Back to School

We’ve been talking about September, children returning to or starting new schools and how education impacts upon so many facets of life. At Sonnet, the education sector has always been an area of interest for us.

From a personal perspective, this week marks my daughter’s start at secondary school and the return to primary school for my son. I’ve been asked a number of times how we went about choosing schools. We sent them where we think they will be happy and enjoy learning, learn positive values, and where they will be encouraged to be compassionate members of society.

Choosing with Heart

Starting to look at secondary schools during lockdowns resulted in the joys of the ‘virtual open day’. Of all the schools we looked at, one included a welcome video that acknowledged the effects of Covid and started with a hope that the audience were well physically and mentally. That one example was very striking, amongst a sea of introductory quotes from Ofsted and data from the latest league tables.

We looked deeper to see how schools support the mental wellbeing of young people and were pleased to find some that gave contact details of people within the school that would be there to listen and help. We found one that went out of its way to promote a really meaningful diversity policy (beyond just anti-bullying) where differences are celebrated. There’s such an important distinction between the statements that encourage “tolerance” as compared to “respect”: one is rather grudging.

Mental Health Crisis in the Teaching Profession

On the subject of mental well-being, it is shocking that we, as a society, have allowed a mental health crisis to develop across the teaching profession. It’s been decades in the making, but the latest figures from Education Support make for grim reading. Dare I suggest that part of the cause is the narrowly focused pressure applied to achieve arbitrarily set standards, rather than celebrating when each individual has reached their potential and has excelled in the things they enjoy and want to do? So often the focus is on headline-grabbing numbers: we now not only hear about how many young people go to university as a measure of success any given Government’s success, but also a judgement on whether they are doing something that the government believes to be worthwhile.

I was interested a while ago by some comments from Prof. Hannah Fry on a radio panel debate. To distil that commentary down (hopefully doing it justice)… we wouldn’t expect someone to understand a page of French without tuition and practice, yet that’s exactly how the system tends to approach Maths teaching in the UK. That’s in stark contrast to the system in countries that consistently outperform ours on Maths testing results. Perhaps if we prioritised helping young people to find enjoyment in learning first of all they would want to continue with the subjects that the architects of our system claim to prize (even beyond age 18)? Maybe teachers would feel a bit less stress in these circumstances?

Mechanisms for Change

At Sonnet, when we’re evaluating organisations and activities, we’re often thinking about mechanisms of change. This is the way people interact with an activity or organisation to achieve outcomes (positive changes in their lives and for their communities). For education, I believe ‘enjoyment’ is a fundamental part of that set of mechanisms. It sits, absolutely essentially, in between the activity of teaching and the outcome of obtaining qualifications that open up choices and future career opportunities. I think we overlook that at our peril.

As The Children’s Society puts it: “The Government must take accountability for children’s unhappiness with school”. I’d echo The Children Society’s call for schools to receive more support (and perhaps to be burdened by fewer ‘initiatives’).

So if you’re involved in education…

What mechanisms of change do you rely on? How do you enable people to interact and engage for positive outcomes? And how do you plan to help people to engage or to overcome risks / barriers that stand in the way? Let us know!


Chris Theobald, Director

Published On: September 11th, 2023Categories: BlogBy

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