Academic resilience is the ability to sustain high levels of achievement motivation and performance despite the presence of stressful events and conditions that place pupils at risk of doing poorly and ultimately dropping out of school. During the mid1980s I transferred from teaching privileged boys in an independent school to my first post in a state maintained primary school. The culture shock was profound. I had no idea how to form relationships with children who came from “under-privileged backgrounds” – but earnestly wanted to do so for the simple reason that I have always held a core belief in equity and equality. I had hugely enjoyed my work in the independent sector, but wanted to “make a difference” to the lives of children with no hope of attending such schools. The task turned out to be very much harder than I had ever conceived possible. I turned to research as the solution – partly because I had always nurtured the ambition of a higher degree and perhaps eventually a university post.
The result was Peer Attachments and Social Deviancy in the Primary School. Read abstract. This short extract explains my fundamental problem, and it should perhaps be read by the current Secretary of State. The “prep school punishments” that had worked in my independent school did not work with children from deprived backgrounds. I knew instinctively that it was much more a matter of relationships. I chose John Bowlby’s attachment theory as the means to examine the difficult relationship problems that I felt underlay the futility of “prep school punishments”.
This was the beginning of a very long, exciting and eventful journey that is not over. My first peer-reviewed publication arising from the thesis was (1992) ‘The validity of sociometric status’, Educational Research, 34(2): 149 – 154. During the early 1990s I revisited attachment theory to undertake additional work, resulting in a well cited paper, (2003) ‘Primary school boys’ identity formation and the male role model: an exploration of of sexual and gender identity through attachment theory, Sex Education: sexuality, society and learning, 3(3): 257-270. In the same year, the book Women Teaching Boys (Trentham) appeared. In short the message was that children did not, by and large, form attachment bonds with their teachers. The counter-intuitive finding was that the “caring” and “modelling” roles of the teacher are somewhat less significant than is commonly imagined. The answer to my fundamental question of improving the lot of what I now see as children under-performing through social stress is far more complex that simply being a friendly, approachable teacher.
A finding such as this would not be accepted in Steiner Education where the same class teacher is expected to form close bonds through an eight year long relationship with the children, including visiting the children at home. Read more about my work in Steiner education. It is always wrong to draw simplistic conclusions that ignore different contexts and other possibilities. My interest in attachment behaviour has again been revived as a result of work I undertook in connection with a visiting professorial scholarship to the University of Queensland where I worked with Professor Martin Mills on equity politics and boys’ education. This unpublished seminar paper summarises what I think may be an important link between attachment behaviour and academic resilience.
I have been fortunate to work with an excellent PhD student in the closely related field of positive psychology. Jenny Fox-Eades asks the question: “How are teachers to ‘care, but not too much?'” Jenny’s doctoral work arises from sources such as her 2008 publication Celebrating Strengths: building strengths-based schools, Coventry: CAPP. Together, we published a chapter in the (2013) Oxford Book of Happiness, Chapter 44 ‘Happiness in the Classroom’ (579 – 591). Resilience is a fascinating area and I am currently developing a new Edge Hill University team who will take forwards this proposal.
The research instrument that has been used in this work is based upon a film produced by the Edge Foundation and distributed by the Guardian newspaper. It tackles the question what does the future hold for five young people from Swindon and is a significant critique of what is seen as an education system still fundamentally rooted in nineteenth century principles. We have used the five case studies in the film as a stimulus for pupils, parents and teachers to talk about the issues and reflect on their own identities and aspirations as learners. You can see the first part of the film here.