Shining the light on yoga in schools – Part 3

Here’s the final part to Netia Mayman’s presentation from Instil. Enjoy!

“How young people develop

I wish, as a newly qualified teacher I had understood that the girl constantly looking behind her was hypervigilant; that a boy’s apparent lack of remorse, cruelty to others and failure to take responsibility of his actions was a symptom of disrupted attachment; that another child’s tendency to collapse into passivity and silence when challenged was their overstimulated sympathetic nervous system going into overdrive no dumb insolence. As a parent I would have loved to have known that my teenager’s risk averse behaviour was a result of her limbic region developing ahead of her prefrontal cortex. Such an understanding might also have helped me to practice ahimsa more consistently in my work in schools.

With the need to become accountable for vulnerable groups (an example of how the discipline of data is not, in itself a bad thing) and political pressure by the Children’s Commissioner, the study of attachment theory and child development became mandatory in teacher training. Attachment theory is wholly enlightening if you want to understand how the self comes into being in relationship to the rest of the world. If you aren’t familiar with the basic precepts I recommend ‘Attachment in the Classroom,’ by Heather Geddes.

Our understanding of neuroscience has transformed in the last two decades. I don’t want to repeat material in chapter 3 of Charlotta’s excellent book, or in Daniel J Siegel’s ‘Brainstorm’ which is required reading for the Teenyoga course.

Rather, I’ll give you an example of how lack of knowledge may lead to government policy hitting the target, but completely missing the point.

In the nineties, development of performance measures with the introduction of Key Stage 3 SATs in English, maths and science revealed a concern about the performance of 14 year olds. Why was progress so slow compared with Key Stage 4? What was wrong with teaching? What was wrong with the curriculum? Was there a problem with the way transition to secondary school was managed? A national strategy was developed and introduced into every LA. I led this for my county and had a huge budget to send consultants into underperforming schools and to roll out training for all teachers in hotels with rather nice lunches.

The idea that learning was a magical mystery tour disappeared and the need to share intended outcomes highlighted. For the first time there was a name for ‘What I am going to teach next’, ‘What we are going to learn’ and ‘What have we learned’ and the really ground-breaking work on assessment for learning done by Kings College became nationally owned.

The project included experimenting with reducing the time taken to teach the KS3 national curriculum, introducing more literacy and numeracy, for those who needed to ‘catch up’.

There were unexpected outcomes. Teaching in KS3 was now judged by Ofsted to be better than that in KS4 so it become the Secondary Strategy, not the KS3 strategy.

There was an annual national scandal when test papers were re-marked. The assessment workforce were hard-pressed classroom teachers who understandably weren’t at their best in May on top of a year’s full-time teaching. Quietly the tests were scrapped and progress was measured from KS2 SATs, resulting in increased stress on already anxious 11 year olds. So much for several godzillions of public money and so much for the KS3 strategy. Everyone had looked at whether the teachers were teaching well and whether the curriculum was right.

Now arrive in 2018 and the publication of ‘Inventing Ourselves: the secret life of the teenage brain,’ by Sarah Jane Blakemore. It turns out that there is a decline in cognitive and social performance (I am hugely oversimplifying the research, do read chapter 7 of the book) in 11-14 year olds (KS3) because of brain function. My point is that everyone was looking at the schools and not at the children. Some schools met their targets but perhaps the whole strategy evoked Confucius, ‘When a wise man points to the moon, the imbecile looks at the finger.’ I wonder what would have been done with the money if the children themselves had been the focus.

Adolescence is a time much studied producing many revisions, myths and false beliefs. As Daniel J Seigel points out, ’Unfortunately, what others believe about us can shape how we see ourselves and how we behave.’ As yoga teachers we need to show schools that we are really well informed about the debates about child and adolescent development.

Young People under pressure

Good research usually raises more questions than it answers. So far it shows that young people may be under more pressure than previously, and that the adolescent brain is particularly susceptible to stress. If you want to follow research, have a regular look at the Cochran library www.cochranelibrary.com and of course www.yoga4classrooms.com/supporting-research which will provide you with regular updates on peer-reviewed research, including on the impact of yoga and mindfulness.

The poor physical health of our increasingly inactive children who are now the most obese in Europe must be significantly impacting on their mental health.

Many of the pressures on young people have become received wisdom (also known as myths and misconceptions) particularly with regard to social media. The use of new media forms has historically led to a series of moral panics and the cause of increased stress is still not fully understood, probably because there is no single cause.

Nevertheless, according to the Care Quality Commission, the number of children visiting A&E for mental health treatment has more than doubled since 2010. Many services are failing to meet NHS guidelines for an out-of-hours crisis service. The leader of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has said the system is unable to meet the demand: “I have colleagues working all over the country who are… doing excellent work, the trouble is… we’re not meeting the need so in that sense it’s not fit for purpose.”

Child mental health referrals have increased by 26% in five years.

