Fairness

I have a hugely overdeveloped sense of fairness. I’m most likely to be overheard saying ‘yes I know it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things but it’s the PRINCIPLE’.

Being consistently and obsessively concerned with the need to make everything fair isn’t just what propels me out of bed at 4am to do breakfast telly having got in at midnight from a school in Ayreshire, or Cornwall, or Cardiff, it’s also why I get on so well with teenagers. “That is so unfair” is the battle cry of generations of adolescents and thank goodness, because if there’s one thing society needs it’s a regular injection of fresh enthusiasm for fairness.

…..But life, as we know, is not fair and injustices, big and small, happen every day. It is a relatively small injustice that has inspired me to start this blog. People are lying about me on Twitter.

I’m aware, of course, of how pathetic this sounds. Twitter is a virtual playground and, as such, has more than its share of bullies. If at all possible, bullies are best ignored, in my experience. It’s the power they thrive on – the knowledge that they have adversely affected your life in some way distracts them from their own crippling lack of self-worth.

Sometimes it’s impossible to look the other way, though, particularly if the bully has inspired a mob mentality and their cruel jibes are subsequently echoed in a thousand different, increasingly hysterical voices. It’s particularly galling if those voices have been convinced they are doing the right thing because their only knowledge of you is confined to a virtual world built entirely of 140 character chunks. No one can glean a comprehensive understanding of anything in 140 characters.

So, over the coming weeks I’ll be using this blog to tell teachers and young people anything I think they might need to know based on my adventures in schools, charities and Parliament and which can’t wait (or isn’t suitable for) my weekly column in the Times Educational Supplement.

And in this, the first of my offerings, I want to clear up once and for all my stance on NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) because it seems to be the root of a lot of misunderstanding.

For those who aren’t familiar with NLP, it works on the basis that you can use hypnosis to ‘reprogramme’ destructive patterns of thought and behaviour and tends to be used mainly by people who want to give up smoking and lose weight. It is not recommended either by the NHS or by the vast majority of mental health charities as a form of therapy and the evidence for its efficacy is inconsistent.

Having said all of that the therapist I went to following trying and failing to practice CBT (by reading about it in books, because the NHS considered that I was ‘not thin enough’ to qualify for bulimia treatment despite at that point bingeing and purging up to eight times per day) did practice some NLP techniques and I did find them helpful. The evidence shows that recovery times are massively reduced if one has a good relationship with one’s therapist, so it’s arguable that the success of my treatment had more to do with the fact that I liked and trusted the man who was performing the hypnotherapy on me, than the technique itself. Anyway, for whatever reason, it worked and I was incredibly enthusiastic about it, for a while.

Here is what is interesting though: Bulimia is not my primary diagnosis. I have a form of anxiety disorder – I’ve had it ever since I was about ten and I still have to find ways to manage it today. So, arguably, NLP was able to help me with some of the more destructive ways my anxiety disorder was manifesting, i.e. through an eating disorder, but not with the root cause. This is something I have only recognised in retrospect, since my understanding of mental health has increased (I recovered from bulimia almost ten years ago, now).

If anyone ever asks me what kind of therapy I used, I will be honest, but I will also tell them everything I have written above. In addition, I will add that I didn’t use NLP exclusively. I read lots of books about neuroscience and gleaned an understanding of how brains worked, which helped me to comprehend why I was thinking and behaving in the ways that I was. Once my therapy had provided the base line for my recovery, I also reverted to using some CBT techniques, because I was then in a better head space and was able to utilise them. I also talked a great deal to my (incredibly supportive) friends and family, watched a lot of TED talks and listened to a lot of Bowie. All of these were equally important in facilitating my journey to better mental health.

Why am I telling you this? Well, when I was first appointed as Mental Health Champion (CHAMPION, please note, not Csar/Tsar or however we are spelling it) for schools by the Department for Education, a group called Labour Teachers assumed, not unreasonably, that I must be a raging Tory. In an attempt to ‘take down another Tory target’ (words of one of their devotes, on Twitter) they wrote me an ‘open letter’ in which they referenced an article I wrote for Cosmo about my recovery and hinted, suggested, nay explicitly stated that I was ‘peddling NLP’ as a solution to mental health problems.

