In the Gosport and Fareham Multi-Academy Trust (GFM) we have recently welcomed a four-legged friend to help support our students – in the form of Scout, my chocolate Labrador.
Each year group at Bay House School and Sixth Form has received an assembly from Scout (named after the protagonist of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’). She is a rather unusual dog in that she has learned to read. After hours of training, at her peak she could read and respond to around thirty command words (such as ‘beg’ and ‘spin’) from cards and – despite her old age – she performs an impressive assembly routine which pupils love. A few years ago, she even got through the early rounds of Britain’s Got Talent before other commitments meant she could not continue.
It may be a light-hearted and trivial example of learning and perseverance, but perhaps it is a much-needed antidote to the national zeitgeist of anxiety in the school system. Research has shown therapy dogs can reduce stress for pupils and provide a sense of connection in difficult situations. More and more schoolchildren are struggling to cope with their mental health and there are rising rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm in children and young people.
This has not been helped by the introduction of the new 9-1 GCSEs which emphasise tough, stressful end-of-year examinations over coursework and have a far greater expectation of knowledge retention.
In the GFM we have used Scout’s learning as an example of ‘growth mindset’. We believe that having a growth mindset (the belief that you are in control of your own ability, and can learn and improve) is the key to success. Yes, hard work, effort, and resilience are all important, but not as important as having that underlying belief that you are in control of your own learning and destiny. As one pupil noted to me, if you can teach a dog to read then perhaps anything is possible!
Article by Dr Nigel Matthias. Originally published in The News, 29 January 2019