“Genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger” – Lessons from Medicine that need to move into Education.

Genes v EnvironmentThere is a rising tide of mental health issues across the world, affecting most age groups, influencing young people irrespective or race, colour or gender. There’s also a matching growth of opinion that suggests that the causation of these problems arises because of the growth in pressure on children, pressure that’s nasty, corrosive, invasive and long-term. The outcomes for children don’t look good once struck down; anxiety, anorexia, obsessive-compulsive, depression, attention-deficit, spectrum disorders and so forth are extraordinarily debilitating and seem to affect life chances long term.

These disorders seem to have been with us for ever, passed from generation to generation via a small number of common genetic variants and yet until recently, they have been very much off the radar. Are we now seeing them because as parents and stewards of children we are so much more alert to the problem? I’d like to think so; ‘we are at the cutting edge of education and we know what’s best for your child’… ok, so probably don’t actually think that now, or ever actually.

These problem now appear almost epidemic across the country; the signs and symptoms now visible in every primary and secondary school I know. Our reaction as a school is in part to respond by upping the quality and availability of expert help advice and counsel. I am delighted that we have expert nurses, counsellors, teachers and pastoral leaders who continue to keep their own working knowledge of these issues up to date, and that now we can plan even more appropriate early intervention as we deem fit. This is only half the story, because inevitably, if we are not careful, we are medicalising the problem, institutionalising it as a norm’ and creating more cases simply because we are looking for them!

If you can afford to dwell some time, have a listen to a recent Woman’s Hour programme, where Jane Garvey interviews Professor Cindy Bulik on the growing evidence of links between schizophrenia, anorexia and family genes.  In short, you’ll hear one more compelling story that suggests these problems are really complex, and if there is a genetic link, it exists over multiple genes and so no one fit model for causation or cure exists. OK, I’ll have a go then.

Most of us would say we know what hunger, fear and fright feel like. For us, it’s not normal, we’ll release some adrenalin, which lifts our pulse, increases blood flow to vital organs such as muscles and sense organs and on occasion, causes us to defecate straight away. When I say, for us, it’s not normal, I talk of Sixty somethings, born and grown up in a time when there was no daytime TV, when newsagents were shut on Sundays, when other family largely ignored us and certainly did not see us in tandem with the buildings we live in as ‘home improvement projects’.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the stress on children is causing them to feel that ‘hollow’ feeling in their stomach as normal, something to seek and hold on to when the rest of the world rushes by. Indeed, self-harming too assists in creating that ‘buzz’ , re-releasing into the bloodstream the hormones that bring back that ‘comforting’ feeling. That’s what is meant by the phrase ‘normalising’, yet there is nothing normal about the activity of the feelings at all.

Why have the stresses grown so much? Children are found at the  heart of family life, VIP in Chez Nous, and they sit at the very centre of their Universe and their perspective is always valued. The opportunities for children to learn, to participate, to acquire skills, have never been so widely available or as diverse. The expectations on them, even if parents are protective, have never been higher. Children’s looks, fashion, size, shape, behaviour are all targeted by society in general, by media news organisations and commercial business in particular, and regular scientific research reports that children have never under as much pressure. Back in 2007, the UK ranked bottom for Children’s well being in a  UNICEF survey of 21 of the most developed countries of the world, and the Labour government of the day focussed some national resources to improve provision for teenagers in particular. In the follow-up survey of 2013, UK performance rose slightly, moving us up to 15 place,  but warning bells were rung again by both Unicef UK and the Children’s Society. The Banking crisis and change of government had seen resources for children slashed once more.

Anita Tiessen, deputy executive director of Unicef UK, said: “There is no doubt that the situation for children and young people has deteriorated in the last three years, with the government making policy choices that risk setting children back in their most crucial stages of development”.

“It is far too easy to assume that teenagers aren’t as vulnerable as younger children or don’t need as much support,” said Lily Caprani, director of communications and policy at the Children’s Society. A raft of other surveys looking at the academic performance of UK children in schools shows as a country we lag behind, and in those that lead the way such as Finland and Singapore, they make the point that we start formal school too early and we ‘test’ far too much.

Now things are not quite as gloomy as they seem. Improvements in older teenagers’ attitudes to alcohol, sex and each other have improved markedly, and national rates for unwanted pregnancies have plummeted.  The Good Childhood report last August (the third in a series)  – the third in a series published by the Children’s Society – compared England with 39 other European countries and North America, rating it 30th in “wellbeing” – defined as self-reported happiness and satisfaction. Use of computers at home is not a cause for the problem, indeed it’s the lack of its availability outside of schools in deprived families that’s been part of the problem. The financial pressures that families have found themselves under have had an impact, as have media stories particularly on adolescent females to look the part;”Popularity is very important, you have to be pretty, rich, skinny, clever. If not you get bullied,” one year 9 student said in the report, based on surveys in England of more than 5,000 children.

Running your fingers through the detail though, it’s not hard to agree with Dr Miriam Stoppard that the solutions are not hard to find.

“And the good news is that most of it is very straightforward. It’s about taking time to talk – and listen – to our children, showing them warmth, keeping them active and learning, letting them hang out with friends and explore their local environment.”

What’s Claires Court’s ‘previous’ been in all this picture you might well ask. We deliberately chose to leave the national curriculum and its testing programme behind in 2007, to liberate our curriculum and children from an unnecessary straight jacket. We have worked tirelessly to ensure we have ‘Pupil Voice’ at the heart of our work, to enable children to feel that their school days are indeed the happiest of their lives. Sport, social activity, intelligent digital availability, listening services and specialist support to enable early intervention are now hallmarks of our provision.

We know families have to work harder, both parents requiring to be in productive economic activity in the main, so our extended day and wrap-around care ensures that children are in a really safe place, able to sustain friendships and build skills. I have written before that the shortening of the school day at state middle and secondary school, the compression of lunch hours into minutes and the focus on work to be done rather than relationships to be built has been and remains a poor choice for children. I know just how much different our school’s approach has been over the past decade, where we have extended pretty much everything to ensure children have the time and space to grow. If Claires Court has a success parents have been able to see in droves over the past few weeks, it is that we enable children to have ‘fun’ whilst they learn.

As the heading says “Genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger”; I am as convinced as ever that environment plays an incredibly important part in supporting children through to be the multi-skilled and well balanced young adult all would like to be. It’s not just a ‘growth mind-set’ we need but a ‘nurture-set’ too. We have no idea what our children can achieve, but we mustn’t set limits to our expectations for them and must keep proximate to children sufficient wealth and diversity of opportunity so that they can make good choices most of the time. As our closing assemblies today, Friday 10 July will show, all our children and their achievements sit central to our celebrations at the end of a highly successful school year, and the reports that come home will provide further evidence that the teachers working within Claires Court have above all the children’s interests at the heart of what we do, ‘normalising the extraordinary’. Indeed without the amazing educators and administrators we employ, I’d not be able to be so positive, and I am deeply indebted to all I work with for the successes we have achieved.

In conclusion, as Academic Principal, I have an ‘intelligent’ finger firmly on the ‘pulse’ of our school life, and that what we work so hard to provide is informed by  extensive experience and academic research. I am delighted to report that our provision for children as a whole is in very good shape. I understand that the genetics of our children need to have the DNA of their school environment just right, and there is every sign that we are ‘coding for success’ in  the best way possible.

I’ll avoid further reference to those somewhat more unhelpful metaphors of  ‘trigger’ and ‘bullet’. The world is a violent place enough, after all.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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