This was an understandable mistake for them to have made, but it was a mistake nonetheless. My lesson plans in schools were based initially on some work I did with psychology students at Cardiff University, are quality checked by 4 experts (including a Neuroscientist, a psychologist who worked in the NHS for 30 years, a PHD in eating disorders and self-harm and a scientist at Cambridge University) and are constantly evolving according to the latest research passed along to me by our partnership charity, Young Minds.

I am not a doctor or a psychologist, it is true, and neither do I claim to be. I’m actually a writer, by trade, with a degree in English. I’ve always seen my job as more of a bridge, or a translator between experts and young people, between teachers and government, between the public and the third sector.

Anyway, this letter went out into the word and all the schools which weren’t the 250 my organisations visit annually and therefore didn’t know me said (again, completely understandably) ‘oh no!’. This wasn’t helped by the Sunday Times printing a piece in which I was called a ‘former model and magazine columnist who has been made a Mental Health Tsar’. They made no mention of the three schools I visit per week or our (now multi-award winning) classes and of course it made a really excellent (if deliberately misleading) news story and people were hopping mad. Hell, I would have been hopping mad, if I wasn’t me.

As a result, I developed a couple of ‘Twitter enemies’, but I just muted them and got on with the job in hand, which was, as I saw it, winning over the education sector. As someone who has one foot in the media and one in education I’m constantly astounded by the way the teaching profession is reported upon vs what I actually encounter on the ground. The same is true, incidentally, of young people, who are generally not the work shy, celebrity obsessed layabouts they’re so often portrayed to be. I wanted (and still do) to help young people and the people who teach them by whatever means I could, but to do that I needed their help.

A squillion conferences and a weekly column in TES later and I was making some headway. Teachers were calling me a ‘breath of fresh air’. They were stopping me in the street and taking my hand and just repeating the words ‘thank you’ over and over again. I was honoured, overwhelmed and more determined than ever to fight for positive change.

Then, on Thursday evening, I called the DfE’s Learning Tsar Tom Bennett a ‘bellend’ on Twitter (I didn’t tag him, I just threw it out there, with a question mark ‘seems like a bit of a bellend?’) after some opinions he expressed in the Evening Standard on poster making and DVD watching in class and how that isn’t ‘real teaching’. That was extremely wrong of me. I don’t actually have a viable defence of my actions, I can only say that I genuinely, stupidly, didn’t think Tom Bennett would ever see it. Of course he did and so I apologised, deleted the tweet and by all accounts (judging from the exchange we had thereafter) he seems like a thoroughly decent chap and not in the slightest bit bellendy, for the record.

On Friday, TES sent me the entries for the Teacher Blog Awards, of which I am one of a panel of judges and in my excitement, I tweeted about this. And these two (fairly disparate) and seemingly unremarkable events conspired to stir up the whole NLP controversy again, as my old Twitter trolls reared their heads, writing blogs about how I’m not qualified for my role as judge. In the tweets and blogs that followed they state that I’m not a teacher (true) or a blogger (false, I guest blog all over the gaff and my blogs on TES receive amongst the highest click volume, hence why I was asked), that I called Tom Bennett a bellend (which is true but not strictly relevant) and I’m an ‘NLP salesman’ (false, both in terms of job description and implied gender). They mixed things which were true with things that weren’t in order to create the impression of truth which, incidentally, was a technique favoured by Hitler.

And that isn’t fair. It isn’t fair in the slightest.

So, in an attempt to derail all this nonsense, I’ve created a little outlet for the truth, or at least my version of it, to seep out.

I’m open to the views of teachers and young people who might think I’m not getting everything right. Indeed, I’m almost definitely not getting everything right. But I want to reassure everyone who reads this that I’m motivated by giving a gigantic fuck about young people, schools and the society that we live in. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have taken an unpaid government role working alongside a party whose policies I have historically criticised, in an attempt to negotiate my way to some positive outcomes.

So thank you to everyone who has already subscribed to this little movement I’m trying to start and I hope that, via this blog, I can undo some of the unfairness and bring the truth to the people who matter.

Stay tuned.

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10 thoughts on “Fairness

  1. Hi Natasha,

    I’m sorry that you’ve been upset by this. Really. I agree that you’re a nice person. I enjoyed your contributions at the mental health conference in Cambridge and largely agreed with them. And I have to agree that someone who apologises as handsomely as you have is probably a nice person.