Changes in education policy and austerity may be significant contributors to the crisis in child mental health, if there is one.

Cuts in intervention services have resulted in a lack of upstream intervention with families, which would previously have headed off early problems means that matters reach a crisis point before hitting the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services, CAMHs, waiting list in greater numbers than ever before.

Pressure on schools for results has been acknowledged by Speilman as a factor in children, usually the most vulnerable, missing out on education. I’ve experienced directly the strategies schools have used to ‘off-roll’ or exclude ‘difficult’ students; often a cynical lack of response to communications to arrange admission meetings for children whose behaviour may be unwelcome. The rise in exclusions and proportions of children not accessing education has been enabled as schools, independent of local authorities (academisation) have less accountability to each other and to the LA, in admitting those who needed second and third chances.

Nevertheless, a rise in CAMHS referrals may also result from schools’ greater awareness and accountability for mental health issues. There are push-pull factors. Schools can no longer access free services for behaviour and and psychology. They may therefore have become more informed and resourceful. Many secondary schools in my county have an on-site counsellor, all have a full-time school nurse and the regular presence of a CAMHs worker, training in mental health first aid is being increasingly rolled out to school staff. Here is a poster about MHFA England’s 10 keys to happier living that is on the back of every staff toilet in an enlightened school where I teach adolescents yoga for 2 hours every week. Please be sure that some of the mental health provision in my county I have described above has come from the health authority. This is a post-code lottery and many counties will not have it. There is no extra money in schools for mental health. Any jam, promised for tomorrow should be ignored in the current political climate.

Young Minds (young minds.org.uk) tells us that 91% of teachers would welcome greater recognition of the work that teachers do to support the wellbeing of their students and 82% believe that the focus on exams has become disproportionate to the overall well-being of their students. Is this new school awareness a result of austerity, social media, excessive screen use and exam pressure? Are the greater number of children on CAMHs waiting lists also, therefore, partly a result of schools understanding what mental illness, as opposed to difficult behaviour, looks like? Sorry this is all questions and no answers. Be clear though, although some hospital trusts may expect more CAMHs funding and some health authorities are supplying schools with increased services, there is currently no new money in schools for mental health.

Young people are increasingly more sensible than in Socrates time?

Meanwhile there is the phenomenon of ‘Generation Sensible’ or ‘The Young Fogey’

  • Those aged under 25 are a third more likely to be teetotal now than in 2005
  • A quarter of young people do not drink at all
  • Illegal drug use among the under-25s has also fallen by more than a quarter since 2004
  • The number of nightclubs has almost halved since 2005
  • Teenage pregnancy is at its lowest since records began in England and Wales in 1969
  • The number of crimes committed by under-18s in England and Wales has fallen by 70% since 2005, to a new record low, according to the Office of National Statistics

These sensible young people, not lost in a haze alcohol, drugs, trance music and more able to control their own fertility, are acutely aware of their role in society and their future responsibilities. This in itself is a huge pressure. The neuroscience shows that this is a period of enormous diversity. Adolescents are very, very different from each other.

Second guessing the pressures and opportunities. What can we do?

Government is not unaware or unresponsive to the pressures on young people. The steps being taken to understand Child Sexual Exploitation, County Lines operations, consult on a mandatory Sex and Relationships curriculum, begin to introduce mental health leaders in all schools, and promises of more funding to CAMHs demonstrate this. However, it may be the awareness that goes with the sound of the stable door banging open and hooves clattering across the yard.

Change seems to happen slowly and in a strangely recursive way. Amanda Spielman’s speech about the new Ofsted framework on 11 October states clearly ‘our inspections have looked hardest at outcomes, placing too much weight on test and exam results when we consider the overall effectiveness of schools’ and that this has ‘increased the pressure on school leaders, teachers and indirectly on pupils to deliver perfect data above all else.’ A pity she didn’t see one of my teenage yoga classes just before half term, to strengthen her arm. Half way through the lesson all but two students had chosen a restorative posture over standing poses. At the end one of them said, very seriously, ‘Please could we have a whole lesson where we just rest’ and as a result I am going to include yoga nidra in their curriculum and have agreed this with the school.

However only 3 months before Spielman’s speech, the BBC published advice by her predecessor, ‘School open days: eight things to look for’, I found one reference to ‘the whole child approach’ and 6 to either ‘progress’, ‘outcomes’, ‘attainment’, ‘achieving’, ‘underachieving’. He may be yesterday’s Chief HMI but it takes a long time to change a culture so embedded.

I wish I could tell you more about the new framework for new inspections. It will be consulted on, do look out for it on the Ofsted website so that you can contribute before it is finalised. There is also a letter on the Young Minds website you can send to Ofsted. The significant changes in the framework will be to move away from what to how. There may be longer spent by inspectors in schools and certainly much greater focus on the curriculum: not just what is taught but how. There will be no separate judgement on attainment and progress. The 4 new judgements will be on

  • Effectiveness of leadership and management
  • Quality of teaching, learning and assessment
  • Personal development, behaviour and welfare
  • Outcomes for children and learners

A word about the curriculum. It is a myth that schools are highly restricted by the national curriculum, in what they teach and hence the fact that the average timetable is not much different to one of 100 years ago. Only local authority schools, now a minority of secondary schools have to follow the national curriculum. It has been the pressure to get a good inspection grade for academic outcomes that has caused the reduction in delivery of arts and other non EBAC subjects.

