen Jobson, Acting Head of Education, both of whom have tremendous experience in their respective fields and can be relied upon to deal with the business of managing our £85 million budget whilst also contributing and shaping our strategic direction.

As Director I also have a major corporate responsibility as a member of the Board of Directors, alongside the other directors and the chief executive.  It’s this area that has perhaps the greatest potential for seeing a change in the way that we do things in East Lothian.  For example, we have agreed following our recent Managers Conference to revise our corporate plan to consider things in a much more thematic approach than simply from a service perspective.  For example, by considering the corporate parenting agenda as a theme we can begin consider how each of the discrete services can work together more effectively to provide a service which has a positive impact on the lives of Looked After and Accommodated Children – as opposed to one where the needs of the individual service took precedence over the needs of the child.

As a Director I also play a key role in the interface with the elected administration through working closely with the convener pf education and children’s services and other senior members of the administration in assisting them to fulfil their democratically elected agenda. The range and number of meetings can be a burden in terms of the time required but this is a necessary outcome of democratic accountability if we are to ensure that local government is properly managed and effectively delivered.

I’m also heavily involved in developing our strategy and practice in relation to the integration of various services to ensure that we work together effectively to meet the needs of young people and families.  As the chair of the Chief Officers group which includes senior representatives from education, police, health, the voluntary sector, children’s services and elected members we have begun to see a more connected approach to planning and the use of limited resources.  One of the exciting dimensions of this approach is our emerging strategic emphasis on Early Year and Parenting.  I have used this concept as a prism through which to reflect upon all aspects of our practice – that is not to say that everything that we do can be explicitly connected to early years or parenting – but that it’s a useful process through which we can begin to align resources and our practice to make substantive , long-term impact on the lives of children who otherwise would be trapped by the generational cycle of disengagement and poor outcomes which can afflict so many families.

In addition to these long term agendas there are of course the wide range of day-to-day issues which can land on my desk as the person with whom the “buck stops” – in many ways these are the bread and butter of my job but there does remain a danger that they can draw you into that cycle of “fixing things” – a phenomenon I recently wrote about – as opposed to considering the underlying issues which often underpin the day-to-day problems. This does require a disciplined approach if I am not to get lost in the detail and keep myself focused upon the bigger picture – which doesn’t always happen.  To that extent I think the role of this Learning Log is absolutely crucial as it’s the one of the few times in my working week when I have the freedom to explore ideas, reflect upon my work and consider the “opposite worlds” which might provide a more fruitful outcome than our current practice which can so dominate our lives.

Looking forwards I reckon I also have key role to sustain and support my colleagues who are dealing with issues at a face-to-face level with our customers – our senior leaders in schools and children’s services face innumerable challenges and do so in such positive and professional manner which explains why our respective services are of such a high standard. Nevertheless, such challenges inevitably take their toll which is why it is my intention in the coming year to work with my colleagues at a much closer personal level by regularly visiting them on site, attempting to understand their problems and offering my support both in a practical sense and in a longer-term strategic manner to change the way in which we do things.

Community-Based School Management

Over the last few weeks I’ve been continuing to exploring the concept of school based management.

Some authorities in Scotland have implemented the concept of Learning Communities based around the secondary school  and the local primary schools, Glasgow runs New Learning Communities, Falkirk has Integrated learning communities and South Lanarkshire has Learning Communities.

Each of these schemes has very positive features, most notably in relation to the integration of other services to support vulnerable children and to co-ordinate developments across local schools.

However, there would appear to be scope to develop these schemes by exploring further devolution of budgetary control and employment of staff within the community of schools.

I haven’t been able to find many international examples of such a development aside from on in Madagascar which might suggest that such a idea is not that practical but in the interests promoting a dialectic of possible worlds I thought I might take the Learning Community concept and extend it to community-based management of schools.

Would it be possible for a local authority to establish a concordat with a group of local primary schools and their associated secondary school and devolve all budgets to a Learning Community Board of Management? 

A Head Teacher from the schools would take on the position of Chief Operating Officer.  The Board of Management would have representatives from the parents, staff, local community, elected members, health service, police, community learning and social services.

The biggest problem I see with this idea is the fear from some schools that they get subsumed within a larger community and lose their identity.  Yet the potential for every member of staff being employed by the Learning Community and the possibility of using the collective resources in much more coherent manner than at present might allow real progresss to made on promoting education as a true progression from 3-18 and the associated ownership of the school and the wider educational agenda by the local community.

Reconfiguring services – meeting the challenge

We held a very successful “Corporate Parenting” Conference today at the Marine Hotel, North Berwick. .

Adam Ingram MSP , Minister for Children and Early Years gave a  well informed and committed keynote address and emphasised the need for us to collectively address the needs of Looked After and Accommodated Children and to focus upon the improving outcomes for such children, namely:

  • Raising Attainment
  • Improved Leaver Destinations
  • Reducing offending
  • Improved Health

In the follow up questions Adam was asked a question about the need to reconfigure services and his vision for the future.  He alluded to an extensive vision but focused upon Early Years support and intervention encouraging us to reprioritise around this point if we are to make a difference to chidren’s lives.

