Podium: A virtuous circle for our schools

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The Independent Culture
Jenny Mosley

From a talk by the lecturer in education

at Bristol University, delivered at the

Union Chapel, London

HOW CAN schools transform themselves to unlock the potential of every student and teacher? How can the Government's drive to raise attainment be combined with its commitment to putting citizenship on the curriculum, and its healthy schools initiative?

I believe that many schools across the country are beginning to show how to do this through a whole school approach that I have been seeking to popularise, called the "Whole School Quality Circle Time Model".

This involves helping the whole school community to set up a series of circle meetings for all the children and adults, through which they resolve all their organisational and interpersonal issues.

Constant change, inspection and target-setting have taken their toll on the psyche of the nation's teachers. Yet research proves that teachers with sound self-esteem and a strong sense of self-respect foster high- self-esteem pupils who, in turn, can fulfil their true academic and social potential.

Teachers with low self-esteem, coupled with physical exhaustion, can sink into worrying patterns of nagging, negativity, erratic responses and low expectations. All adults in the school need to feel valued, respected and listened to. Find ways of meeting the needs of adults and you can then release the energy necessary for them to meet the needs of pupils. Until all adults feel emotionally safe and supported within schools, excellence cannot be released.

In the Whole School Quality Circle Time Model, which has now been implemented in hundreds of primary schools, the first focus is on enhancing the mental health of the adults.

On training days we invite the whole school community and teach a range of collective and self-care strategies. We encourage team-building and corporate policies to help staff look after each other and themselves. We try to point out that until the adults start to "model" happiness, pleasure and respect, we shall have a generation of children not wanting to grow up.

As it is, at present we have one in five children suffering from mental health problems (The Big Picture, Mental Health Foundation, February 1999). They need to be surrounded by energetic, yet calm role models.

In order that the whole community can speak and listen to each other, we involve the schools in a commitment to setting up an ongoing, timetabled process of circle meetings. Through these forums, which are governed by strict ground rules, all individuals tackle the key interpersonal and organisational issues affecting their school development. The circle meetings incorporate a range of strategies to ensure not only that everyone feels supported, but also that their relationship skills are continuously being enhanced.

Through the forum of Circle Time, children learn the "lived-in" reality of what it means a citizen. They learn to be part of a class community for whom they have responsibility. They participate in a democratic decision- making process and they learn to represent and respectfully lobby for their needs and views in other meetings.

In the initial stages of this process, the circle meetings act as the framework through which the school establishes a firm, circular sequence or recommendations for the creation of an effective school.

We implement a visible moral value system, in golden rules with attendant practical imperatives (safety routines); the establishment of a highly motivational system of sanctions and incentives that is democratically shared by all adults and children; the promotion of strategies to create calmer, more productive lunch times; the implementation of "daily success programmes" and therapeutic intervention to help children who are "beyond" motivational strategies; and the shared back-up system of support of teachers themselves under unacceptable levels of stress. Once all these structures are in place, the circle meetings, timetabled for all adults and children, continue to act as a review body.

Once the circle of people have learnt to listen and respect each other, research shows that pupils feel "safe" enough to become creatively adventurous, as there is no fear of a backlash if they make a mistake; there is now a culture of support and celebration.

People can have the energy to take risks and come up with creative ideas, only once they are "held" by a safe and supportive ethos, where mistakes are seen as a positive process and not as an opportunity to denigrate. It needs courage to be part of a growing, transforming culture, and courage is fuelled by the quality of relationships.