Mental health, Pupil Premium, character education, student voice, LGBT and more feature at SSAT national conference

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Quality and Equity: SSAT speakers (from top) Sir John Dunford, Professor Tanya Byron, Russell Quaglia, Ruth Hunt, and Professor Guy Claxton (Photos: Duncan Palmer Photography)

A range of educationalists came together to discuss ‘quality and equity’ in our education system at the SSAT national conference last month. SecEd editor Pete Henshaw picks out some of his highlights

Some of the biggest challenges facing schools today were under discussion at the SSAT national conference in Manchester last month.

The event, entitled Quality and Equity, focused on the three themes of “closing the gaps”, “raising the bar” and “leading learning”.

Two of the most popular sessions were those led by psychologist Professor Tanya Byron and former Pupil Premium champion Sir John Dunford. Also speaking were a range of school leaders and other educationalists from across the world. Here follows some of the highlights from the two-day event.

Mental health

The statistics are stark: one in 10 young people aged five to 16 has a diagnosable mental health disorder, while 50 per cent of all adult mental health problems present by the age of 14. And while schools are not fighting the mental health battle alone, Prof Byron reminded the education community that it is at school where many of these children will present.

In her keynote address, Prof Byron, a chartered psychologist and well-known broadcaster, focused on the rising anxiety levels that we are seeing in young people, which she linked to today’s mass media and 24-hour culture, examination pressures, and a society that is becoming “risk averse”. She told delegates: “We know that the raising and play of children has changed massively. We have no free-range children anymore. It’s about emotional resilience, risk and challenge, and learning to fail. This is having a massive impact on functioning.”

Prof Byron said that many of the young people she is seeing clinically are presenting with anxiety disorder: “They are so anxious, some of the kids I see are showing signs of executive stress and burn-out that we normally see in somebody my age. The increase in self-harm is shocking and anxiety disorders are going through the roof.”

She warned that there will be young people in schools who appear to be coping, but are in fact struggling.

She continued: “These are not the children in child protection services. These are the children where everything is kind of nice, they have an enriched environment, but these children are cutting into their arms, they are depressed, anxious, having panic attacks.”

One answer, Prof Byron suggested, was around the “target-driven education system”. She asked: “Why are we being seen as the sum of our grades?”

She also sees a problem in the lack of information children receive about how their brain works: “We have to get young people to recognise that when we are anxious or stressed our brain becomes the biggest bully we will face. These children fall apart because they believe they are broken.”

Prof Byron also warned schools about a new phenomenon that is seeing children’s natural instinct for “fight or flight” at times of stress becoming a barrier to education.

She explained: “The more anxious we feel the less able we are to deliver. The less able we are to deliver the more anxious we become. When we are anxious or feel threatened, we do one of two things: fight or flight. In situations of threat we have to be feral.

“It’s built in, it’s there in order to enable you to look after yourself, but now we are seeing it in a place where we need to engage (the school).”

Pupil Premium

At the heart of much of the SSAT event was work linked to the Pupil Premium and Sir John Dunford urged delegates to focus their work on raising achievement. He pointed to the gap in achievement between Pupil Premium children and their peers – currently 27.5 per cent on the five A* to C GCSE benchmark.

One of the commonly overlooked gaps, Sir John said, revolved around the achievement of bright but disadvantaged children, who are “overtaken during their schooling years by less bright pupils from more (advantaged) backgrounds”.

Looked after children are another group that fares particularly badly: “The most shocking statistic is that if you are a care-leaver in England, statistically it is more likely that you will go to prison than university.”

However, it is possible to break the trend, Dr Dunford said – pointing to the one in six schools where attainment for these children is above the national average attainment for all children.

The key, he says, is to “never, never, never lose your focus on the quality of teaching and learning”.

He added: “If you have any poor teaching in your school that disproportionately disadvantages poor children in a big way. If you have excellent teaching in your school that disproportionately advantages poor children in a big way.”

