A SPECIAL ball rattles its way across the football pitch chased by the would-be striker and his helper as his opponents give him space to play, even urging him in the right direction.
The youngster is blind and living his dream, to play for his school in a competitive football match. Without prompting, the boys from Barnard Castle Preparatory School wait patiently for him to kick the ball away before pouncing and heading goalward themselves.
It’s a typical scene at Barnard Castle Preparatory School, where pupils are taught to be mindful, of themselves, of the world around them, of the needs of others and it is an ethos which pervades every aspect of their community and learning.
“The really lovely thing for me is that the children themselves came up with ‘The Barney Way’, a set of values we all follow,” says headmistress Laura Turner, shortly after placating an upset five-year-old, who has forgotten to learn his spellings, with distracting talk of what he had for breakfast.
‘Be kind, be polite, be respectful, be organised, be smart,’ says the poster on her office wall which is replicated around the school. And at morning drop-off it is clear to see that they are values which come naturally to children, teachers and parents, with a procession of beaming faces heading to school accompanied by cheerful ‘good mornings’, friendly ‘hellos’, plenty of pleases and thank yous, offering the perfect start to every day.
“School is a happy place and the perfect antidote to modern life where we are seeing a worrying increase in stress and mental health issues because of the pressures children are coming under,” says Mrs Turner. “We want our children to be present in the moment and for that moment to be a happy one; to know how to keep calm and to cope with their emotions, rather than bottle them up with the associated detrimental effects on their lives when they are teenagers.”
The overt signs of mindfulness in school come in the form of twice-weekly yoga classes, drop-in colouring sessions and a mindfulness activity club.
“Come in, come in. Take your shoes off. Now lie down flat on your back and close your eyes,” says Alex White, a Year 4 teacher, head of computing and assistant junior boarding house mistress, who runs the mindfulness sessions.
As the chatter of excited children stops and they settle on the classroom floor, she starts to read, slowly, softly, deliberately. The children’s breathing slows and soon her voice is the only sound in the room.
Head boy Benjamin French, who usually gets his kicks from rugby and performing on stage, says: “It’s relaxing. It calms you. All you have to think about is what Miss White is saying. You take in the words at first and then you start to drift off.”
Mrs Turner adds: “Alex is great for all the children but her skills are particularly valuable in boarding where children can become homesick.”
More subtly, mindfulness is woven into the curriculum, complementing the ‘Growth Mindset’ ethos, a ‘can-do’ approach which develops a love of learning and resilience in the face of challenges.
Assemblies reinforce the benefits of mindfulness as do PSHCE lessons, a relevant look at modern life covering everything from understanding Brexit to health and wellbeing, being a good citizen to how to manage your money.
The values also permeate sport where children learn how to handle success with humility, defeat and disappointment with resilience, developing individual talent alongside team spirit and camaraderie. “Our head of sport Martin Burgess has transformed the way the children understand the benefits of sport both mentally and physically,” says Mrs Turner. “The fact we have 40 children signing up for cross country club on a Friday night speaks volumes for this success and that we have Year 1 pupils taking part in a cross-country event is great for exposing them early to the concept of sportsmanship.
“Our Forest School also benefits the children massively getting them outdoors in the fresh air, exploring the world, learning new skills and being comfortable with nature.”
Every day the final 15 minutes is given over to ‘down time’, where children can ask their teachers anything that may be giving them cause for concern, so they can return home or to the boarding house free from anxiety and ready for the next school day. “Our teachers have completely bought into the concept and make themselves available, approachable, at all times to pupils and parents so pressures don’t have chance to grow,” says Mrs Turner.
It is all a far cry from the state sector where the seemingly obsessive move to exam results is prompting a stressful backlash for students.
“Why do we want to put our children through SATS?” asks Mrs Turner. “They are children and too young to experience stress. They all have names so why do we want to label them 2A or 2C? Surely it is better to have a creative curriculum, where they can take ownership of their learning, select their homework choices and push it forward themselves, having fun along the way.”
It’s an approach that the Government is starting to recognise following Barnard Castle’s lead with the recent announcement that 370 schools in England are to join one of the biggest trials in the world to find evidence about what works to support mental health and wellbeing.
A series of trials until 2021 will test different mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques and breathing exercises to help them regulate their emotions, alongside pupil sessions with mental health experts.
“When I heard about the boys’ football match and talked to our Year 6 pupil Gus Living, I was touched when he said that not only was he proud of his blind friend on the opposite side but also the Barney boys for treating him so kindly,” Mrs Turner says. “These are the traits everyone wants, but are being lost, and then the academic skills fall in around them. So next year we will become even more focused on mindfulness and integrate it even further into our curriculum.”