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Rachel Tomlinson: It’s all about relationships

Our mission statement at Barrowford Primary School is Learn To Love, Love To Learn. When I talk about my aims for our children, staff and families, I am reverting often to the phrase ‘good humaning’. 

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Valerie Hannon’s book Thrive has had a massive influence on our school; she talks about levels of thriving from intrapersonal, interpersonal, societal and global.  It has really made us think about the curriculum we offer and design for our children and by ‘curriculum’ I mean the entirety of the experience.

Our school ‘curriculum’ is built upon four pillars:

  • The National Curriculum
  • Rounded and Grounded: a framework around the metacognitive characteristics and dispositions we aim to develop in our staff and children to enable them to be learners throughout their lives and are heavily informed by Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power work.
  • The Sustainable Development Goals because having the highest level of qualifications will count for nothing if our planet cannot sustain life.
  • The Convention for the Rights of the Child which helps us keep the children right at the centre of what we are doing.

These pillars support a platform of equality, diversion and inclusion on which learning takes place dynamically and responsively developing our sense of humanity as well as our knowledge.

The principle of equality, diversity and inclusion is central to everything we do at our school.

The IPPR report from 2017 and the Timpson Review in 2019, both of which analyse school exclusion, highlight the need for our education system to really focus on the most vulnerable children in schools:  the first of the Timpson review recommendations is:

‘every child, regardless of their characteristics, needs or the type of school they attend, deserves a high-quality education that allows them to flourish and paves the way to a successful future’.

Timpson Review, 2019, pg 5

If we focus on getting it ‘right’ for the most vulnerable children then we can be fairly confident that this will benefit every child.

For well over a decade, we have had a Relationships Policy in place at Barrowford Primary School. Our aim is to create a context in which every child (and their family) feels safe and secure enough to be an active part of the community they are an integral part of. Dr Karen Treisman talks about ‘every interaction an intervention’; we try and ensure that every interaction we experience is warm and authentic and demonstrates unconditional positive regard.

We all have a variety of lenses that we ‘see’ through. These change depending on the context we find ourselves in: our sense of safety, our mood, whether we are hungry, our prior experiences, how well we slept the previous evening, the role we are in – all sorts of things.  These lenses are multiplied exponentially by the number of people in the situation.

At Barrowford, we always strive to look through the lens of each individual child acknowledging their lived experience and how that might influence the way they are presenting. Often when children are distressed, struggling to regulate or feeling challenged, it is often because the expectation that they comply with and fit the needs of the school’s routines and rules is too much or too difficult; we try to flip that and look at what we need to do to create a context in which the child feels safe and can be successful, what are the barriers that we can remove?

Physical needs are really easy to see – it would be rightly viewed as immoral and unacceptable to ask a person in a wheelchair to get out and walk up the stairs. We try and consider ‘invisible wheelchairs’, the things that might make walking up metaphorical stairs as impossible. We can only find out what these ‘invisible wheelchairs’ are by being curious and by forming effective and safe relationships with every child, acknowledging lived experiences and, very importantly, being kind.

Human beings want to belong to a group, we crave connection and to feel valued, safe and have a sense of security and attachment to others. Most people who feel connected to others are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing most of the time if they are able – if things are going wrong, it is often an emotional response to a situation or a trigger and, often, involuntary.

Crucially our reaction when things are going wrong needs to be congruent with the strength of our relationships. Our job as educators is embracing learning opportunities. If we change our lens and see a mistake in relationships as just that – a mistake – then we can change our response to it.  We can respond in the same way as we would when a child makes a calculation error or a spelling mistake; children are not born knowing social mores in the same way that they aren’t born knowing about standard algorithms or spelling rules.

Our reaction is not to punish but to educate. We seize the moment as a learning opportunity. We use a restorative approach to support this; the harmer takes responsibility for their actions but the space is safe and also acknowledges the wider context for each person involved. Ultimately the goal is to repair the relationship and to learn from the event. 

If we can get relationships right, we can create a context in which every child feels safe enough to take the risks that learning requires. We can help build a future generation of children who approach life in a very human way and change THEIR world and even THE world!

If we can create a context for children to Learn To Love then Loving To Learn becomes far more straightforward.

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