Sir John advised delegates to begin their Pupil Premium work by focusing on the barriers to learning, the desired outcomes for each child, and the criteria for success. Also key is keeping your strategies “under evaluation and review”.

He continued: “Get out there and find (the barriers to learning), talk to the pupils and listen to their voices. Go and talk to the parents and you will get a much, much better understanding of the barriers to learning.”

Sir John urged schools to draw upon the work of the winning schools in the annual Pupil Premium Awards (a condition of winning these awards is the commitment to sharing beat practice).

He also referred to the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit, the recent Pupil Premium best practice report from the NFER, and Ofsted’s on-going Pupil Premium reports – all of which offer great insights for schools.

Student voice

For Dr Russell Quaglia, president of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations in America, the achievement gap is a “symptom of a whole load of other gaps” in education and society.

His presentation at the SSAT national conference focused on three of these wider gaps specifically: student voice, self-worth, and engagement.

As part of his work, Dr Quaglia and his colleagues have surveyed around one million students over the past five years in both England and America, and he pointed to some notable findings.

First, on student voice, he warned that only 47 per cent of these students felt that they had a voice in decision-making in their school.

He challenged delegates: “They are our greatest resource – why are we not paying attention to them? Why are we not listening to what they say about how to improve schools?

“Student voice does not mean anything unless someone is willing to listen. Have a conversation – challenge these students to come up with solutions and be responsible for the outcomes.”

Drawing upon his survey findings, he added: “When students have a voice, when they believe they have a voice, they are seven times more likely to be motivated to learn.”

On self-worth, Dr Quaglia said that 51 per cent of the surveyed students do not think their teachers care if they are absent from school.

He continued: “It is hard to expect you to reach your full potential if you do not think you have any. When kids have a sense of self-worth they are five times more likely to be motivated to learn.”

Finally, on engagement, Dr Quaglia said that 43 per cent of the surveyed students felt that school was “boring”. He added: “What is unbelievable is that when I share this with people it does not surprise anyone.”

Furthermore, the survey figures show that engagement at 19 years is at 17 per cent, meaning that these students are becoming less engaged as they move through education.

Dr Quaglia continued: “When we are engaged in something we learn things. What does it take to get engaged in something? Make it relevant to them.”

He urged schools to give children a “sense of purpose” and said that, according to his survey findings, when children are engaged they are 16 times more likely to be motivated to learn.

One of the most powerful things we can do, he concluded, was to understand our students’ hopes and dreams. He pointed out that only 34 per cent of the surveyed students said that their teacher knew their “hopes and dreams”. He added: “When you know students’ hopes and dreams, they are 18 times more likely to be motivated to learn.”


There is often a lot of anxiety around how to tackle LGBT prejudice and bullying in schools, but it is not “rocket science”.

The reassurance came from Ruth Hunt, chief executive of LGBT charity Stonewall, who told SSAT delegates that the best schools take a holistic approach, recognising that they have LGBT pupils and that these pupils require some specific support.

During her session, Ms Hunt offered a range of practical advice for teachers and schools, drawn from the work Stonewall does to create educational resources and support schools.

One of the most important things, she said, is to talk about language and challenge homophobic language, staring as early as possible: “If you think gay means crap and you think you might be gay then you think that you are crap too,” she added.

Ms Hunt recognised that teachers are often concerned about whether they will “get the language wrong” themselves, but she said it was the intention behind the words that mattered.

She explained: “If you call a boy a poof because he is not running fast enough then that is not good. If you say homosexual and not gay, that is not so bad. It’s the intention behind the words.

“The key is ensuring that pupils and staff are open about talking about this kind of language.”

Ms Hunt also warned that young people who are perceived to be gay, but who are not necessarily gay, are more likely to experience LGBT bullying and it is much harder for them to counteract it.

Elsewhere, Ms Hunt urged delegates to create the right culture in their schools. One way of achieving this, she said, is via simple changes to the curriculum – using LGBT examples is easily achieved across a range of topics, from maths and migration to the Holocaust.

