Opinion

An open letter to the new members of the Education Select Committee

13 Feb 2020, 5:00

Congratulations! Not only did you win an election to Westminster, you’ve now got the cherry on the cake: a place on the most important committee of them all. (I might be a bit biased.)

It’s a great opportunity to access additional expertise and experience to ensure education legislation, guidance, and practice are as good as they can be.

Some of you have been on this committee before. Most haven’t. Some of you have worked on the frontline with young people. Most of you will currently be drawing on little more than your own school experience.

You’ll all want to ask the right questions of the best witnesses and evidence, to ensure the committee’s actions make the biggest difference. Every parent, teacher and edu-geek in England wants this of you too.

And so, as someone with nearly 20 years in state schools, who has had cause to watch the committee in action in recent times, I thought I’d share three thoughts on how you can properly scrutinise education under this government with its huge majority.

Firstly, recognise that looking after and educating children will always be a cause for debate. Arguments are driven by people’s values and these are as varied as people themselves. And like anything else involving people, our sector is full of hunches and opinions dressed up as fact.

Please don’t expect consistency of voice or submissions, or interpret this cacophony for chaos; it’s just a manifestation of those underlying, differing values. And don’t assume loud or confident voices are correct, or that those contributing to your work necessarily represent public opinion.

So secondly, please make extra efforts to seek out a genuine range of opinions as you go about your work. We have experienced a transformation in recent times. People have bypassed the high priests and gatekeepers who previously preserved access to power and knowledge for themselves, but this shift hasn’t fed through to the types of organisations and people feeding into the committee.

Looking after and educating children will always be a cause for debate

I’m sure you’re all committed to diversity, but all too often it’s been easy to rely on the usual sort of unions, academics, business groups, quangos, charities, etc. They have the time and money specifically to employ people to do this, but there are so many more out there who have different views on things and are doing a great job. They don’t have the cash to employ lobbyists, or they’re too busy actually making a difference with kids to get in touch with you. It’s not enough to say that anyone can respond to your calls for evidence. With the committee’s resources and a bit of effort on your part, you could be learning from a tonne of new people.

Finally, recognising the above does not mean that everything is a free-for-all: please put extra effort into differentiating between emotions and evidence, between anecdotes and research. In a limited but growing number of areas there is evidence of which things definitely do work better or worse. Vested interests often try to muddy the waters – but you can see through this if you get properly informed.

Fortunately we’ve had some amazing heavyweight-yet-accessible publications in the past few years that will get you up to speed. Put aside 20 minutes a day and you can quickly get through Why Knowledge Matters by E.D. Hirsch, Making Good Progress by Daisy Christodoulou, and Tom Bennett’s Creating a Culture.

You can also immunise yourself against the well-meaning but damaging ideas that abound in child development circles like “attachment theory” and “trauma-informed practice”. Nick Rose and the Brookings Institute have both written well on these topics.

So there you have it: expect noisy contributions, seek genuine diversity, and embrace what evidence we have. Through your work you can make better the lives of millions of children, their families, and those who support them. Thank you for your efforts, and good luck!



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13 Comments

  1. I am seriously disappointed to see a serious education publication allowing the kind of view that dismisses attachment and trauma as “damaging ideas”. I can assure you that educators that dismiss this are the true causes on ongoing damage: to children and to families.

    The callousness shown in this peacocking open letter from someone with only a passing knowledge of the subject is dangerous at a time when education is in danger of being converted into an ever more narrow sausage machine to suit only the centre of the bell curve and to focus on pure academic results only.

  2. Helen Collings

    “You can also immunise yourself against the well-meaning but damaging ideas that abound in child development circles like “attachment theory” and “trauma-informed practice”. Nick Rose and the Brookings Institute have both written well on these topics.”
    I am shocked that you thought fit to publish this article without checking out the facts. These are not ‘well meaning’ ideas, but rather facts based on current neurological understanding. I accept that this is an opinion piece, but facts are still facts! I could have the opinion that the world is flat. But, the fact is that this is wrong.

