Sunday, 2 February 2014

Regarding more sad news, more tough days and once again finding hope and joy in unexpected places.

I never expected that I would have to write another piece like this so soon. Why would you? thankfully tragedy is not something that touches schools very often. Despite what you might read in the press school's are vibrant, joyful places where we laugh an awful lot. Yes there are plenty of challenging days, but we knew that when we signed up to be teachers! What probably takes us all by surprise are the unexpected ways that working at school actually makes us laugh out loud. I'm still trying to come to terms with the way year 7 pupils have recently decided to work around our policy to not let them off school premises during lunchtime by emulating the 6th form and ordering in Domino's pizza. Responding to that one wasn't part of head teacher training! Should I be outraged at the flouting of school rules or just laugh at the sheer audacity of it all?

Will Paynter was exactly the type of pupil who would have been on the phone to order a pizza in year 7. When I heard the awful news that he had passed away after a tragic accident I was  utterly numbed by the sheer unfairness of it all. Will was a proper "all-rounder" academically talented but also someone who contributed to school life in general. Always willing to stop and chat Will was was quick to make a joke or humorous comment. In some ways he summed up the ethos of pupils at LSP, that laissez-faire, "it will be ok in the end so stop stressing" casualness that infuriates and amuses staff in equal measure. One of Will's A-level teachers Mr Baker, summed this up with an anecdote about his somewhat dubious work ethic.
"Look sir if I work half as hard as Farr I'll work twice as hard as I would normally, so dont stress"
Will went to achieve an A grade at A level in Maths so I guess he was right! Not only was he academically able he was a hugely a popular student with a large group of friends and was a real "life and soul of the party" character. We will remember him as someone who made the most of life and also made the most of himself. All our lives will be lessened by his absence.

The staff took news of William's passing very hard. So soon after tragically losing Josh Woodyatt it was almost too much to bear. We talked about how hard we have to fight for our pupils, how hard it is to overcome the disadvantages they face in life, how we support them through all the challenges that face them and how if we get them through A-levels and on to university we pat ourselves on the back and quite rightly see it as evidence of a job well done. We have set that student on the right path, it validates the very reason we became teachers in the first place. To have that taken away from us so soon after this young man had left our care is shatteringly unfair.

Typically staff at LSP pulled together, focussed on the future, began to discuss another memorial service and planting another memorial tree, began to think of ways to get people smiling again. As a headteacher there can be no stronger source of pride than seeing your team pull together in the face of adversity, to see your team shake off the sadness and look with hope to the future. It is an unexpected source of  joy.

More comfort came from the tributes that were paid to Will on our facebook page, (Official Lewis School Pengam). Some people in education can be a bit sniffy about the role of social media. All I can say in response to that is that it has been a great source of comfort to us over the last few tough weeks. Our tribute to Will has been viewed by close to 6000 people, hundreds of people have taken time to "like" or make a comment. This is testament to the calibre of the young man that we helped mould and to the strength of the community that LSP serves. How can you not be bouyed by that?

Finally I have to pay a massive tribute to Will's mother, Mrs Williams. Just like the parents of Josh Woodyatt she has borne this terrible tragedy with strength, dignity and (unbelievably) an unmistakably "Will Paynter" sense of humour . When I phoned her this week I was utterly amazed at how anyone could exhibit such strength at such an awful time, how even in the midst of grief and sadness, happiness can be found. She actually made me laugh out loud with her recollections of Will. I had called to offer consolation and unexpectedly found myself being consoled. This weekend Mrs Williams posted the message below on our Facebook page:
"Thank you Chris for what I believe to be a very fitting tribute to my beautiful, wonderful boy and to those who knew us for your lovely comments. I couldn't have wished for a better son, I adored him; there was nothing about him I would have changed and although I would have loved to have had him for longer, I have cherished every second of his 18 years and feel truly blessed to have been his mum".
I'm sure like me that you'll have to read that through the blur of a few tears, but I can think of no more fitting tribute to the love that we bear for our children, whether they are our own or we just get to care for them for a few hours each day in school.

In Henry Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" the main character reflects on the lives of several people who had been lost in a tragic accident, he discusses the purpose and meaning of life and reaches this conclusion.
“We ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” 
I think that about sums it up. Sleep well Will, you were loved and we won't forget you.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The rise and rise of cyber bullying, self-harm and depression

This week Childline produced a report that highlighted an increase in the number of children contacting it with concerns about online bullying. In 2012 there were 4,507 cases of cyberbullying reported, up from 2,410 in 2011-12.

