‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men’

Dame Nicola Nelson DBE, Head Teacher at Beech Hill Primary School , Newcastle

Children are our future. Children are tomorrow’s workforce, parents and citizens. It is increasingly clear that the current lack of investment by our government in their well- being will shape the future of the country. As such, their well-being matters to all of us. This is not new information to head teachers  but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solutions to the growing mental health issues brewing in our children and the general feeling of despair in some.

Research indicates that the following factors can impact hugely on children’s happiness and well- being;

  • Living with someone who is mentally ill or who has suicidal tendencies
  • Experiencing divorce or parental separation
  • Living with someone who has an alcohol or drug problem
  • Being a victim or witness of neighbourhood violence
  • Experiencing socioeconomic hardship
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Having a parent in prison
  • Being treated or judged unfairly due to race or ethnicity
  • Experiencing the death of a parent

Lord, that is a rather larger proportion of children in our schools!  The compound impact of more than one of these factors has been proven to influence their life chances and futures; these can lead to social, emotional and cognitive impairment; high risk taking; disease, disability and social problems; and even early death.

As a nation we pay enormous attention to the well- being of our economy, the state of the weather, sporting league tables, the City and stock market. This captures this interest of national newspapers and takes up pages of the media every day.

I strongly believe the time has come to make more efforts to monitor the well- being of our children;  we need to devote more resources to understanding how they are doing and to ensuring that their childhood is as good as it can be. In both my schools we have heavily invested in Thrive and have 15 staff trained as Thrive practitioners- because we recognised our children are under enormous social pressures. I would not have wanted my childhood to be so intensely monitored on social media, I can not remember being assessed at every age but can recall playing out into the late evening with friends and feeling very much part of a community.

It takes a community to protect a child and it is clear to me that society has a role that is more important than ever before to protect those children within it who are at risk of, or who have suffered from, the factors above. I place great weight on the importance of positive childhood experiences, aiming to provide children with opportunities to maximise their potential. So Friday in school is ‘ Fun Friday’ with children choosing which enrichment activities they would enjoy, mixing with like-minded children from across the school. We have organised for children to serve their community, for example by creating strong and lasting friendships with the elderly residents next door in the retirement home, with some children opting to visit their new friends at weekends too. We encourage the children to take pride in their local area and look for opportunities to help others. This is rewarded with a Duke of Edinburgh style award. The impact in the community has led to parents coming together to organise community trips to Lightwater Valley during the summer holidays and asking to use the school hall for community activities. We are seeing great change. The community cares. The children are receiving focused mental health help alongside a childhood that may provide some stability in what can seem a bit of a mad world.

I am aware this is a small step in the right direction and my pupils are building a strong sense of character. They are children to be proud of, and live in an area that provides several opportunities to test their mantle. We can only provide them with tools to help keep perspective, and opportunities to feel success.

I have no idea how this focus on building strong children will have on my SAT results but I am a head teacher, I care for children, I care for their futures.  They need to be educated to lead happy lives but the emphasis is on happy. And educated.

‘Once you learn to read you will be forever free’ ( Fredrick Douglas)


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