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Practical applications: young people, teachers, and school leaders

Andrea Berkeley

It's tough in today's schools. Although successive government reforms have driven up standards overall in the last ten years, there is still a national imperative to improve further. Educationally,

England performs only just above OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country averages in the international PISA1 tables. The gap between the attainment of children from poor and affluent homes has remained roughly the same, in some areas it has widened, and there is a long tail of underachievement. The pressure continues, on young people, their teachers, and school leaders alike. In areas of social deprivation and educational disadvantage teachers and their leaders need even more commitment, resilience, and determination to rise to this challenge as well as to respond to the vicissitudes of education policy and social change.

The quality of teaching and leadership in schools is the key factor in raising student achievement. For a child from a disadvantaged background, the difference between a good teacher and a poor teacher is one year's learning. That is at least one GCSE grade. Spread across five teachers, and it is the difference between a child achieving 5 Ds at GCSE and 5 Cs. (Marshall, 2013, p. 149)2

It has long been recognised, but not widely documented, that the emotional bond formed between teachers—especially form tutors and pastoral leaders—and young people has a significant impact on their attitudes to school, commitment to study and ultimately their ability to perform well academically. The rapport and mutual trust found in such relationships enable teachers to both challenge and support their pupils to reach their full potential. These psychological contracts between teacher and pupil are not found in standards set by the National College for Teaching and Leadership nor in the Ofsted framework for the inspection of schools but are evident to anyone who has ever attended a year eleven leaving assembly or a GCSE results day and witnessed the importance of teacher–pupil relationships.

The more teachers and tutors know about pupils, the more that they engage with the whole young person, the more likely they are to notice when something is amiss and to give specific support. A seemingly obvious feature of school relations, conducive to positive outcomes for both pupils and schools, is less easily achievable in today's state comprehensive schools, given the range of abilities and diverse backgrounds of young people, especially in the inner cities and less affluent rural and coastal areas of England. Children assessed with a wide range of special educational needs have increased exponentially. Although no longer perceived as a barrier to learning, the fact that among the student population of many schools can be found speakers of up to eighty different languages, presents a challenge for the development of literacy skills in order to access the curriculum.

Social trends that impact on teachers' and schools' capacity to meet the diverse needs of young people in the twenty-first century include a developing notion of “extended adolescence” where children spend longer in full-time education, enshrined in historical legislation in September 2013 raising the school-leaving age further, and live at home for longer, a phenomenon increasingly prevalent due to economic downturn and continuing recession. The decline of marriage and the conventional nuclear family mean that increasing numbers of children live in single parent homes or lead complex lives divided between two or more families. There is often no longer a single point of reference for home school communication. As many as a fifth to a quarter of children3 live in poverty and the numbers of children in public care have increased.4 These are the children most likely to be excluded5 from school and to become involved in crime or substance abuse6 in
later life. There is a powerful association between home backgrounds and educational attainment.7

Teaching Leaders, a two-year leadership development programme that trains and develops high potential middle leaders (subject heads and pastoral leaders) to improve the standards of challenging secondary schools in disadvantaged areas, became interested in Dr Peter Clough's work in 2010 and seized the opportunity of piloting the MTQ48 instrument in partnership with AQR. Initially the focus was on developing mental toughness in targeted groups of young people in the responsibility of pastoral leaders in a cross section of complex urban schools.

A notable side effect of this pilot was the participants' realisation of the usefulness of the instrument for themselves personally and their own need to develop mental toughness in their leadership roles.

This in turn has led Teaching Leaders to enter into a research partnership with AQR and Peter Clough, trialling MTQ48 as part of the leadership and management development model offered by the programme and to document the results. At the time of writing 212 middle leaders have been questionnaired, the data analysed, and work begun on planning training to develop their mental toughness as leaders.

No school is an island and all serve the communities where they are located and beyond. Schools in disadvantaged areas find they are providing an oasis of calm and order for children from dislocated or chaotic homes. For many such young people school might provide the only stable and dependable part of their lives. Teachers are important figures, even when the presenting feature of such young people's behaviour manifests as hostility or aggression. Similarly headteachers and pastoral leaders become repositories for the troubles and anxieties of their parents or carers. One headteacher reported that she felt like every day she was “holding back or shoring up a tide of human misery”.

Young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, need to be resilient and mentally tough if they are to succeed at school and to embark upon the lifelong learning now required for the changing nature of work and life in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, their teachers need to be equally mentally tough. The case studies and observations on practical applications of tools and techniques that follow in this chapter indicate that thinking consciously about mental toughness, how to measure it and how to strengthen it, has enormous potential
for improving the life chances of young people as well as building the capacity and efficacy of leaders of teaching and learning.

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