    Having said that, I don’t think it’s great to invoke Hitler when you’re criticised. There’s a reason Godwin’s Law is invoked in these circumstances, and it’s usually because emotion has got in the way of argument.

    What I really liked about the Mental Health conference were the references to what works and is shown to work. NLP has been marketed in schools despite the lack of evidence and is one of a variety of forms of snake oil that schools have been sold over the years. It’s no wonder we’re sensitive to it.

    Second, the objection to you as one of the blog judges isn’t about you not being nice, nor about you doing a great job or otherwise as the MH champion. It’s about the fact that teacher blogs have exploded in the last five or six years. There has been some confidence that the TES awards had appointed people who are in the middle of this blogosphere, and hence have some understanding of persistent quality. That’s certainly how it was last year. I don’t presume you have been one of them. That’s not your fault, but it does raise questions over the why you.

    Third, there is no group called ‘Labour Teachers’. It’s a blog and takes as many contributions, unedited, from Labour supporting teachers as are written (as far as I know). I’ve written for it once in one of its ‘non-Labour supporting weeks’, and I’m sure they have no line that any group has to follow.

    Fourth, do you say you’re a blogger because you have a column in the TES? Because I don’t think writing for a magazine is the same as blogging. Of course, you may have a long history of blogging somewhere consistently on your own blog that I’m not aware of, but if not, I think the criticism of the TES for choosing someone who isn’t a blogger stands.

    Finally, I do hope that this episode doesn’t put you off (a) arguing with teachers who care about the same things as you (or similar things) despite your appearances and (b) doing the very good work you’re doing raising the issue of mental health. I have been robust and stepped over the line on twitter, as I’m sure many others have plenty of times. It’s part of not being face to face with people.

    Incidentally, Tom Bennett himself set up an organisation that promotes good research in education and has a conference and many many events yearly (researchED) – something we’ve been without for some time and has made a real difference. I think this could intersect with some of your work – we need effective mental health solutions available to young people quickly and I remember at the Cambridge conference being warned repeatedly about the issues that come from schools taking the first counsellor available who seems half-plausible. I think it would be brilliant to get you involved in that arena, for example. ResearchED grew out of twitter and is worth looking into.

    I’m with you in your work. We have to assume that we all might be wrong and debate is always likely to get us closer to being right.

    Best wishes.

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    1. Thank you for this. I think it’s all about striking a balance between being scientifically sound and also creating something that young people respond to and engage with and that is, essentially, what I’m trying to achieve with Self-Esteem Team.

      RE: TES blog awards. I’m not the only judge. There is a whole panel. I do guest blogs for lots of different sites, including Indy Voices and TES and had my own body confidence blog for a couple of years, but I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on the art of blogging – I think I’m just being invited to bring one perspective, based on my being a writer on education and working in schools.
      X

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  2. Hi Natasha,

    I’m Nick Rose – I wrote the open letter for Labour Teachers (way back) in October last year – recently after your appointment as mental health champion (which is how I referred to you in the letter). The post is here: http://www.labourteachers.org.uk/open-letter-to-natasha-devon-the-new-mental-health-champion-for-schools-nick_j_rose/

    Thanks for replying to some of the substantive concerns I raised in the post. However, in the interests of fairness, I thought I’d reply to a couple of the points you raise about it.

    Firstly, at no point in the post did I suggest that you were a Tory, raging or otherwise. Indeed, far from condemning your appointment, I started by listing many of the things we agree on; like grave concern about cuts to children’s services and the importance of avoiding the ‘hows’ of self-harming behaviours when teaching about mental health.

