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It Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Child

Adult and child hands
Adult and child hands


I sat in on a school leaving assembly yesterday and watched Year 6 children troop out for the last time before they left for the summer – ready to start secondary school in September.

I say ‘ready’, but I could name at least half a dozen boys and not a few girls from one class of thirty children who are far from ready to leave the security of primary school.

Transition from primary to secondary school seems to be one of our rites of passage in the UK. Children are hauled through Year 6, undergoing immense pressure to get that magical ‘Level 4’ in their SATs tests and then bundled out of the door to start Year 7. Sounds familiar?


Confident Individuals?

Part of the problem with our education system is the very narrow expectations we have of our children: like the Victorians, we imagine that out children have to develop a prescribed set of skills in order to become ’employable’, but the skills we are neglecting are the very ones that ensure the children are able to function as, in the words of Mick Waters, ‘confident individuals, successful learners and responsible citizens’. I’m not sure that our curriculum actually addresses any one of those aspects, although I have come across schools that are making a resolute effort to do so with the limited freedom they have.

A friend of mine runs a nurture unit in a primary school and I wish there was one in every primary school in the country: children who have missed out on some essential aspect of their upbringing as young children have the chance to do some ‘catching up’ over a period of weeks in a secure but relaxed and compassionate environment, where the emphasis is on emotional resilience rather than academic knowledge. I came across a similar unit in a school not far from where I live: three children and two staff occupied a space away from the main part of the school. each child was dong something different, with assistance or intervention from an adult where necessary or appropriate. One of the children I spoke to was drawing: line drawings in a style that would have made Whistler proud. I mentioned to the child that he should keep on with his drawing and suggested he look up James Whistler, who started drawing when he was five years old.

What is it that actually stimulates and inspires a child to ‘realise their potential’, to become the person they were meant to be, to aspire to make something of themselves?


Significant Adults

My blogging friend, Nicola Marshall, author of ‘The Teacher’s Introduction to Attachment’ recalls a youth leader’s words about adult-pupil ratios. We expect a group of children to refer to their significant adult in say, a school or extra-curricular context. This may be one adult to thirty children in a school, reducing to less than ten children to one adult in an environment such as a youth club. The youth leader in question asserted that we should be looking at a ratio of five adults to very child: that is, every child should have five significant adults in their lives, be they parents, grandparents, teachers, youth leaders or adults in other contexts.

This reminded me of the well-known African proverb:

It takes a whole village to raise a child.

These significant adults play a key role in a child’s life: they are essential role-models who are ‘witnesses’ to the child’s life. Nicola Marshall also refers to Richard Gere’s film, Shall We Dance, in which his screen-wife says,

We all need a witness to our lives, the ups and downs and comings and goings.

Who are the so-called significant adults in the lives of many of our children today? Celebrities? Media personalities? Inappropriate relatives? Certainly not the role-models we would recommend.

To quote Nicola one more time, where she talks of her own adopted children:

Whoever it is, those people will have an influence and impact on a child’s experience of life – they will be the witnesses to that child’s existence. I only wish the adults in my children’s lives understood what a huge help or hinderance they are to my children’s progress. It matters that we remember their names. It matters that we pay attention to their anxieties. It matters that we witness their very existence. How we respond to them is vitally important.


See Children for Who They Can Be

Anyone in the teaching profession has probably come across the words of Haim Ginott, author of ‘Between Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers‘:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

As a teacher who works with children all over the country, often meeting them for the first time, I make no assumptions: I try to see them not for what they are but for who they can be. I find that enormously empowering and, frankly, liberating.

As a child, my significant adults were my parents (being a bloke, my dad in particular), Rosie (one of my youth leaders), my grandpa and a middle-school teacher who, nearly forty years later, I am still in touch with.

Who were your significant adults? And who are you a ‘significant adult’ for?

When did you last astonish yourself?

Thomas Edison quote
Thomas Edison quote

Quote attributed to Thomas Edison

Sometimes, you just need to inspire yourself

You know what it’s like: you’re racking your brains but nothing comes. You’ve got writer’s block, the solution to a problem seems to defy you, ideas escape you, your creative juices have dried up – you have a mental block.

Where do you go for inspiration?

At a recent conference, I felt much the same: I had ideas but the obstacles to progress seemed to massively outweigh the creativity that I felt was within me. By chance, I happened to strike up a conversation with someone on the same table as me. It started off by talking about what we do. I talked about RAISER, an idea I’m trying to get off the ground that is designed to help people develop greater resilience. Fundamentally, it’s about making healthy choices:


R – healthy Relationships

A – healthy Aspirations

I – a healthy sense of Individuality

S – a healthy perspective on Success and how to achieve it

E – meeting and making healthy Expectations

R – accepting and giving a healthy level of recognition


The person I was talking to leapt at this idea and started talking about how I was going to make it work (I didn’t have a clear picture as yet). Suffice to say, her enthusiasm, her knowledge and her perspectives on my ideas excited me. We exchanged e-mail addresses then she left for an appointment and I left inspired.

