The Constant Gardener invests the most time and energy into their youngest year group

Children born in 2017 will graduate from school aged 18 in 2035. Looking 18 years into the past gives us some clue as to the scale of transformation 18 years into the future. Back in 1999, the internet and mobile technology was still in its infancy, students learnt direct from their teachers and their textbooks, with very few opportunities to interact directly with the world outside the classroom. By 2035, today’s opportunities and technologies will no doubt seem as outdated as their predecessors did back in 1999. If children born today are to become successful secondary school graduates of 2035, the time is right to create the blueprint for the school of the 21st century, one that encompasses a person’s intellectual, emotional, moral, civic and social development.

As my own daughter embarks on this journey, how will her education enable her to flourish in a truly holistic way? Other than knowledge, what else can and should we teach students that will help them get along in life? Not being able to hold a conversation on trigonometry or 20th century history at a dinner party is unlikely to ever be a game changer for her when she leaves school or university. However, success will be short lived without strengths of character, the skills and capabilities to think creatively, collaborate, empathise and be resilient in the face of the opportunities and challenges that life throws at us. Philosophers since the time of Socrates have taught us that human beings flourish when they live ethically, and good character should be learnt from schools, as well as parents and society. Heraclitus said it most simply: ‘Character is destiny’!

In previous posts, I have reflected on the implications of the ‘quick fix’ culture. Few would argue with the widely shared ambition to continue to raise the bar and improve examination standards. Yet, the pressure to achieve these outcomes has encouraged schools to succumb to the ‘iceberg effect’. Whereas the workplace has also changed unrecognisably over the last 18 years and will do so again in a further 18 years, the ‘traditional’ 11-18 curriculum has not kept up. As a result many learners are not getting the necessary beliefs, attitudes, social norms and self-efficacy to flourish in a fast paced work environment, with organisations such as the CBI repeatedly calling for a broader view of what young people should study at school.

But these behaviours (or lack of them) in our young emanate much earlier than at ages 16 or 18 – the early years of secondary school are a critical period of development. There is a widely held belief that the most stressful moments in our lives include getting married, moving house, starting a family and changing jobs. But for me – having lived it and observed it for many years – the single most stressful time in our lives is probably the one we have tried to forget or put to the very back of our minds: the transition from primary to secondary school. In fact, there’s growing evidence that a child’s experiences as they transition from primary school into secondary school can mould lasting connections in the circuitry of the brain.

At the age of 11, the chances are that new Year 7 students had been settled in a school that had formed a major part of their lives for the past seven years. Yet, suddenly they move from being the oldest and most respected students in their primary schools to being the youngest, least respected in their new. Chances are that, when you were eleven, you were confident of the school in which you operated. You were veterans. You knew your teachers, you knew your classmates, you knew every nook and cranny of the school that had been a second home for as long as you could remember. For many of us, our primary schools were small, almost family affairs: small school, small classes, a small set of teachers and assistant teachers who you all knew by name. But secondary school changes everything. To an 11 year old, secondary school is like tilting the world on its axis. Everything that was once so familiar is now so strange.

My own experience was not dissimilar to this. I went from belonging to a school of ninety students to a school of over two thousand, spread over two sites a whole mile apart. My friendship group at primary school, who had been a critical part of my life from the age of four, had all splintered off to many different secondary schools. From having lessons in the same class each day, delivered mostly by the same teacher, we now moved lessons every hour. From being top of the tree, I was suddenly right at the very bottom, and trying to avoid daily scuffles with others and being terrorised by the older children became my number one priority. This may just have been my first year in secondary school, but I am sure I speak for many – and not surprisingly, many students have difficulty managing these new demands. Students graduating from primary to secondary education are, in fact, experiencing an earthquake in the relative calm of their lives. The academic demands are different. The social demands are different. The emotional demands are different. Students are expected to be increasingly independent at the exact moment when, to effect a smooth transition, they need support the most. It’s little wonder, then, that this key moment provokes wild and varied reactions.

Many educators assume that high rates of regression from primary school through to the start of GCSE study – a major OFSTED paper called ‘The Wasted Years’ chronicled this exact phenomenon – are due to students having a lack of basic skills or sufficient academic challenge in their early years of secondary education. Yet for me the failure to see the problem remains the problem – the solution however stands right before us. David Levin, founder of KIPP – the Knowledge is Power Programme – chain of charter schools, talks about knowledge and character being the double helix of a child’s development. Knowledge and character are not mutually exclusive, they are completely intertwined. I would argue that there is actually a triple helix at play, the third strand being that of culture. These three areas are so intertwined, one cannot function effectively without the other, and more of one requires more of the other.