    Secondly, I didn’t say that you were ‘peddling’ NLP. I said:

    “My confidence in your judgement and expertise is undermined by your apparent support of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)”
    and
    “Your apparent enthusiasm for a ‘therapy’ which lacks evidence of effectiveness, undermines the credibility of your judgement when it comes to guiding policy related to the mental health of children”

    Lastly, along with the quote from Cosmo, I also linked to your “Cover Girl” Interview for Winning Minds. http://www.winningminds.co.uk/random-stuff/winning-minds-in-the-media/body-image-talks-in-the-media/tashas-cover-girl-interview-on-facebook-transcript/

    In this article you said this:

    “[Natasha]
    First and foremost, I plan to let the World know about the wonder that is Mark Newey, my boss and therapist for Winning Minds. His neural recoding therapy really is astoundingly effective in combatting eating disorders and negative body image because it can directly target and work with the powerful unconscious mind, where our habits and beliefs are stored. Neural recoding focusses on changing the mindset rather than the behaviour (the change in behaviour follows naturally). I really do believe, and this is slightly controversial, that the NHS needs to recognise the effectiveness of NLP (Neuro linguistic Programming, a technique used in neural recoding) in combatting eating disorders. Mark and I have put together a one day eating disorder workshop/seminar so we can reach the highest number of sufferers possible with the resources we have. Ultimately, I want to ensure that no woman or man goes through what I went through.”

    Winning Minds, I believe, use “Neural Recoding” a mix of strategies taken from NLP, Hypnotherapy and Coaching. You appeared in numerous promotional material for the organisation – and the quote above implies you worked for them for a while. Therefore, to suggest that you had some enthusiasm and support for NLP was hardly am exaggeration of the position you historically held.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear you are distancing yourself from NLP. — and welcome to the world of blogging!

    All the best, Nick

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  3. Hi Natasha

    I am no expert on much of this stuff, although I do know personally of a number of people who were seemingly relieved of their phobias in a very (astonishingly) short timeframe using NLP techniiques. The practitioner was a teaching colleague. Although I see lots of knowledgable people writing about NLP as “snake oil”, I am considering going to an NLP practitioner for my phobia of spiders.

    One of the most amusing aspects of all of this for me, is that one of your biggest twitter trolls is repeatedly challenged for knowing nothing about the “topic” as they have no experience. This troll consistently says that the fact that they are not a “xxxxxxxxx” is a daft reason for suggesting that they should not have a view on “yyyyyy”. You now seem to be criticised for not being a teacher while judging blogs.

    You should realise that this particular troll considers themself to be a master blogger, has developed vast spreadsheets of ecucational blogs and has recently done their best to ensure that lots of blogs that they feel are “worthy” are nominated for the awards. Indeed, one might get the feeling that this troll is a bit jealous, hence the suggestions of incompetence. It is also worth saying that one of your noisiest trolls feels the need to act as “snake oil” inspector and NLP has in the past been one of their biggest obsessions.

    My experience of life in general and education in particular has shown me that the profession attracts a range of personality types. One taxonomy would be those who interact well with people (less so with spreadsheets) and those who interact well with spreadsheets (and less so with people). Many do tread a line between the two extremes but in my experience, a preference for people over spreadsheets is to be preferred when considering educational matters.

    I think the responses from Stuart and Nick above make some good points, and both are advocates of evidence based action, as are you and I.

    I however think, as I believe you do, that one has to draw a balance between RCTs, research and effect sizes and treating people as people and children as little people (soon to be big people).

    I believe that your noisiest troll is perhaps a little concerned that a blog that does not transmit a message that confirms his own obsessions may win blog of the year, and said troll will struggle with that. After all, said troll is influentiall in the bloggersphere so why should they not stamp their feet when someone else is asked to do a job that they feel they are eminently suited to.

    I think you are a great choice for the role of Mental Health Champion and judge of blogger of the year. You don’t need me to tell you that you have a great deal of support out there, but if you mention Ken Robinson you will attract the anger of the vocal minoirty of “know it alls” and spreadsheet lovers who struggle a bit with progress.

    Ken Robinson? – great idea
    Tom Bennet bell end? – won’t comment too much for fear of reprisals but suffice to say that on occasions his utterences cause him to resemble the piece of male anatomy to which you refer but I am sure that this is a false impression arising from over confidence in his own wisdom.

    Hang on in there and keep on doing what you are doing.

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  4. First, just to say I really enjoyed your contribution Natasha to the CYP Now Conference in January ‘Children’s Mental Health: Policy and Practice’. Whatever the issues outlined above (which seem at least to have provoked some constructive discussion) I just want to voice my support for whatever you can do in assisting the issue of the mental health of our children and young people. I look forward to reading more.

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