Later on in the day, talking to someone completely different on a completely different subject, I was sharing my ideas about buying a small B&B / self-catering outfit in mid-Wales. He, being a business guru, asked me some very direct and challenging questions: Who was my specific target market? Why should they choose my place over another’s? What messages do they need to hear?

I didn’t have the answers there and then but I did go away and think about it. Less than half an hour later, I had what I felt were some compelling answers to go forward with: so compelling that my brain was buzzing: I was inspiring myself.

The point to all of this is not what I was being inspired by – it’s how I became inspired.

What inspires anyone is what they are passionate about. If you’re not passionate about a subject, even the world’s greatest expert on the subject is unlikely to inspire you. But, if you’re naturally interested in something, just a spark of interest from anyone else will inspire you: you don’t have to be told what to say or how to say it: your whole being is alive to the subject.

Yes, we need people around us to ignite our passion but the inspiration is there: you can inspire yourself.

As a teacher, I relish the challenge of igniting passion and inspiration in children but I am concerned about the increasing lack of opportunity to awaken passion in children. They all have it in them but we are in danger of quoshing their passion with the unrelenting drive for ‘standards’, as if what drives and inspires them is unimportant. How about using children’s natural passion and interest to inspire their learning? We are pretty good at this in Early Years but, with the pressure to get children through Phonics tests in Year 1, Level 2 thresholds in Year 2 and KS2 SATs in Year 6, are we killing the ability of children to inspire themselves?

Go on, what would you do differently if you didn’t  concern yourself with test results, standards, league tables and thresholds?

Inspire yourself…


Garden painting
Garden painting

Garden – artist unknown

My dad inspires me.

He has the knack of making a garden come alive and look like a place you want to be in. Even as an octogenarian, he spends hours outdoors tending to nature. And that’s not just in his own garden – he’s often to be found in other people’s gardens as well.

My favourite place in his Cornish garden is the raised patio: it is crazy-paved with a decent-sized pond populated with fish, lilies, frogs (in season) and duckweed. Irregular steps lead down to the lawn and alpines fill the crevices amongst the rockery that borders the patio. Elsewhere in the garden, fruit bushes and ornamental shrubs and  trees adorn the borders.

My dad’s garden thrives.

The same cannot be said about every garden – or, for that matter, every human being.



Having worked in the education sector for a couple of decades, I have come across countless children who are living a life in which they are barely surviving, let alone thriving. Unfortunately, statistics seem to indicate that large numbers of teachers are also just surviving.

A recent and perhaps deliberately provocative article in The Guardian highlighted a report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and highlighted the plight of the ‘ghost child’ – ‘the institutionalised infant.., wandering from playground to desk to after-school club without real purpose, nodding off through boredom and fatigue.’ It adds, ‘the ghost child is increasingly likely to be taught by the ghost adult – a teacher grey with fatigue and stress, stuck at school for 10 hours or more a day, wandering from duty to duty in playground, classroom or after-school club.’

Why have we come to this?



Returning to the plants in my dad’s garden, they thrive on sunshine, air and water, which Cornwall has in reasonably generous amounts, especially the latter. All of these are externally provided – drawn from natural resources. What does this look like in the life of a human being? Consider this:

a) Roots draw water up from the ground in which a plant is anchored in and deliver it to the rest of the plant. As human beings, we need  a source of continual refreshment that ‘hydrates our soul’ – and I’m not talking about the alcoholic liquid variety here! For most of us, companionship within our family and close family circles sustains us and provides the emotional resources we need to thrive in or relationships. However, for many adults and, unfortunately, children, acute loneliness due to lack of close family or friendship bonds causes a crippling lack of ‘hydration’, resulting in wilting human beings.

b) Plants respire through tiny holes in their leaves so that they can draw in air. Without air, a plant will simply languish and die. Human beings are designed to thrive but, for many, the opposite experience is true: they languish because they do not have meaning and purpose. This is the ‘air’ that keeps us from languishing. It starts almost from birth as we explore the world and discover our ability to influence outcomes but, if our sphere of influence dies and our sense of worth and dignity goes with it, so does our capacity to thrive.

c) Plants need light – sunshine in particular – and, as you are aware, they turn their leaves to face the the sunshine in order to absorb light energy. Apart from the obvious energy we derive from ingestion of food, we as humans need energising. We need stimulus. We need to be creative. We need to be problem-solvers. Much of this naturally develops through our play experiences as children but we all know that play has changed considerably in recent decades. Educators bewail the fact that children now spend much of their free time indoors – not outdoors with other children exploring, taking risks and developing essential social skills. However, as educators, we can help to correct this through the experiences we give children in school settings – and many nurseries in particular are very good at just that: creating vibrant play spaces for children to develop essential life long skills that energise their creativity.



