Attachment aware schools, emotional and mental wellbeing: explorations in education policy

This paper explores the changing paradigm for behaviour management within the English education system and asks whether the emergent ‘alternative’ approaches are truly transformational, or merely an obfuscation of a continuing neo-liberal ideology.

The New Labour government promoted a holistic approach to children’s behaviour and emotional needs, encapsulated in the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme and the Steer Report on Learning Behaviour. Since 2010 Coalition and Conservative governments in England have adopted a traditionalist rhetoric of discipline and punishment, promoting  simplistic behaviourist approaches  and deriding ‘those who bleat bogus pop psychology about ‘self image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up’ (Gove 2013). At the same time’ government policy has emphasised support for individual pupils, relying on private and voluntary sector interventions to provide a ‘market’ of opportunities. Placing responsibility for such interventions with individual schools has led to a range of different local approaches.

There is relatively little empirical research on the effectiveness of alternative approaches, and virtually no theoretical analysis of their ideological implications, beyond crude neo-liberal suspicion of ‘soft’ strategies typified by Gove’s response, and neo-Marxist assumptions that they effectively support the status quo by cooling out legitimate anger and challenge. However the evidence which has emerged from projects at Bath Spa University indicates that, far from supporting the status quo – at least internally in schools – effective interventions require significant changes in school management and a whole system approach.

The Health Select Committee (November 2014), the Education Select Committee (December 2015), the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (November 2015) and even the Department of Health (March 2015) have made recommendations for increased training and support for teachers in responding to issues of mental and emotional health.  However, while adopting a rhetoric on improving mental health in schools, resilience and ‘character education’, formal government responses to these reports have avoided policy commitments and prescriptive approaches. Moreover, the adoption of alternative approaches does not necessarily offer protection against Ofsted failure, given the over whelming imperative for narrowly defined academic success, particularly in those communities where needs are likely to be greatest.

This current investigation asks whether government policy has changed , or whether the rhetoric has simply shifted. It further seeks to determine the extent to which alternative approaches have impacted on initial teacher education, CPD or actual classroom practice, and whether or not these can be seen as a challenge, or merely an adjunct to maintaining the educational and social status quo.