She added: “LGBT days and so on (one-off events) are great, but it does not have to be a massive occasion for you to reference the fact that you might have LGBT young people in your classrooms.”

Senior leadership support is vital to achieving the right school culture and parental buy-in is also important. For those parents who are critical of this work, a “robust response” is necessary, Ms Hunt warned.

She urged schools to consider the wealth of data about LGBT students’ achievement and wellbeing: “Looking at some of the data is helpful when formulating your business case for headteachers. The data is utterly compelling,” she added.

However, she urged teachers not to share this as readily with the young people themselves: “I do not want to perpetuate that it’s really hard to be a gay young person.”

When it comes to CPD, it is often most effective to focus on any teachers who are uncomfortable with this agenda, Ms Hunt said.

“The teachers who are the most resistant and uncomfortable are the best ones to do the work with. There has to be quite a firm line about what is acceptable and unacceptable.”

Elsewhere, Ms Hunt urged schools to do their due diligence on any outside charities or groups hired to support this work. She explained: “One of our concerns is that there are a lot of unregulated LGBT organisations out there who claim to provide support but who do not have the mechanisms around safeguarding and so on. We are concerned about some of the provision out there.

“If you are recommending local LGBT groups (to parents or students) check they are on our website. That means we have done due diligence on them.”

Ms Hunt also had a final word of advice for teachers and school staff – the single most important thing you can do when someone says they think they might be LGBT is not to ask “are you sure?”.

Character education

Character education is high on the political agenda, but in fact has been taking place in schools in various guises for years.

Dr Tom Harrison is from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, which was established in 2012 and hosts a range of resources to support schools. The Centre has recently received funding from the Department for Education (DfE) to help develop character across the curriculum.

In his address, Dr Harrison explained the different types of character values or virtues, including moral (such as honesty or tolerance), intellectual (curiosity, conscientiousness), civic (community spirit, neighbourliness), and performance (resilience, optimism).

However, he told delegates: “We stress that there should not be any ‘top down’ list and that schools know best in terms of what is important for the young people they serve.”

He said one key area of character education, however, is the discussion of situations where these virtues clash – such as loyalty to your friends and being honest with a teacher: “The reality of life is that our virtues do come into collision with each other,” he added.

Dr Harrison also warned that teachers’ own character has a vital role to play: “Never underestimate the power of your own character to build the character of your students.”

The Jubliee Centre has already produced a Framework for Character Education in Schools, which can be downloaded for free.

Meanwhile, introducing and building on concepts of character and virtues that naturally fit within different subject areas – such as fair play in sport or examples of character in books in English – is a key area of the Jubilee Centre’s DfE-funded research project. The project will demonstrate how to implement character education across 14 subjects, using expert teachers in at least 28 schools. It is on-going and will culminate in further resources and support for schools.

Cognition, character and certification

Renowned academic, Professor Guy Claxton, picked up on theme of character during his session, asking: “Cognition, character and certification – can we do it all?”

Prof Claxton is visiting professor of education at King’s College London and emeritus professor at the University of Winchester, where he co-founded the Centre for Real-World Learning. He is also the co-author of Educating Ruby, which last year called on politicians to recognise the merits of the seven Cs of a character curriculum – confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship.

He picked up on these themes during his session, discussing the “habits and dispositions” that help young people to “engage in the world when it becomes complex, uncertain and challenging”. He told delegates: “There must be more to a good education then squeezing a few more grades out of youngsters.”

Like Dr Harrison before him, Prof Claxton said it is entirely possible to teach these dispositions through the curriculum. He used the example of the Tudors in history – we could use the text book and deliver the facts, but we might risk teaching students to have an “unquestioning attitude”. Instead, we could build young people’s attitudes to have “appropriate scepticism”.

Likewise, we could teach fractions in a way that “encourages students to experiment to try ideas out and to tinker their way towards a deeper understanding”.

He warned against an overarching focus on “facts, knowledge, memorisation, information being right or wrong” and the “general assumption that thinking just sort of happens at some point” in a child’s development.

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