  3. I think there is little denial that there considerable struggles with the education system in England. Rising exclusions, increasing number of parents having to resort to tribunals to have their children’s needs met and increasingly diverse approaches to how to manage this. Simultaneously, there have been many claims that we are currently in the realms of a mental ill-health epidemic and I argue that this epidemic is having a fundamental impact on the lives of the children we work with. Behaviour is seen as being poorer with a culture of disrespect between teacher and pupil, on-going tensions between parents trying to fight for the needs of their child in the mucky world of SEN and people questioning how schools individually deal with misbehaviour.

    In a recent edition, Schools Week published an open letter to the new members of the Education Select Committee. In the spirit of this, I write this. I don’t necessarily agree on a number of fundamental points.

    “People have bypassed the high priests and gatekeepers who previously preserved access to power and knowledge for themselves.”

    Whilst there have been growing interests in grassroots movements of teachers getting together to discuss education (BrewEd, BuffetEd, BrewsAP and a whole host of other hashtags to help you on your way) there are still significant issues with what is meant by knowledge and power. Yes ResearchEd has provided a platform for researchers to talk about research informed practice but alongside this is the distrust of research academics with the continual reiteration that they aren’t teachers. Additionally, whilst hold power and knowledge is all well and good, this is along the backdrop of less financial input for schools to be able to effectively managing resources in the education sea of diminishing monetary support.

    I’m sure you’re all committed to diversity, but all too often it’s been easy to rely on the usual sort of unions, academics, business groups, quangos, charities, etc. They have the time and money specifically to employ people to do this, but there are so many more out there who have different views on things and are doing a great job. They don’t have the cash to employ lobbyists, or they’re too busy actually making a difference with kids to get in touch with you

    Education is a vital part of our social system, and thus we must seek the views of many. That includes unions (aren’t they about employee rights?), academies (aren’t we talking about research informed practice?) and yes charities too. If we block out the voice of one group then we risk further marginalising those we are meant to support. Additionally, surely this is the way of bypassing the staffs of the high priests and jumping over the gates to have our voices heard?

    It is no surprise that what I struggled most with the opinion offered here;
    “You can also immunise yourself against the well-meaning but damaging ideas that abound in child development circles like “attachment theory” and “trauma-informed practice”

    The opinion piece then goes to identify a number of books that the Education Select Committee should read. I don’t disagree, read, and read widely. Please read Tom Bennet’s work on Creating a Culture, whilst you are there join in with the #PRUbookclub where we have read the (evidenced based) The Boy who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz. You will be most welcomed and will be joined by researchers, teachers, psychologists, doctors and other esteemed colleagues that want to learn more. Don’t immunise yourself against a range of ontologies, embrace them.

    But beyond reading, make changes. Teachers are tired, head teachers are tired, parents are exhausted. Changes may make the fundamental difference in how our children achieve. Narrowing your perspectives by limiting your understanding of education and immunising against other approaches will only do your constituents, your communities, a disservice.

  4. Mary O'shaughnessy

    Mark

    I find your comments around trauma informed practice appalling. You are now an expert on child development and trauma. I sincerely hope they ignore your advice and I feel truly sorry for any child to have the misfortune of coming into contact with you. I am an academic but only returned to study when I was dealing with young adults with extremely complex issues due to their early life experiences. How dare you undermine what they are feeling and experienced. These are real children and it’s down to people like you who undermine their experience that they never get to deal with it and move on with their lives.

  5. The reference to attachment theory being “damaging” appears to be taken out of context. Nick Rose speaks about a focus on ‘attachment disorders’ not being necessarily helpful nor the role of the teacher to address, but that doesn’t mean that an awareness of attachment relationships and how children may relate differently based on their past experiences is in anyway “damaging”.
    The phrasing without additional context comes across as insensitive and I imagine alienating to a number of educators (and parents) who are concerned with protecting and promoting children’s mental well-being.

  6. Lesley Moore

    I’m appalled by this letter. It shows that Mark Lehain has not one iota of understanding of childhood trauma or attachment theory. I’m horrified that someone in Education in 2020 can disparage these.