It’s impossible to know if the wholesale removal of a separate judgement on outcomes (ie academic data) will really make a difference. Spielman was clear that these will still be important. We are a country of consensus. In the absence of any driving statement about what educational values should really be, the proof of the delicate, political balancing-act of the new framework pudding, will be in the eating.

The key focus for yoga teachers (as with the previous framework) would be the personal development, welfare and behaviour judgement which will have 2 areas:

  1. Behaviour and discipline, and 2. ‘pupils wider personal development and their opportunities to grow as active, healthy and engaged citizens’. Yoga continues to be an important option for inactive students who are PE avoiders. However, few cash-strapped schools are going to pay a yoga teacher when they have a PE dept. There is, however, a real opportunity to argue for the way in which yoga and mindfulness help students to have a metaknowledge of their own health.

Any inspection I have ever conducted has had a clear eye to school culture. It doesn’t matter whether the school has adopted a strategy of respect lessons in SRE, a no detention policy or the 10 keys to happier living, the issue is whether everyone is implementing what has been agreed and whether the children have learned anything from it that they can make their own.

Student welfare is always reflected in how the staff feel. When completed by a school, staff surveys for inspection, clearly demonstrate, from contracted cleaners to the headteacher, whether adults feel valued and invested in and if they are working in a climate without fear. If this is the case for the staff then they will be conducting their duties in a way informed by ahimsa…, by compassion. It is really worth offering a staff yoga class after a period 5 one for students. You can suggest that the school initially subsidises this, that staff have 2 or three free lessons and then start to pay once they have felt the benefits. It is always better value for schools to have more than one yoga lesson back to back

We as yoga teachers, need to show that we explicitly teach students about the scientific benefits of asana and pranayama; that yoga is a highly systematic practice that pre-dates modern science, but that contemporary evidence of its efficacy is available. It is a discipline, requiring as much tapas as the will to organised one’s homework and bring the right equipment to school. It creates the habits that make destiny. I’d suggest that you make the research easily available to schools. They probably won’t look at it, but will know it’s there.

We need to be clear that learning yoga can provide lifelong benefits in managing the energies and the mind, and really practical strategies for combating stress. Anyone that you are speaking to in a school needs to know that a really good yoga teacher, whilst promoting curriculum yoga has humility and wishes to wipe off their own fingerprints. A key tenet of yoga is combating the ego: we see a real sign of our success as our students applying the benefits of yoga without us… or by inspiring a PE teacher is inspired by to spend a precious school holiday doing the Teenyoga course, very likely paying for themselves. It’s important to stress that we can work with whatever structures they use within the PE, PSHE or other aspects of the curriculum and to ask about what it is they want to achieve by commissioning yoga.

A few very practical aspects of approaching schools

Know the school

Get to know it in advance through their website. Read areas like ‘Our values’ and the last inspection report. Read recent newsletters to get a sense of what seems important to the school and what it celebrates. Show that you have researched it and want to contribute… just like getting any other job. Look at their curriculum booklets and find out which subjects look most closely related to yoga. Ask the school what their priorities are and what problems they want to solve.

If you are contacting a primary school (year 6 is a popular one for yoga because anxieties about SATs and transition to secondary) show that you know about the School Sport and PE premium https://www.gov.uk/guidance/pe-and-sport-premium-for-primary-schools and that yoga is a recognised and approved use of this.

Get to the right person

Find out who has influence and whose work can benefit from meeting with you. I was privileged to often have a key colleague who I could ring for advice about this. However, I’ve also done well looking on the website or ringing the headteacher’s PA to ask for advice or the receptionist to find who is responsible for student welfare, staff well-being, PSHE, extra curricula studies and PE. Teachers are usually teaching. Good times to ring are 12.30-1.30 (especially primary schools) and 3.00-3.30. Do leave messages for people to ring you back, but don’t be surprised when they don’t.

The school business manager controls the budget, does not teach and is on the end of the phone, get advice from them too.

Teachers are inundated with emails but still have pigeon holes. If you can afford it, make a nice poster and put it in an envelope addressed to a specific member of staff.

This talk may have sometimes sounded wry, impatient or even cynical. Santosa, contentment and acceptance, is a nyama I struggle with. However, the most important thing we can do as yoga teachers is to be informed about both young people and schools, adhere to our own practice and model both tapas and ahisma. Samadhi, is not something we should look for in Ofsted, but an aspiration we can all work towards in our lives, our teaching and our work with colleagues in schools.”