Does that fit in with our experiences at LSP? Unfortunately it probably does. Although we remind pupils that negative comments made on Facebook, Snapchat or other social media can be hugely upsetting, just like every other school we still have to deal with a steady stream of cases of bullying that more often than not involve an online element. What particularly concerns me is just how unpleasant comments made online can be (just ask Tom Daley), the barrier of the computer screen seems to allow individuals to make statements they would never dare to use on the school yard, what's worse these comments can be read over and over again by the recipient, the damage done can be unbelievable.

The consequences for someone experiencing online bullying can be devastating. Although not solely caused by online bullying I feel it is no coincidence that Childline has seen an increase in concerns about self-harm, depression and anxiety. During 2012-13, Childline counselled 278,886 children and teenagers. The charity also handled 10,961 cases where a young person raised concerns about another child. We have a counsellor in school every Wednesday and she does an amazing job, we could easily fill her time every day of the week.

Take self-harm as an example, Childline notes that the number of instances have steadily increased over the years and is now affecting children at a younger age. For example, in 2011-12, 470 12-year-old girls contacted the charity about self-harming, but this rose to 700 in 2012-13. The same can definitely be said of boys. Unheard of when I started teaching in the mid 90's self-harm is now a common occurrence, although self harm can be a bit "faddish" we would typically deal with several cases a term and supporting pupils takes up a significant amount of the time of our pastoral team
Even more worrying Childline reported that 29,163 children and teenagers mentioned feeling suicidal, up from 22,006 in the previous year.

I believe that such feelings of despair can again, in part, be linked back to the fact the young people today are part of an online "multi-screen" generation, they can communicate with each other more than ever before, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Xbox live, the list goes on and on, and yet this interconnectedness involves very little face to face contact. I can't help but think that we are losing a certain amount of "social capital" as young people spend less time in each others company. In this world it seems very easy to become isolated and lonely, a young person may have hundreds of Facebook "friends" but how many of them are really there for them? The internet is a wonderful thing, without it I wouldn't be communicating with you now, but perhaps we need to monitor the influence it's having.

What else can we do to support young people? Peter Wanless of the NSPCC said" If we are to help young people we need to listen to what they are telling us” That has always been the case at  Lewis and I'm confident that when issues are reported to us we can not only support individuals with their concerns but we can also effectively deal with specific instances of online harassment.

Parents also need to play a part, we all need to understand that the problems facing young people today are very different to the issues we faced as children, we may have to deal with nasty comments on the school yard but I doubt any of us were subjected to persistent bullying by letter! Yet our children may face comments being made to them online every single night of the week, in such circumstances there is no escape. Bullying like this shouldn't be dismissed as part of growing up, it absolutely should not be tolerated and I would urge any parent with concerns to contact us in school.

Finally let's make sure we continue to highlight the excellent work that Childline, NSPCC and other similar charities do every day. They have given young people today a voice, and a mechanism to express their worries. Long may it continue!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

A tough day

It's been an incredibly difficult day at LSP. Staff and pupils have been deeply saddened by the tragic news that year 12 pupil Josh Woodyatt had passed away during the Christmas holidays. Josh was a likeable and popular student, he was a larger than life character and the type of boy who would never walk by without a smile and a hello. Talented in drama and music he will be very much missed by everyone in our family at LSP. 

The funeral today was as distressing as you would expect. It was quite rightly pointed out that there is something inherently wrong with the idea that parents should have to say goodbye to a beloved child. Josh's family bore their grief today with such dignity and I hope at some point they will be able to take comfort in that fact that so many turned out to pay their respects.

I'm always writing about how proud I am of the pupils at school, but the way current and ex pupils demonstrated their maturity and empathy today provided a little glimpse of sunshine on a very dark day. Clearly I am very lucky to be part of a community that cares so much about one of its own.  

Pupils have also expressed a desire to raise money for a permanent memorial to Josh at LSP and I hope very much that we will be able to provide something appropriate in the near future.

In the meantime I would like to extend my heartfelt sympathies to Josh's family and friends. He will ever be present in my thoughts and those of so many others who have made LSP their home over recent years. 

I'll leave you with some words from Henry Wandsworth Longfellow which seem appropriate this evening

"Good-night! good-night! as we so oft have said
Beneath this roof at midnight, in the days
That are no more, and shall no more return.
Thou hast but taken up thy lamp and gone to bed;
I stay a little longer, as one stays
To cover up the embers that still burn".

RIP Josh, may your sleep be sound.