There is plenty of truth in the old maxim attributed to one of my favourite thinkers, Albert Einstein:

Play is the highest form of learning.

He is also recorded as saying,

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

How are we facilitating children’s play effectively in order to develop their imagination –  in order to bring them sunshine?



Margaret Moore from The International Coach Federation writes in her blog post,

A sense of a higher purpose is a potent source of life fuel, especially when times are tough.

She also writes,

One of the most popular songs today (with more than 300 million YouTube visits), Katy Perry’s “Roar” speaks to the power of the human life force to make the world a better place. Katy sings from her jungle perch, “I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar.”

But she also adds,

The vast majority of us are just surviving or even languishing—far from thriving, certainly not roaring.


So, to summarise,

A. Ensure you have a trusted circle of friends and family around you and, if you work with children, ensure they have the same.

B. Explore and discover meaning and purpose in your life and help others do the same.

C. Be creative in your problem-solving – and, above all, play. Then teach others to do the same.



I’ll finish with a quote from another of my favourite thinkers, Maya Angelou:

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I’ll drink to that…

Make Peace Where You Are

Swans On Lake" by anankkml
Swans On Lake" by anankkml

Image: anankkml /


Next to happiness, it’s probably what we are all most in search of.

Some people seem to possess it naturally. For others, it appears to pass them by.

As adults, we learn to cope with the absence of peace as we struggle to manage what I call ‘The Big Ds’ in my assemblies, workshops and seminars: discouragement, disappointment, disaster, doubt, difficulty (you could add more, I’m sure). We are grateful when we can snatch a moment of peace but it often eludes us because of unwanted and unwelcome distractions.

As a headteacher for a number of years, I practised an ‘open-door’ policy. The only ‘moments of peace’ I was able to manage were at the end of a day when most had gone home and the phone had stopped ringing. Then I could concentrate on what I’d been planning to do all day. But even then, was my mind at peace? Not if I was under pressure to meet a deadline or struggle with making data make sense.

But I did learn that you have to make peace.



Sometimes, making peace means choosing to take yourself away from the place where there is no peace and putting yourself in a space where there is.

My place for peace happens to be our loft room. I’m alone, undisturbed and away from distractions. I can think, write, reflect and create. But that’s not the only place – the swimming pool is equally constructive as a place for peace. No one disturbs me, there are even fewer distractions (no phone!) and it’s a great place to reflect. The car is a great place to be at peace – not sitting outside on the roadside but returning home, often with the radio off. And another place, although less frequented, is the green spaces on the other side of the dual carriageway from where we live.



It goes without saying that making time for self (‘me time’) in order to still your thoughts is pretty much essential. Without creating time for your mind to be at rest, you don’t give yourself a chance to detach from situations that deny you peace.

The best time of day for me is at the beginning of the day before the rest of the family are awake. I’m awake, alert and usually at peace. It’s a great time to reflect, to gather my thoughts and to focus. Others might find the end of the day is better. It really is down to personal preference.



And, sometimes, making peace means turning from someone who disrupts any chance of peace to someone else who helps to creates peace. It may mean removing yourself from a situation that robs you of peace and putting yourself in an entirely different situation that grants you peace.

I particularly enjoy meeting up for a coffee with a like-minded human being – not necessarily to talk about anything of consequence but just to bask in the company of someone who accepts you for who you are and allows you to be yourself. The most precious of these moments of peace is when you can be with someone and not feel you have to say anything. It’s a connection that is priceless.

None of this is escapism – this is pure, life-saving common sense.

You do have to go back, of course. But having that time or place or friend to  re-energise you puts you in a better frame of mind to make peace on your return, whether it’s in a place, in a situation or with a colleague. If you can’t change a situation, having a mindset where you can accept it without letting it affect you (that takes time), helps to create peace.



I couldn’t finish this piece without bringing it round to the children we work with.

As we all know, some children have an almost total absence of peace within their home environment and school is their only haven of peace. As educators, we have a huge responsibility to model and to make peace, not just for these children but for all children within our care. Creating a climate of peace is fundamental to children’s security and ability to learn. And educating them about peace helps them to be agents for peace. Accepting children for who they are helps them to experience peace.

I am reminded of a quote from Haim Ginott’s book, Between Teacher and Child (1965):

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.

