From education to employment

Responding to the Autumn Statement –  creating learning environments where staff and students thrive. 

Heading into the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, I, like many others, felt cynical about what was to come. This cynicism was occasionally interrupted by a glimmer of hope. Months living with an increasing realisation of just how badly we are all going to be affected by the cost of living crisis, both personally and in the organisations we work, felt like tinnitus hissing in my ear. As the budget got closer the hissing got louder making it hard to focus on anything else.  I wanted to believe Hunt would have found a winning solution that would calm my anxiety. This heady mix of emotion made it difficult to digest last weeks announcement without prejudice. My ‘fight or flight’ response was on heightened alert as I watched the announcement and scrolled through the early analysis and comments. 

The relentless worry that we are all living with, and how this affects people in education

It’s not just about the fiscal details, but also the relentless worry that we are all living with, and how this affects people in education, and those of us being asked to deliver it. 

Many of our students and pupils will be surviving in poverty, arriving to study hungry, tired, and cold. Some of our students will increasingly be called upon at home to contribute to family income either by working themselves, or by taking on responsibility for childcare, cooking and cleaning so their parents can work. We are already seeing young people finding it impossible to thrive, and in some cases barely surviving. On a daily basis schools report being overwhelmed by the number of safeguarding concerns. 

Those responsible for delivering education, whether front line or support staff, are also contending with the personal impact of the crisis, fearful of coming years of increased scarcity and insecurity. Some staff are turning to Food Banks, who report even families with two incomes are turning to them to make ends meet. Living with this kind of stress takes its toll on cognitive functioning. Facing challenges at home, coupled with working within organisations that are also struggling and, delivering with increasingly stretched resources, it becomes difficult to see the wood for the trees. 

Pupils and students living with higher levels of stress, hardship and uncertainty are less able to fulfill their potential. Academic achievement falls and rates of absence increase. Individuals responsible for delivering education in these circumstances are more likely to experience reduced capabilities in creative, solutions-focused thinking.

Creating cultures and opportunities within our organisations

Perhaps then, while Hunt and his colleagues need to focus on finding ways to improve the economy and reduce poverty our focus might be most impactful by creating cultures and opportunities within our organisations where despite what is going on around us, we are able to tune of of the exhausting background hiss of anxiety and turn up the volume on being our best creative, curious, tenacious selves. 

The question then, is ‘how’? Perhaps we start small. Little changes in how we choose to behave can create moments of respite and spaces for high quality thinking.

There is an opportunity to learn from trauma informed approaches to teaching, which could have a transformative impact for this generation of learners. Many are experiencing multiple instances of trauma over long periods of time, including feelings of helplessness in the face of poverty.  

There is extensive literature on how to integrate trauma informed approaches to learning environments (many sighted in Trauma-Informed Pedagogies: A Guide for Responding to Crisis and Inequality in Higher Education, Phyllis Thompson, Janice Carello). An essential first step is for staff to be aware of their own emotions, identifying and managing their feelings, and modelling social and emotional skills. 

This is, of course, also the first step in how those of us working in organisations create the optimal environment for our own performance. Extensive research shows emotional literacy, and inclusive cultures that put a premium on belonging, outperform the rest. And there is much overlap between creating inclusive cultures and trauma informed practice. 

Leaning into our human, emotional responses

Perhaps then, the best response we can take to the Autumn Statement is to lean into our very human, emotional responses to what is happening. Acknowledging how we feel allows that voice to quiet, knowing it is being taken seriously.  Being able to talk about how we feel with others reduces the feeling of isolation and builds trust and connection. Quick, simple conversations to check in and name how we are feeling can move us out of fight or flight and into more agile and effective ways of thinking. It is then that we can ask “What would be the most helpful thing to focus on right now?” and turn our attention to whatever that may be. Notice what you have achieved that you didn’t think was possible before. It can be remarkable.

Will the budget leave some people in a better position? Maybe. 

Will it leave some people in a worse position? Certainly.

Could Hunt have devised a better budget? It depends on what you think better looks like.

How do I feel about this? Scared for the challenges that will face me at home (single mums with disabilities don’t generally fair all that well), grateful for my privilege (I know I can keep a roof over my head and my children fed) and grief for the suffering that people are living with now, and will in the future. 

What would be the most helpful thing for me to focus on right now? Building cultures where everyone is able to bring the very best of themselves to addressing the problems that we face in both the short and long term, and finding others to join me.

By Rae Tooth- The Founder and CEO of Inclusion Revolution

By Rae Tooth– The Founder and CEO of Inclusion Revolution, a social inclusion organisation. Rae is co-chair of the Fair Access Coalition, a Governor of the University of Winchester and a Trustee of Bristol University Student’s union. Rae has experience leading social inclusion work in government, higher education and the third sector.

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