An open letter to Marc Smith, TES Editorial, 25 March 2016

by Angie Hart – Boingboing blogger

Dear Marc Smith,

I am writing in response to your article in the TES 25th March 2016 ‘Has the resilience ship sailed?’.

Yes, I am totally in agreement with you that ‘resilience’ is a term bandied about the educational world all the time at the moment, and that there seems to be a lack of clarity and consistency about what it actually means. For many, including Nicky Morgan – with her emphasis on ‘character, resilience and grit’ – it appears to be an innate quality that can be taught; for others like you there is a more sophisticated understanding that resilience is built through ‘the complex interaction between personality, experience and mechanisms within the environment’. Thanks for quoting our article, but I thought the way you used it was quite, shall we say, selective. We didn’t conclude that there was no point in having resilience-based approaches in schools. Quite the contrary, we just want them to be conceptually sound, co-produced with schools (including parents and students), grounded in an inequalities imagination, and steering away from a reliance on simply strengthening children’s individual characteristics.

In the work that we do, we like to think of resilience as ‘doing better than might be expected in a context of adversity, and indeed changing aspects of that adversity along the way’. In other words, resilience is about beating the odds and changing them. Our website has more information about how we define resilience and we’ve just had a paper accepted for publication that does a thorough job of comparing different definitions and arguing for a social justice-informed definition. Given the massive gap in educational outcomes for disadvantaged students identified by the Sutton Trust and others, I still think resilience (if you take an ‘inequalities/social justice perspective’ on it, rather than a narrow ‘innate character’ perspective) becomes less about bouncing back, than about bouncing forward or bouncing up. As my colleagues and I argue in the first book we wrote on the subject in 2007, when we developed an approach called Resilient Therapy, some children have nowhere to bounce back to.

Your point that many ‘off the shelf’ resilience programmes that are delivered separately from the rest of the curriculum have questionable long-term value and impact is an issue that has long concerned me. That point has been recently reinforced by a publication commissioned by the Public Policy Institute for Wales written by Robin Banerjee and colleagues, ‘Promoting Emotional Health, Well-being and Resilience in Primary Schools’ (pdf). The study identifies that ‘any work in this area needs to be situated within an integrated school systems approach where it is connected with – rather than competing with – other school priorities’ (p. 34).

You suggest that academic buoyancy is separate from resilience and that schools have less need to develop resilience than academic buoyancy. This does alarm me. Will this take us even further away from tackling inequalities? For our research and practice development group, the need is for schools to adopt a whole school community approach to developing resilience with the understanding that it is asset based – building on the strengths in people (be they staff, parents or children) and crucially, working on improving systems.

Our approach to resilience, which has been developed into the Academic Resilience Approach (ARA), is free to download for anyone who is interested in using the resources, including audits, films, toolkits, lesson plans etc. The ARA encompasses the ‘motivational predictors’ you talk about, but it does a whole lot more as well – it involves senior leaders, all staff, and we really mean all staff, parents, governors and students. Schools can audit how well the school is currently doing in terms of understanding and building resilience from what happens in the classroom and playground right up to policy and strategic development. It then provides an evidence-based framework for people to work from to do things better. This ‘Resilience Framework’ draws on the multiple contextual factors outside of school that impact learning as well the impact of learning on life outside of and beyond school.

The Resilience Framework considers the necessary factors to create exactly the climate that you describe as necessary for academic buoyancy. Basic needs such as getting enough sleep, adequate housing, feeling safe and having a healthy diet are fundamental to the framework. The Framework also draws from existing resilience literature to identify specific priorities such as ensuring that every child has at least one adult in their lives they can count on, fostering people’s talents, building their coping strategies, taking on more responsibilities and obligations, and building and sustaining positive relationships.

Learning is an experience that both requires and promotes resilience. In order to create the necessary culture for students to have these enriching learning experiences, the Resilience Framework highlights learning as one strand schools need to consider within the context of other, interdependent factors, addressed through whole school system change. Perhaps, rather than recommending that schools should ‘abandon resilience and embrace academic buoyancy’, it should instead be a case of reconceptualising academic buoyancy as a positive element within a resilience-building school.

In September, the TES reported on a survey of teachers which revealed the high levels of mental health needs in the profession and – more importantly – the reluctance of staff to share their problems with their line managers. Sadly, this survey is supported by numerous other surveys and studies that suggest that teachers are also in need of increased support. Considering the current well publicised concerns regarding teacher wellbeing, workload, professional dissatisfaction and risk of mental health issues, whole school resilience approaches are especially pertinent. They don’t end with work specifically intended for the ‘few students in desperate circumstances’, but extend to all members of the school community, including staff, whose wellbeing is not only of inherent importance, but also fundamental to improving student outcomes.

In the early days of working on these issues, I nearly abandoned the resilience concept myself. And I continue to share your frustration with many of the ways in which the concept is mobilised. But seeing just how useful school staff, parents and indeed young people themselves find the resilience approaches we have coproduced has kept me going.  Our research community even includes young people and carers living in challenging circumstances who had the motivation to produce their own guides to resilience which can be downloaded from our website, including the Mental Health and the Resilient Therapy Toolkit, One Step Forward, and Changing Lanes. And, as a parent of three children adopted from the care system, I can honestly say that taking a resilience approach has helped me no end with that tough, but of course immensely rewarding, job.

After your article (22nd April) the TES presented an article by Michael Barber marking the 90th anniversary of the Hadow report and describing Nicky Morgan as potentially the person who will be ‘a champion who will ensure it (character) becomes central to daily life in schools.’ Whilst the structural changes to the school system that resulted from the Hadow report were admirable, and he clearly understood the need for the system to work holistically around the child, the fact remains that he still saw ‘character’ as an intrinsic quality of the child. It seems that Nicky Morgan does too. Here I’m referring to her statement that there are ‘characteristics that we want to see children developing individually… things like persistence and resilience.’

There is a real danger in people thinking that ‘resilience’ is the same as ‘grit and determination’ and that it’s somehow the responsibility of the child to display it. It is the responsibility of everyone in the school community to have a proper understanding of resilience, of the factors that might make children less resilient and what they can pro-actively do to mitigate these risks and enhance the protective factors for these children in particular. This can be done systematically and the impact can be evaluated – it is not mysterious or difficult and it will result in children, young people, families and schools, that can not only ‘do better than might be expected in a context of adversity’, but also have the social capital and empowerment to change those contexts and improve them for others.

Finally, for me, there is one major reason why the kind of inequalities-resilience lens that we work with wins the day over the innate, character resilience approaches, and indeed your academic buoyancy one. I’m fundamentally most concerned about those children whose life jackets have been pierced, wrestled from them in the water, or even grabbed from them before they jumped ship. Neither Morgan’s resilience approach, nor the academic buoyancy concept does as much for children in these circumstances as a resilience perspective that addresses systems, and issues of social justice, will do. So I’ll keep paddling with that.

Angie Hart

Professor Angie Hart is in the School of Health Sciences and the Community University Partnership Programme, University of Brighton. She is also the director (in a voluntary capacity) of Boingboing, a social enterprise supporting resilience research and practice development through co-production with parents and young people.