But it is not only the children who need school to be a place of peace: adults within school need to be at peace at work. In order to get the best productivity out of everyone, leaders and managers should ensure their staff can work in a climate of peace. That’s not to say there won’t be pressure but just imagine working under pressure in a place where there is an absence of conflict, where trust resides and colleagues accept each other, support each other, listen to each other and don’t judge or blame each other. Peace.



In 1969, John Lennon sang ‘Give Peace a Chance’, a moving song with a remarkably short and simple lyric.

Peace doesn’t just happen – we have to make it happen. It happens when we give it the chance. And it doesn’t happen by trying to escape. That’s why we have to make peace where we are.

As Virgina Woolfe pithily reflected,

You cannot find peace by avoiding life.

I’ve talked about acceptance a couple of times within this post so it seems appropriate to finish with what many call ‘The Serenity Prayer’:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can – and wisdom to know the difference.




Fair is not everyone getting the same but everyone getting what they need

Equality is not always justice
Equality is not always justice

Equality is not always justice

When I started my teaching career, I was working in an inner city school populated by an eclectic mix of children from ethnically and socially diverse backgrounds. Most of them were from the lower end of the economic spectrum and, with all the enthusiasm and energy of a new teacher, I attempted to provide them with the richest experience of education I could muster. To be honest, I probably tried too hard but it was both gratifying and rewarding to see the appreciation they expressed at even the littlest attempts to enhance their school days – such as taking turns to take a puppet home for the weekend.

My next school was of a totally different demographic: largely upwardly mobile, middle-income families with high aspirations for their children. Their response to some of the tricks I had tried at my previous school surprised me: they weren’t bothered or they’d seen it before. To use a terrible cliché, they had ‘been there, done that and bought the T-shirt’.

A few years later, I moved schools again – this time back into the inner city and into a very challenging environment. It was a deliberate choice because (and this is going to sound like a worn and over-used phrase) I wanted to make a difference. I particularly wanted to make a difference to what I saw as a gross inequality between the schooling opportunities available to children from deprived backgrounds and those experiencing considerably greater social advantage.



When I read the title of this post (suggested to me by a friend and blogging compatriot, Nicola Marshall), I immediately thought of the above image, which I came across some time ago. I had never really considered the stark difference between equality and justice until I came across this striking image.

The two images could very well also reflect the stark differences between the education accessed by different groups in society. Although I am loath to generalise, schools in challenging circumstances – those with a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils – seem often unable to provide the rich experiences offered by schools populated by less disadvantaged children, often because they are having to cater for the extraordinary needs of their children, be they academic, behavioural or emotional. This is not to say that pupils from socially advantaged backgrounds do not experience academic, behavioural or emotional challenges but they are likely to be less predominant and the proportion of pupils exhibiting or manifesting such is likely to be significantly fewer.

It seems unfair, then, that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have access to the same educational experiences of their less disadvantaged peers – for who could argue that they don’t have the same potential? One could reason that disadvantaged pupils have more cash thrown in their direction in order to address these issues of inequality (such as Pupil Premium in English schools) but the reality is that it takes more than cash to solve these inequalities.



Children in our most disadvantaged schools need so much more if they are to compete on an equal footing with socially advantaged learners. ‘Fair’ is not giving all children the same education but everyone getting the education they need and, in this case, it is quite clear that one size most certainly does not fit all.

There are some schools in disadvantaged areas that are working miracles but they are few and far between. Most struggle and strive to do their very best for their children but often feel that they are battling against an insurmountable odds: it is all they can do to keep their ship afloat, let alone steaming ahead. What seems to work best is collaboration between schools but this is not widespread enough to be causing an essential mindshift in the education sector.

So we are left with a picture of schooling that looks more like the ‘equality’ image above: we try to give all children the same, but this does not result in justice. Justice is enabling all children to see what is possible in their lives and being given the opportunity to aspire towards that – rather than the apparently inevitable, which is what far too many see.



This post is inconclusive in that it does not offer answers – it just raises a lot of questions. However, I hope it is pithy enough to make you want to chew it over – and spit the bits out. By all means comment: I am just offering a perspective.

Meanwhile, consider the following quotes, which are all variations on a theme which pack a punch, whichever way you look at it:


You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. (Author unknown)


The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members. (Author unknown)


A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. ~ Mohandas Gandhi


Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members – the last, the least, the littlest. ~ Cardinal Roger Mahony


What are we doing to ensure that everyone is getting what they need…?



This blog post is written as part of a ‘blog buddies’ group, the idea being that we each write a weekly blog post on a chosen theme. To read the other posts on this theme, please visit:

Luke’s blog

Wendy’s blog

Nicola’s blog

If you would like to join our ‘blog buddies’ group and share in this writing adventure (no obligation to write, just join in when you are able), please e-mail