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Extra special, happy kids

With stress and anxiety high on the school agenda, attention is turning to what they can offer kids to help them medal not just in lessons, but in life.

When I was at school there was an unapologetic focus on academics. We worked like crazy, whacked a ball only occasionally on the hockey pitch and felt the rap (not literally!) if we didn’t hit our four A’s at A-Level. Were we stressed? I’m not sure, but I’m certain I would feel intense pressure if I was back at school today.

It is now commonly accepted amongst head teachers that too much focus on purely academics is not healthy for young people – with anxiety and mental issues at an all time high amongst the under 18s, the need to develop the ‘whole child’ rather than the next Einstein has never been higher.

But what makes a ‘healthy’ school for kids and what should we be looking out for? As head of a school with a huge emphasis on pastoral care, I’ve picked the brains of Simon Head, head teacher at leading Salisbury co-ed prep Chafyn Grove. There are no after-school clubs for day pupils at Chafyn– instead all activities are woven into afternoons during the week, enabling all children to take part in a massive range of co-curricular including cookery, gardening, mini bridge, bushcraft, badminton, engineers, Lego, Salsa, pottery, shed loads of sports clubs and even sailing – in fact, these afternoon activities are encouraged so much that the confidence the children gain through them percolates all the way through school life. Fascinating stuff and food for thought in your school search.

Has the ethos of teaching changed? Have schools moved away from a focus on exams?

Exam success should be a by-product of learning, not the goal. The understandable drive for high standards can warp into concentrating on the things which can most easily be measured; the sheer cost of private education also encourages this auditing. That has undoubtedly led to a shift towards quantifiable benchmarking: results, facilities, awards. Unchallenged, this equates to the tail wagging the dog. Good schools have always offered an all-round education and that balance allows for a healthier experience. Exams have their place – the right amount of challenge is always a good thing – but if they dominate, they overshadow more important accomplishments.

How do you at Chafyn Grove cater for the whole child?

Breadth, depth and balance! It’s important to offer a range of opportunities for two reasons: variety is interesting, and it ensures that every child discovers areas of strength or fulfilment. That bolsters confidence and resilience, as well helping a child appreciate the value of curiosity and having the courage to follow it. Strong personal relationships between teachers and pupils help tune the level of challenge optimally: too much is stressful, too little too dull – in between is where children thrive. No-one at Chafyn Grove merely teaches – the trust is nurtured by sharing meals, trips and activities together. We sincerely and concertedly aim to see each child in as many ways as possible: we embed after-school clubs – from Russian to Parkour – into the timetable so that everyone does them; we have tutor groups as well as form and year ones; we help the children to mentor each other and talk about them all the time. All of this informs and enhances our provision towards the children in as many meaningful ways as possible.

What do you do if you see a child struggling with anxiety?

Offer insight, perspective and opportunity. The latter usually translates as subtly creating the chance for them to showcase a strength – or confront a weakness on fair terms. Spotting the anxiety while it’s in the bud is at least half of the solution; that depends upon a good environment of interaction, discussion and trust.

Do parents interfere too much in their children’s extra-curricular interests?

Nice try! Less is often more, but some children thrive on astonishingly full schedules. So long as perspective is maintained – something teachers are well-placed to offer – it is undoubtedly a good thing to embrace opportunity. However, unstructured time – away from adult orchestration – forms an invaluable part of an overall balance.

What about kids who are happy just studying?

Go for it! But don’t become a specialist too early, or an island. Different activities or interactions are usually complementary. Nobody has to be keen on everything, but a small amount of engagement with choices further down the list (or completely off it) is healthy – don’t forget how pearls are made.

Is the mental health crisis in children being a bit overblown? If not, what can we do to ease this?

The only excessive element is the use of the word ‘snowflake.’ Of course, children enjoy some privileges that previous generations did not – the most cursory glance at history reveals that as a recurring truth. However, children today co-exist with an all-embracing online world continuously evolving with breath-taking rapidity. The pressure of feeling incessantly measured by their peers in that environment should not be under-estimated. Recognising this as a genuine burden is the first part of the solution. Much of the rest is achieved by maintaining a balance between positive time on and off-line. Both are helped by active and meaningful interactions in the real world: exercise, shared meals and moments, a sense of purpose and self not seen only through the lens of a screen. Devices need not be feared, but their use should be controlled. Adults can set a better example here both in their own usage and in how much they understand of this issue.

How do you use wellbeing within school life?

It needs to inform everything, not just be parachuted in at intervals. Sometimes an approach can be overt: our children learn about mindfulness alongside of Geography, Spanish and Art. A lunch-time yoga session can provide an extra outlet of relaxation or affirmation, just as an older child hearing a younger one read or swim alongside them in the pool can help both parties remain centred and happy. We have a scheme called the Chafyn Challenges, ranging from swimming a length underwater to cooking the Sunday roast. Each challenge exercises either curiosity, courage or compassion but they can all be achieved with just a bit of gumption: thus recognition and reward are within everyone’s reach, via an enriching series of paths. In other ways, a more subtle approach can be administered: we limit the use of testing, but the end of year ones we do favour come just before half-term, so that children can spend it relaxing rather than cramming. It boils down to each child feeling understood and valued, and their experience of school reflecting that.

During our Muddy visit to Chafyn, we were certainly struck by the strong school ethos that everyone should succeed, and that the development of pupils comes out top rather than the school being a stepping stone to the ‘right’ public school. There is a nurturing family feel, showing itself in everything from the teachers sharing lunch with pupils, to the Head seeing each child individually for interview practice, to weekly assemblies celebrating birthdays, House successes and match reports, even recreating individual incidents at a match…and it’s not just the strongest kids in the Firsts who are chosen for accolades. If you’ve just scored your first try after three years of frustration, you’ll be up there getting a pat on the back. And surely that is what life is all about…

Chafyn Grove, 33 Bourne Avenue, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP1 1LR, 01722 333423

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