Imagine a school that promotes running and jumping in the corridor, checks in with pupil emotions twice a day, allows students to design their own curriculum, provides digi dens and bean bags as study spaces and encourages staff, children & parents to spend Friday afternoon doing things to make them smile.
If you think I’m describing a school of the future or perhaps one run by a tech giant like Google or Facebook, you’d be far from the truth. In fact, I’m referring to Pembroke Dock Community School (PDCS), hosting over 700 pupils, 108 staff and located in one of Wales’ top 10 deprived wards (Llanion).
Of course, the aforementioned activities are in place primarily for wellbeing and educational purposes and behind it all, is headteacher Michele Thomas who passionately manages a shared vision for the school; to transform the education of pupils and create a positive future for the whole community.
Having been out of a primary school environment for over 30 years, my visit to PDCS left me feeling pretty overwhelmed; 1. I realised the issues surrounding mental and physical health in schools have increased on a grand scale and 2. It was staggering to see how successfully Michele and her team are enriching the wellbeing and happiness of their pupils.
As a Pioneer school (working with a schools network and Welsh Government to define the Wales curriculum) and one that has achieved Excellence in Health & Wellbeing from Estyn (the education and training inspectorate for Wales), I explored how the activities and policies of PDCS are positively impacting the wellbeing of their students.
Giving pupils a voice & choice
Michele believes a proactive approach is essential for the health and wellbeing of our youth generation.
“It’s essential that children know their rights from a young age and have their voices heard. This in turn, increases a sense of value within the students, providing an essential grounding and independence as they venture on in the world.”
Michele explained that PDCS students are Visible learners – they have access to a child friendly version of the curriculum, enabling them to comprehend what they will learn. They also each have a designated responsibility to help support the running of the school.
Teachers consult with students on which topics they’d like to see in the curriculum (from those as young as three requesting to learn about PJ Masks through to the oldest students wanting to understand more about sustainability for their future).
Children are encouraged to use restorative practice, enabling them to take control of a negative situation, to acknowledge how each party is feeling after the event and take steps to put things right moving forward.
They also run a ‘1-2-3 check in’ with each pupil twice a day, encouraging them to share how they’re feeling emotionally or raise concerns on a one to one basis.
Time out for personal development
In addition to introducing new learning spaces to move away from traditional theatre style desks including stand up or walking conversations, ‘digi den’ study areas and bean bag chairs, PDCS runs an a-symmetric week.
This means an extended Monday – Thursday and a 12.15pm finish on a Friday. On a Friday afternoon, pupils are encouraged to spend quality time with their families (free activities continue to be provided at school if needed) and staff are encouraged to alternate between furthering their training to become the best teacher they can be and focusing on their personal wellbeing week by week.
‘Genuis Hour’ (a version of Google’s 20% time) has also been introduced to allow students to explore their passions and practice entrepreneurial skills in preparation for the real world.
Nurturing the body and the mind
“No running in the corridors!” is a thing of the past at PDCS. The most exciting and positive progression since the 80s (in my eyes) was watching how pupils enjoyed the indoor space between classrooms by jumping, hopping, burpee-ing and even ’hand-standing’ in the corridors.
Michele explained they adopted this idea from a school in Canada following research on how other educational environments support physical fitness globally. Permanent stickers line the corridors encouraging movement and laughter. Seeing the joy on pupils’ faces as they literally played during their break time was awesome.
Plus, focusing the mind after expending all this built up energy has got to be productive for all concerned, not to mention how the school interior has been transformed into a playground of stimulation for the senses.
Here’s a little insight into what the pupils get up to during their break.
To complement this positive attitude to moving more and nurturing mental health during school time, PDCS also integrates mindfulness, yoga and outdoor learning into their lessons, provides free weekly Parkour sessions and guides every child to walk/run 1k a day to maintain a healthy level of fitness.
Impressive and yes, I did ask Michele if I could return to her school!
Social media and peer acceptance
Feeling like they are part of the ‘in gang’ and how a child reacts if they are excluded from this has always been an important issue to monitor at school. Yet as the use of digital devices and exposure to social media increases for young children, so does the pressure of peer acceptance.
Michele shares this as one of their biggest challenges at the moment, monitoring how pupils are affected by social content and adapting their IT systems to manage access appropriately.
As shocking as it may be, self-harm is currently ‘trending’ amongst children right now and there are people across social media that actively promote it as a cool thing to do.
This issue is much larger than anyone knows how to cope with right now, which is why pressure is rightly on the government to devise new laws.
In attempt to ensure pupils focus on their work, Michele and her team request that all devices are handed in at the start of a school day. The school runs regular sessions such as ‘Insta Lie or Life’ to highlight the differences between fad-promotions and real life on social media and keeps track of ‘what’s hot’ in the online world to support their journey as healthily as they can.
In conclusion, the goal is not to remove children from the online world (as there as numerous positives to being connected), it’s to help them build resilience to the content they are being exposed to.
Community and intergenerational activities
Of course, wellbeing as a term not only encompasses our personal health, it is a holistic approach to making sure our communities, economy and environment remain sustainable.
Students at PDCS contribute their time to local projects such as the regeneration of Pembroke Dock and ‘Dad and Me’ sessions with Plant Dewi to unite the wider community. They’ve also learned art skills from residents of a local care home and in return, taught residents how to use their digital devices.
Their latest project is an intergenerational choir, creating joy and long-lasting friendships for the whole community. Listen to the beautiful harmonies in their version of Callum Scott’s ‘You are the reason’.
The future for Pembrokeshire’s Youth?
Michele and her team are an impressive example of how children are receiving the best wellbeing support possible to enjoy their lives sustainably.
The 2020 Wales curriculum will be focused on making learning more experience-based, the assessment of progress more developmental, and giving teachers the flexibility to deliver in more creative ways to suit the learners they teach.
Health and Wellbeing will be one of 6 key ‘areas of learning’ alongside expressive arts, humanities, languages, mathematics & numeracy and science & technology.
Pembrokeshire Inclusion and Wellbeing service will be working more closely with schools from September 2019 to give students a voice to request the support and resources they need.
The future looks good for wellbeing in Pembrokeshire. Let’s get involved in whatever way we can to ensure our next generations not only survive, but flourish.
This story is part of the Life Seeker newspaper