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On Saturday 9th June Independent Thinking was one of the lead organising partners in an amazing conference at Portobello High School in Edinburgh helping Scotland lead the way when it comes to looking at the impact on young people of ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences).

For those of you who haven’t picked up on the term yet (and it is not without is controversies and naysayers like all ‘labels’*), the idea of ACEs grew out of US research that claims to identify a link between childhood behaviours, attitudes, poor lifestyle choices and academic underachievement and an individual experiencing one or more of the following:

  • domestic violence
  • parental abandonment through separation or divorce
  • a parent with a mental health condition
  • being the victim of abuse (physical, sexual and/or emotional)
  • being the victim of neglect (physical and emotional)
  • a member of the household being in prison
  • growing up in a household in which there are adults experiencing alcohol and drug use problems.

While there is much more research to do in this area, it serves a very powerful purpose when arguing, like we do in our book The Working Class, that it is not a ‘level playing field’ when children come into our classrooms and that ‘grit’ and ‘discipline’ might not be the magic bullets some claim.

(As an aside, it is curious that the death of a parent is not on the list when we have research that shows that 'parental death during childhood is associated with lower grades and school failure'.)

With contributions from local practitioners as well as national and international speakers, over 200 teachers spent a day exploring the issues around childhood adversity and what to do about it with ten of our leading Associates (who gave their time for free), each with a powerful story to tell and ideas and advice for teachers and school leaders everywhere.

Below are some of the takeaways from just a few of them:

“We can't rely on the policy makers, government or any other pen pushers spouting solutions from afar. To tackle the outrageous problems our children are living with, we need to take control and help them ourselves. A great welcome each day, a space to belong, teaching them metacognition to help them understand and move forward (and never again to repeat the cycle) and simply being that positive constant in their life - whatever we do, we change lives, on the ground, every school day.

Teaching a class full of regimented soldiers is the easy way out - putting love into learning is the only way out.”

Lisa Jane Ashes

“Revolution never starts at the top. It begins with one human who cares enough to say, ‘It’s not OK’ and finds the courage to take one small step towards making things different. That might be by getting curious, by shaking hands with each and every learner entering the classroom or by finding a way to offer that hungry child a slice of toast in the morning.

Whatever it is, it all starts with us reclaiming how we measure our own success. Let us not define our schools, our colleagues and ourselves by national statistics and data but by the difference we make to a child’s life.

My own ACE is one that celebrates teachers who are Authentic, Consistent and have high Expectations.  When we look at successful educational professionals in this way we learn quickly that there is nothing more powerful than a teacher who knows his or her own true worth.”

Jaz Ampaw-Farr

“It's time to say 'no more' to zero-tolerance approaches for managing behaviour in schools. How can we expect to develop caring, emotionally-grounded adults if we humiliate and bully them into submission when they are at school? Strong, caring and loving relationships in school doesn’t mean weak leadership or poor behaviour or a lack of expectations and standards. It means we develop empathy, understanding and respect, something you will never achieve by being nasty.”

Dave Whitaker

“For me, what I am observing on my travels is that some schools have what I call ‘warm curriculum delivery’, but for too many it is far too cold. It’s an insight that came from my Masters research and my work around the pedagogy of poverty and working with schools who are a little stuck in a rut. Both ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ schools are full of good people trying to do the right thing but in ‘cold’ schools, adults are buckling under the weight of survivalism and defensiveness. This can ruin the learning experiences of children, but they’ll go along with it as they have no idea that there is another way. The ‘warm’ schools are showing that there is another way, one where love, care, relevance, engagement and investment in learning can flourish.”

Hywel Roberts

“Barriers to Learning

Hunger – there are children starving and their only guarantee of a decent meal is the one they get (hopefully) at school.

Hygiene – there are children who know they are dirty and smelly yet they don’t have the facilities to be clean, get their clothes washed or even have the right shoes. This is loneliness. This is being ostracized. This is when it’s easier to not go to school.

Fitting in – the need, want and desperation to be the same as all the other children. Fitting in means you are accepted and is so important for those who know they easily stand out because of a poverty that is not their fault.

Role Models

Every child wants a role model, someone they can aspire to be like. This can so easily be a teacher who recognises you for who and what you are, who does not judge you for anything, who consistently sees you as a human being, who checks in with you every morning, break time and after lunch, who cares that you are OK and takes the time to make sure you are.

Mental and Emotional Health

Trauma stays with you. It may ‘get better’ with the right support, guidance and counselling, but it never goes away. It rears its ugly head at the most unexpected times.

It’s tough to talk about suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety, but if someone else talks about it first, it’s easier to share your story too.

People are ashamed of mental health issues - the stigma and taboo are still there in some schools. Teachers are as afraid to speak out or reach out as are our children and young people.

Be kind to yourself.

Teachers need support as well as children and young people when it comes to mental and emotional health. It’s not a disease it’s a ‘dis-ease’ that we can and must talk about.

Don’t label me with an ACE badge. Instead, see me for me. You will not necessarily die young if you have more than 5+ ACEs!”

Nina Jackson

And perhaps the whole conference can best be summed up in these two words from Dr Debra Kidd:

“Be kind.”

For more information or to book any of our Associates to help you in your work supporting our most vulnerable young people please drop us an email on

*'The notion of Adverse Child Experiences is the latest in a long line of diagnoses of, and simple solutions to, complex social issues in the search for interventions that ‘work’. The ACEs approach is not a neutral, evidence-based diagnosis. Rather, it reflects certain presumptions and is driven by particular agendas and interest groups.'

THE PROBLEM WITH ‘ACEs’ EY10039: Edwards et al.’s submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry into the evidence-base for early years intervention. (12 December 2017) Authors: Professor Rosalind Edwards, Professor Val Gillies, Professor Ellie Lee, Dr Jan Macvarish, Professor Susan White, Professor David Wastell.


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