As the coalition government ponders reform of the education system, ex-headteacher James Wetz tells Camilla Pemberton how ministers could help boost the achievements of the most vulnerable children
A former headteacher and visiting fellow at Bristol University, James Wetz is proposing a quiet revolution in our schools – one based on attachment theory.
“Many young people underperform because their home and school environments have failed to satisfy their need for healthy attachments. They weren’t able to form healthy relationships with their parents and they act out this trauma and dysfunction at school.”
As a result he believes all teachers should have training on attachment theory. He outlines this proposal in his book Urban Village Schools, which details his vision for a radical transformation of schools. Funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian foundation, the model draws inspiration from Boston where small, state-funded schools of no more than 300-400 pupils are situated in the city’s most deprived districts. Teachers teach no more than 75 pupils a week.
The foundation believes the theory will now have a wide appeal, particularly given the coalition government’s desire to allow community members to open and run their own schools.
“Small schools allow teachers to develop relationships with pupils and build a sense of community for these children. Rather than a preoccupation with standards and inspections, we need a more therapeutic disposition in our schools; a move from control and surveillance to nurture and care,” Wetz points out.
“If we don’t address this failure to form healthy attachments in our schools we are in danger of raising a generation of children who have had no positive experiences of being part of a community.”
Schools, Wetz says, can – and should – provide these positive communal experiences and healthy relationships.
“It is not easy to get a child through adolescence to adulthood, let alone with confidence and ambition,” he says. “I am not suggesting teachers become parents or social workers but our schools should not undervalue the importance of developing children’s emotional competencies. Children with social and emotional capital will fly in any setting.”
In 2006 Wetz wrote a report which found that of the 10% of Bristol’s young people who left school without any qualifications, 40% had achieved average or above average grades at primary school. “There were complex social and environmental factors which made life hard for these children, but they succeeded in small, nurturing primary schools,” he says.
In large secondary schools, however, they fell through the net. “The nurturing culture disappeared in large, impersonal schools. For vulnerable, non-resilient children, secondary school became a hostile and challenging place.”
Urban Village School
Most secondary schools in the UK, particularly in large, urban areas, exclude vulnerable young people by their very design, says James Wetz.
He believes the urban village school would be suitable for all children, including those “disengaged by and left out of the current system”.
It would have a therapeutic culture, with every member of staff’s training informed by developmental psychology and attachment theory.
Every child would have access to an “attachment worker” so the school is a “container” for young people’s stress and anxiety.
The school day would last from 10am until 6pm. This is based on research into the body rhythms of adolescents from the University of Minnesota and is designed to allow attachment workers to work with families before the start of the school day.
Finishing later means that children can finish their homework on site and relax at home “knowing they have done a good day’s work”.
No student will work with more than four teachers a week, be in a class of more than 25 or a year group of more than 75. The entire school community would be no more than 375.
Wetz’s vision has now been turned into a design by architects Feilden Clegg Bradley.
This article is published in the 20 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Schools need a nurturing culture