Revising the goals

The direction of travel for school improvement and the focus for the global education reform movement (GERM) becomes ever more inhuman, technocratic, and about outcomes that don’t relate to (and may even work against) the prioritisation of relationships and social inclusion. Primary and Secondary models of schooling increasingly reflect the end-use to which they will be put. We think of students as an input to an economic system. An education system founded on Relational principles considers the purpose of education as less about personal development and more about empowering the individual to contribute to the political, organizational and social worlds of which he or she will be a part.

Relational context

Evidence suggests that social relationships amongst children and young people are more fragmented than ever. Several studies have demonstrated the effects of broken relationships – defined here as “non-intact families” (Roberts el al. 2009), “fractured” or “non-stable” home environments (CSJ, 2013) or “insecure attachments” which can be in the home, with teachers or amongst a child’s peer group (Marsh, 2007) – on individual educational attainment as well as on society. These show that, where relationships are dysfunctional, the negative impact on student outcomes is significant. Young people are at higher risk of mental illness, at risk of manifesting aggressive or withdrawn behaviours, and of being more likely to underachieve academically and end up unemployed.

Unsurprisingly, data from the NSPCC (2016) reveals that British children are unhappier than they have ever been, with family relationships and chronic isolation the underlying causes of much of their angst. The ONS recently published a report (Randall et al, 2014) suggesting that, compared to anywhere in Europe, we in the UK least likely to know our neighbours, and feel unable to call on friends in a crisis. The Mental Health Foundation (Griffin, 2010) concluded that young adults, in particular, are more likely to experience loneliness than the elderly in Britain, even though a study by Independent Age (2016) concluded that severe loneliness in England impacts nearly 2 million people over 50. The government recently felt it necessary to appoint a ‘Loneliness Minister’!

And yet successive governments, and education as a key agent system of that society, have valued, prioritised and promoted competition and individualism above all else. And children in response yearn to be wealthy and famous, and they are hooked on the pursuit of fortune. When polled, many say they “just want to be rich”. And even if competition did make us richer, all the evidence suggests that it is unlikely to make us happier; the gratification that stems from wealth is continuously challenged by the impacts of the competition itself. (Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, Forthcoming.)

The thing that children rarely do at this moment of reflection is to conceive of anything beyond themselves. We know that very few boys see themselves working for a charity or good cause when they reach employment age. We do know, however, that those young people who are more civically engaged in later childhood/adolescence have higher levels of what we might call social/cultural capital (Bennett and Parameshwaran, 2013).

Relationships first

This simple message – that good, close relationships are important for our health and well-being – is not new, and neither is it difficult to accept or embrace. And yet, our current mental health, child welfare, and education systems approach child development, and vulnerable children, as if they were completely unaware of these essential findings in human development and attachment. Why is it so easy to ignore?

The truth is, what we really like is a quick fix, something we can purchase or read that’ll make our lives good and keep them that way. We want a toolkit, or a consultancy offer or a text book to make the really difficult things go away.

But relationship – reaching out to people in a way that forms deep connection – takes time.

You can’t create relationships instantly any more than you can instantaneously mature a tree or its fruit. In the end, whilst we might tell ourselves that quality is important, there is no substitute for quantity time. You need it to build relationships; you need it to maintain relationships.

That, or we deny that there is any issue to tackle. It is at once too big to deal with and too small to deal with, which makes it too hard to deal with.

Human flourishing is intangible. The importance of relationships can appear self-evident, and this presents the most profound challenge. Relationships are too often a by-product of decisions taken with other priorities in mind. They’re neglected, undermined or put under intolerable pressure.

So, we know relationships matter; but we also know that the way we often think about schooling is a problem in itself, which needs to be addressed. Our desire is to see young people successfully navigate a pathway to adulthood, and we wish to better understand the contribution of modern schooling, families and communities to a successful maturation process.