Thoughts from the Relational Sandpit

I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Relationships Foundation’s Annual Conference yesterday, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge. After a rich introduction from Dr Rob Loe, there were talks from Professor Gordon Harold, Professor Colleen McLaughlin, Professor Robin Banerjee and Emeritus Professor Michael Fielding, as well as workshops which explored the practice of relational thinking in different fields such as public policy, youth and family services, education and business.

It was the most thought-provoking conference I have attended. I think this is a consequence of three things. Firstly, the research that has been undertaken is so robust and the findings so well-expressed by those who presented. Secondly, the gravity of how seriously dysfunctional parts of society have become was laid bare; children and young people are experiencing more depression and less happiness, and the suicide rates are rising. This matters. Thirdly, the findings leave space for some profound critical optimism, since they highlight that there are things that can be done to better the nefarious circumstances some young people find themselves in, and much of it rests upon something quite simple: improving the quality of relationships.

I was particularly provoked by the developmental psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee’s talk, in which he detailed the research of the CRESS (Children’s Relationships, Emotions and Social Skills) group at Sussex University. I have been interested in sociometry since university, and it was a delight to see how the approach taken allowed for rich visual representations of how affinity, wellbeing and gender interact in a class of children.

There were a few thoughts milling about in my head, which I suppose are responses and interactions between the things we spoke about and things I’ve worked on or am working on currently.

Firstly, it made me think of my own amateurish early forays into this kind of thinking and research. As an undergraduate, my dissertation was titled ‘Masculinities in the Primary School: Power, Visibility and Space’, and it involved a case study in one Year 6 classroom in a Cambridgehire school. Through observation, focus groups and individual interviews, I was keen to explore what masculinity meant in the context of pupils getting ready for secondary school. Taking my lead from topics that kept reoccurring in our discussion, we ended up focusing on the impact of friendship groups/popularity, clothing and space/behaviour. I see now the crossover with approaches Professor Banerjee is using, and the metrics Relational Schools use; I spent this morning re-reading my dissertation, thinking how much better it would be if it were able to make use of the kind of ‘heat maps’ we learned of yesterday.

My mind is very focused on my new venture of OtherWise Education at the moment. As an organisation, we create projects that develop self-understanding, self-expression and self-belief. We provide experiences which enable young people to step outside of themselves and to see life differently. From other perspectives. In other places. In other ways.

We run poetry retreats, for example. Our retreats bring together pupils and teachers from a number of different primary schools, and we spend an immersive four days together, working with me and a poet named Adisa, in the New Forest. Whist we have come to recognise that the benefit of this is principally emotional, personal and pastoral therefore leading to richer writing, it only struck me yesterday how much more my projects would benefit from a more focused relational lens. I found myself asking interesting questions I had not really considered.

  • How might we qualify and quantify the relational health of pupils and teachers who participate in our projects, which tend to bring a group together in the short term?
  • Are there different actions to be taken to lay foundations of trust, reliability and authenticity in relationships when steering groups which will be together intensely but for a short period of time?
  • Would indications of the relational dynamics taken during a poetry retreat or writing network be reflected when exploring the impact of the project on participants years after it has been completed? i.e. Would the children who have a more relationally rich experience of support, friendships and positive wellbeing experience a different ‘legacy’ from those whose experience is more muted or less participatory in the group dynamics?

Certain specific insights from the talks really resonated with work Jo and I are striving to do through OtherWise. From Professor Banerjee, ‘exploration of the mind with other people can build the social and emotional competencies they need for life’; from Dr Rob Loe, ‘high wellbeing correlates with having at least one close peer and … if a pupil has one good relationship with a teacher (especially a female teacher), wellbeing is protected even if you lack strong relationships with peers’; and from Professor McLaughlin, ‘results from the Good Childhood Enquiry shows that the most dissatisfied children are often the higher attaining ones’. 

Whilst it was no less interesting for it, many of the research findings were as you might expect, as somebody working in relational contexts every day, in schools with struggling families and economic pressure. The one finding that did blindside me was from Professor Harold’s talk, in which he explained how his research design sought to isolate genetic from environmental factors through family study, twin study, adoption and IVF studies. One finding from the Early Growth and Development Study was that children who have higher levels of inherited susceptibility to risk factors are liable to do particularly well when given a positive, stable environment. Having written this out, I recognise the need to dig into the findings of the EGDS more deeply since my notes and terminology are unclear (and I don’t wish to do a disservice to Prof Harold by misreporting his findings). The general sense that certain children in profoundly risky situations can not only achieve wellbeing and positive mental health, but may be especially ‘high-scoring’ in this domain, given a positive environment, is one that offers hope and recognition for the impact of effective schools, adoption and care.

It was great to talk to others who attended the conference, and to see that they too were fizzing with thoughts about how the different principles and approaches of relational thinking might allow them to develop and improve their work. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Moses, who works with a group of 11 churches in Wales, and was looking at how relational thinking could support the way congregations are brought together and sustained. I enjoyed talking to Andrew, from Perth, Australia, a former teacher turned business consultant who was looking at relational metrics when working on regional development with the Mayor of an area in Western Australia. And, as always, it was good to talk with Rae, a Cambridgeshire Headteacher who prioritises the social and emotional wellbeing of pupils in her school, and has worked with Rob to trial and experiment with heat mapping sociometrics.

All of this was very uplifting, research-informed and – regrettably – radical in spirit. It is radical because the norm in our societies is one which perpetuates mental instability and institutional toxicity on a grand scale, and to take a relational approach is to insist upon seeing the human in the human. In education, it is regrettably radical to suggest that a school with stunning academic outcomes but a poor relational climate of poor mental health is not a good school.

This is a weird way to end this, but I had a dream last night that was very much provoked by the Heineken advert we had watched, by the fact that I dressed quite strangely yesterday, and by the video of Boris Johnson being challenged in Doncaster town centre, my hometown. In my dream, there was a packed theatre gathered full of local people. I walked in with friends, all of whom were very public remainers, and we were sitting in amongst hardcore Brexiteers. I was wearing bright trousers and a large flamboyant jacket, and the modest angry voices were annoyed at our presence. An old woman on the back row looked at me and called me a freak, and I replied and called her many expletives. Note, in addition to the conference, I did also fall asleep watching Kill Bill last night… Later in the dream, I sat down again and this time beside an angry man, who began raging at me, but instead I spoke to him. I remember nothing of what we said; I remembered clasping his hands and looking at him.

I know this is weird, but I think it is a sign of how all of what is going on was in my head. Ben Gibbs, in his workshop alongside Nick Garrett and Peter Lacey, spoke about how systems thinking can intersect with and understand the psychodynamic drivers behind our decision-making, and its institutional consequences.

In short, yesterday was a truly inspiring conference and one which has prompted me to pause and reflect, and actually, to remember, like none other. All credit to those who contributed and those who worked to put it all together. I shall not apologise for singling out Rob himself, though, whose passion and humanity suffuse his work; I think your work is remarkable.

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