  7. Dear Mr Lehain,

    Rarely do I come across commentators who continue to fundamentally misunderstand the early impact of children and young peoples experience as you do in this letter. To suggest that people should “immunise” themselves against attachment theory and trauma-informed practice, indicates that you propose that members of the committee actively choose to ignore the clear scientific evidence of the impact of trauma on children’s learning. I note that you reference the Brookings Institution so I will quote them directly; “Without a doubt, the emphasis on toxic stress, ACEs, and trauma-informed care has been beneficial….. School officials with similar training have begun listening to children more and helping them learn to manage their behavior through practices like mindfulness. These changes are worth their weight in gold.” The Brookings Institution go on to suggest that this is just the start of the process, and that we should then work towards identifying children’s resilience and assets to help them thrive.
    These recommendations couldn’t be further from your suggestion that educators “immunise” themselves from these approaches. In light of the evidence, your comments are unhelpful and potentially damaging to the progress that has been made in recent years.
    Dr Kate Ward (Clinical Psychologist)

  8. Kate Oakley

    A genuine example of politicians needing to held accountable for incorrect and potentially very damaging views. You’ve misrepresented several long-standing, key theories from the field of child development AND the Brookings Institute‘s stance on attachment and trauma-informed practice. I sincerely hope that those serving on the committee apply critical thinking AND listen to experts in the field, before listening to your toxic views.
    Children cannot vote – therefore every politician and policy-influencer has the duty to represent their best interests, in the most evidence-based way possible!

  9. Mark Watson

    Wow, the ‘education establishment’ come together as one to crush alternative viewpoints!

    I don’t know whether what Mark Lehain has said about child development is (a) sensible, or (b) dangerously unhinged. But the reaction to one small paragraph in his article has completely overshadowed the rest of what he said which I, as a parent and non-teacher, thought comprised sensible points.

    And in relation to his thoughts on what is clearly a controversial topic, no matter what the commentators above may think, my experience tells me that when dealing with something as complex and difficult as this there is NEVER absolute consensus on what is wrong and what is right. You may not like it, but I bet there will be some ‘experts’ who agree with Mr Lehain. They may not be the majority, or the most expert, but they will be there.

    He has come out and written his opinion on something (remember this is on the Opinions section of the website) and is now being showered with insults and opprobrium because of it. “Callous”, “peacocking”, “appalling”, “how dare you”, “not one iota of understanding”, “horrified”. All because someone has a different point of view from you.

    It’s just like the reaction to whenever anyone mentions the dreaded “grammar school” phrase. Immediately lines are drawn and insults hurled without anyone having any interest in civilised discussion or, heaven forbid, trying to see it from someone else’s viewpoint.

    I wonder how many of the above commentators, if they are teachers, would in the cold light of day use their responses as an example to show their students how to react when someone says something they disagree with.

  10. Why suggest those books which only chime with the views put forward by Parents and Teachers for Excellence? I would suggest a counter-weight:
    The British Betrayal of Childhood by AL Aynsley-Green
    Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes by Diane Reay
    Who Cares Abut Education? going in the wrong direction by Eric MacFarlane
    and (although it’s a little out-of-date now): The Truth About Our Schools co-authored by Melissa Benn and myself

    • Mark Watson

      I may disagree with a lot of Janet’s viewpoints, but she usually argues her point without ranting and resorting to personal attacks (well, maybe unless Michael Gove is involved!).

      As for why people suggest certain books or other resources, it’s because those are the ones that back up their argument. So for example without reading them I’m going to hazard a wild guess that all four books referred to by Janet, and their authors, are (a) against selective education, and (b) against academies.

      That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, just as it doesn’t mean they’re right. Indeed if you’re a proponent of grammar schools and academies then you should read them and try to understand the authors’ points because they challenge your own viewpoints. They may change your mind, they may not. But we live in a world, education sector and more widely, where most of us listen to ‘people like us’, watch TV shows made by ‘people like us’, read books/articles/newspapers written by ‘people like us’, and don’t try and understand other people’s viewpoints.

  11. Erik Wilson

    Those in ‘child development circles’ clearly know a great deal more than Mark Lehain does about the weight of evidence around attachment disorder and trauma informed practice. These matters are far too important for policy makers to be influenced by. vacuous and uninformed opinions.