Yet it is no use talking about building character if we do not intentionally build in the development phases for these attributes to be nurtured. In my book The Power of Character I identify six phases which I term the 6 Elements. Each of these character elements allows for a wide range of character enhancing experiences whilst at the same time ‘enable’ academic behaviours – attendance, behaviour, achievement – to flourish.

Paying attention to the first ‘transition’ phase and investing the most time for our newest and most vulnerable year group, ENABLING our students to have as smooth a transition as possible and inculcating them early in the beliefs, values, social norms and opportunities of their new school has to be a vital first step in how any school should operate. A brief look at the science of child development is all it takes to properly understand that this is one of the most significant steps we as educators can help our students take. Most researchers agree that the first three or four years of a toddler’s life are those in which their brains are ‘wired’ on a fundamental level. In this period the brain grows to being about two thirds full size, developing at a rate that will never be seen again – but, though the foundations of our social and emotional selves are laid here, our brains do not stop developing. And, just as science has shown that severe stress experienced by a toddler – whether that’s because of lack of attention, encouragement, support, or more criminal neglect – can impact how the brain is formed, so has it been shown that children experiencing adolescence, a period in their lives where the brain is again in flux, developing and changing at a rate not seen since those earliest years, can be impacted in the long term. Bullying, neglect and stresses of all other kinds have a lasting impact on the human brain, and this is seen most forcefully at times of flux.

So what difference might the positive or negative experience of transitioning from one school to the next have on our students? On leaving primary school, how many of our children go from being confident and optimistic to becoming closed, cautious, fearful of failure or of looking silly in front of their new peer group? But what if we could get this transition process right and focus equally on a child’s social and emotional development? What if we brought into their consciousness the power of personal leadership – the knowledge and awareness that one’s beliefs are the only thing we can truly control ourselves and the only way to effectively take control over one’s destiny is to accept personal responsibility for each and every action we take? Stephen Covey, in his book the 7 habits of highly effective people, has a wonderful way of describing this phenomena as being ‘response-able’.

Enabling our new students is only half of the battle though. Parents are not only their children’s primary character role model and teacher, they are their most constant and enduring influence. In other words, the beliefs, words, actions and habits of parents are contagious to those closest to them and will likely cascade down onto their children. In the book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg calls our most important habits “keystone habits”. These are particular routines which have a multiplier effect on a range of other behaviours. For example, Duhigg documents findings from studies with parents who set the routine of having dinner every evening as a family can also lead to their children having “better homework skills, greater emotional control and more confidence”. A child made to make their own bed every morning starts what Duhigg calls a “chain reaction” of other positive behaviours.

What could be possible if schools focused less on short termist, tip of the iceberg approaches and took more time to build our young people’s self-worth through a firm foundation on principled driven values – the constant gardener. Could the real answer then to getting Year 11 right be getting the transitional ‘wonder years’ period of Year 6 through to Year 8 right?

In my next post, I will provide an overview to parts of our ‘Enable’ phase. This includes a 5 stage student and parent induction process when students are still in their primary school; our 1 week induction ‘ASPIRE Bootcamp’ at the start of September, where we intentionally enable each and every Year 7 student to understand, align, internalise and act upon our values, routines and expectations (and re-align all other year groups). This September we are also introducing a Character Baccalaureate for Years 7 & 8 to include some important markers of academic success such as attendance and behaviour, end of year standards for literacy and number work and a framework for developing social and cultural capital through a bespoke pre-Duke of Edinburgh Award for all (every child at King’s completes their full Bronze award in Year 9 and Silver by Year 11 but we want to create a framework to embed the habits of social action, participation and skill development from day 1 of Year 7). On top of all of this, we are devoting two hours per week to Life Skills. Over the course of the two year foundation curriculum, all students will have 7 week courses in 10 different life skill areas including: self-defence and personal protection; first aid and personal survival; thriving with independent living whilst at university; how to talk like a Tedster; how the brain works and finding your perfect revision technique; gardening & horticulture(!); writing a beautiful story; financial literacy and planning, and much much more. Exciting times ahead for all!

Thanks for reading.

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