“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Clap along if you know that happiness is the truth”
When Michael Wilshaw appeared at the Education Select Committee this week, he said various things guaranteed to excite and annoy people. (It seems to be a bit of a habit of his.) One thing he said that really interested me was that he would be “suspicious” of head teachers who prioritised the children’s happiness, over other things. I’m not a head teacher, but at the preschool I help to run, we are delighted to prioritise the children’s happiness, over everything else. Nothing is more important to us. In the Foundation Stage, it is our moral imperative. Children in EYFS are not in statutory education, and mostly parents are tentative about leaving their small children with other people, no matter how lovely the setting or the staff might be. It is crucial for children to be happy to come to our setting, because (a) they don’t have to be there, (b) happy children = confident children = children who are learning, and (c) no parent wants to force their unhappy child to be at a setting because they have to go to work. (It’s interesting to note that all of the above apply to schools as well – school is not compulsory, it is only full time education that is.)
If you turn Michael Wilshaw’s comment on its head, and ask whether it’s important for children not to be unhappy to come to or stay at a setting, the answer seems clear. I think it’s fair to say that no one wants them to be unhappy. Of course, there is a midpoint between being happy and unhappy, but something weird happens when you try to figure out what that midpoint is. In my world, ‘happy’ encompasses a multitude of states: interested, curious, focused, engaged, calm, relaxed, and most especially when I have a sense of purpose. My ‘unhappy’ states are about tension, anger, feeling overly controlled, sadness, arguments, being told what to do or what I must think. I don’t especially like feeling bored, or wet, or cold. But I’m not really sure that I have any states between happy and unhappy. Quite often, a bit of unhappiness is fine for my overall ‘are you happy?’ quota. I don’t have to feel something is easy or always happy, in order to feel happy about doing it. When I dig on my allotment, I might be unhappy that it is cold and windy, but my desire to dig far outweighs all that and I am genuinely happy to be there. A robin comes to sit and wait for a worm, on the fence post, singing me his song, and life is fine and good.
I wonder if Michael Wilshaw is confusing the ‘happy’ that some people get at parties or at Christmas (which for many people is not ‘happy’ at all), with the happiness you get from being somewhere that you love to be, and where people care about you. One of our great preschool joys is when a parent says that their child “loves to come here”. It’s interesting to ponder why children mostly get gradually less interested in coming to school as they get older. There are even books about this stuff – why don’t kids like school? In part it’s simply about growing up – no self respecting teen wants to skip to school like they did when they were tiny. I’m told it is also because learning is hard, but I don’t really see why learning being hard has to have anything to do with unhappiness. For me it is an interesting goal to try and figure out how to maintain the kind of joy we see in the youngest learners. For them to be happy to learn, even when it gets really hard.
We’re going to Chile (and Easter Island – whoop!) in less than three weeks’ time. Our kids will have to endure hours and hours and hours on planes. They will have to cope with moving from one bed to the next. They won’t get to spend as much time on their computers playing games as they usually do in the holidays. But in return they will get to go up live, snow capped volcanoes, bathe in thermal springs, stand under waterfalls, watch penguins (“in real life!!” as the kid keeps announcing), and marvel at mystical Moai on a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the wide blue Pacific Ocean. They won’t always be comfy or ‘happy’ during our trip, but they’re definitely happy about the idea of going there. It’s a bit like when they were 3 years old and heading up the lane to play at preschool, clapping their hands with glee as they ran. So once again, we will head off happily on our Road School adventures. And we will all clap along together, because we know that happiness is the truth.