In recent discussions with colleagues from many different fields I’ve found a similar willingness to engage with this agenda – although it remains to be seen if we can begin to reprioritise budgets to this area. Having said that we had a very useful example last week when we were able to redirect some work towards early years.  In a meeting with Diane Littlejohn we were discussing our parenting strategy and Diane was telling us about the transition work she is doing in one of our clusters to help all parents make the transition from being the parents of a child to the parent of a teenager (which any of us who have been parents will tell you is quite an adjustment). Nevertheless, we were able to connect the conversation to a recent meeting we had about a desperate need to support parents of very vulnerable young children to help the child adjust from home to nursery and nursery to primary school.

The emerging proposal was that we would be better directing Diane’s expertise to this age group with a view to making a long term impact – as opposed to trying to intervene in a situation which might be beyond help.  Now I know the danger here is that we have a “lost generation” but if we are serious about making a difference we need to move from “trying to fix” to “trying to prevent”.  As I’m finding out the consequences of reprioritising funding from previous areas of emphasis to other areas can cause significant distress and concern amongst those who perceive themselves to be losing out in this adjustment.

I reckon the solution/challenge here is to engage with all interest groups to describe what want to do, why we are doing it and involve them in the solution - without this dialogue the system can begin to break down with single issue groups only focusing upon their own needs and challenging the wider agenda which is to advocate for the needs of all children.

It’s this agenda which I’m finding professionally challenging but the potential rewards for taking this approach seems to me to be too good to miss.

Becoming a parent again

 

I’ve become a parent again!!!!

One of the most exciting aspects of my new job is that I intend to take on the role of Education Champion for Looked After and Accommodated Children in East Lothian. The reality of the educational outcomes of this group of children in Scotland is is quite shameful:

  • The attendance of children and young people looked after at home was 84.8%, looked after away from home was 91.5% and for all looked after children and young people was 87.9%; compared to an attendance rate of 93.1% for children and young people who were not looked after.
  • The exclusion rate per 1000 pupils for children and young people looked after at home was 323, for looked after away from home was 354 and for all looked after children and young people was 339; compared to 53 for those who were not looked after. 
  • 4.1% of children not looked after left school with no qualifications; this figure increased to 24% where the young person was looked after and accommodated and 41.9% when looked after at home.

It is the responsibility of the local authority to take on the role of Corporate Parent - or as Adam Ingram described it:

 “In some ways it’s like having the best bits of being a ‘pushy parent’: ensuring each individual child is having their own needs addressed and truly being looked after. Authorities and agencies can never fully replace a parent, but they can turn around the experiences of children from challenging backgrounds by asking ‘What would I want for my own child?’

I’d like to be that pushy parent and to be joined in that role by every single person who works for East Lothian Council.

When  I was a student I worked in a Secure Children’s Home. It was a seminal experience for me and I remember thinking that these kids didn’t have chance.  Perhaps I’m now in a position to try to do something about it?

Here are some further details about Looked After and Accommodated Children:

Scotland’s looked after children and young people live in a wide variety of home settings, broadly speaking they fall into the following groups:

  • At home with their birth parent(s)
  • With friends and relatives of their family
  • In foster care
  • In a residential unit/children’s unit
  • In a residential school
  • In secure accommodation

The living environment does appear to have a direct bearing on the educational outcomes of Scotland’s looked after children and young people. Based on the information gathered for the Children’s Social Work Statistics and Scottish Executive National Statistics Publications in relation to educational outcomes, when compared to other looked after children and young people:

  • Children and young people who are looked after at home with their parents do least well, as a group, in terms of attendance and achievement when compared to other groups of looked after children and young people.
  • Children and young people who are looked after and accommodated in foster care do best, as a group, in terms of attendance and achievement when compared to other groups of looked after children and young people.
  • Children and young people who are looked after and accommodated in residential units do least well, as a group, when compared to other groups of looked after and accommodated children and young people.

As at 31st March 2006, there were 12,966 looked after children and young people in Scotland. Of this group:

  • 56% were looked after at home by their parents or with other family members or friends and 44% were looked after and accommodated in foster care, residential or secure settings;
  • Almost 53% of Scotland’s looked after children and young people are aged under 12 years;
  • Just over 64% of children and young people looked after in foster care are aged under 12 years;
  • Almost 91% of children and young people looked after and accommodated in a non-secure local authority residential home or unit are aged 12 years or over; and,
  • Over 90% of children and young people looked after and accommodated in residential schools are of secondary school age or older.

25%  of the prison population were Looked After and Accommodated Children – this figure rises to 50% of the prison population under 25!!!

Getting it right!

 

I was invited to a COPS meeting this afternoon.  No they hadn’t eventually caught up with me! COPS is a an acronym for Co-ordinators of Pupil Support.

This group meets up five times a year to share practice and highlight common areas of concern.  I was invited to take part in a discussion about the role and future of the group. 

Perhaps the main point I made was to repeat an opinion I expressed in November 2006 about the need to refocus and reshape our support systems in schools to allow us to fully target our resources upon those who need it most.

We have a lot of work to do to share the agenda of For Scotland’s Children and Getting it Right for Every Child

One key starting point is that one of the group will join our Integrated Children’s Services Operational Group, which meets on a monthly basis to ensure a link between secondary schools and multi-agency approach we are developing