by Richard Taylor-West
Headmaster, Shoreham College
A senior manager in education once said to me, “Of course, one of the most difficult things is when we are trying to work with a young person, but the grown-ups don’t agree.” I cannot remember when it was said, or who said it, but I do remember being struck by the force of it.
What interested me about this proclamation was that although it seemed at the time to be a comment on agreeing practicalities like homework, or who has achieved a prize or prefects’ badge, it has, when true, more far-reaching implications than it might at first seem.
The headmaster of a well-known school in the north of England recently wrote that he feels that “right now there is certainly a job to do with the health and well-being of young people in our care”. He is right: there is and I cannot help feeling that this may have something to do with the statement I have quoted above.
More than ever, we live in an environment which seems to be giving rise to an astonishing level of opinion about almost anything and everything. Social media, for example, seems to lend itself to the publishing of a view point about all things under the sun and instantly. And, of course, so many people have become experts overnight, haven’t they?
I haven’t even begun to touch upon the increasing notion that knowledge is highly negotiable and it really depends whether or not you are in the possession of ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’. These two cosmic forces can throw a whole new spanner in the works too.
Someone asked me recently what I was giving up for Lent and I answered ‘opinions’, as there are far too many of them, I think. Yet, of course, ironically, here I am writing something for a magazine. That fact does not escape me, but I’ll do my best to observe, rather than judge.
We only have to think about how many different reports and viewpoints we have seen in the last few years on the benefits, or not, of red wine to see that bringing education into the picture is bound to elicit quite a few perspectives – from ‘experts’ and non ‘experts’ alike.
If I proclaimed “homework is good for you”, you will find teachers who will argue about that quite loudly. They usually begin with, “well that depends”. If I said that pupils should be rewarded with prizes on sports’ day, I have known different families respond in markedly variant ways. If I said pupils must take responsibility for their actions, most parents might agree, although I have seen parents disagree with each other about this, when it comes down
to the nitty gritty of it – and that is a challenge too.
Here’s one observation: it seems to me that whilst there is something to be said for diversity in life, it might also be true that for young people developing their ideas and values, utter confusion might not be the way forward. In fact, I suspect it is wholly unhelpful. It destabilises them and can be isolating. It can create a kind of moral loneliness.
So, what about schools? What can we do to work against this potential chaos, which does not help young people? That is a tricky question, of course, but I think there is one starting point. Each school has to form its own ethos and attempt to persuade parents that it is a reasonable one, even a good one, to stand by and uphold.
It is then up to the parents to buy into that ethos, quite literally for independent schools, and for the school and the parents to work hard together to create as much consensus as possible for the good of the young people they are jointly nurturing. From my observations, confusion and a lack of clarity in what the ‘grown-ups’ think is rarely helpful. The school and the parents really should collaborate on what is a challenging and complex project.
If I were to sum up our ethos it says that we strive to provide an excellent academic education, which enables all of our pupils to be realistically ambitious and make confident informed choices, in a safe environment that is in keeping with a Christian tradition whilst widening pupil horizons as people who have a place and social responsibilities within a local, national and global community. We say that we encourage and promote a strong partnership between pupils, parents and the school, recognising that each member of the school community has an equally important role to play in contributing to the success of the individual and to the overall ethos of the College.
Naturally, of course, there is going to be the vexed question of interpretation. What does being ‘realistic’ mean or ‘informed’ in terms of our statement above? This is definitely problematic. (We would have thought the Ten Commandments might have been fairly straightforward, after all. And look what happened there.)
Good schools also strive hard to prepare young people to make choices in terms of their values and moral standpoints. Schools can offer the pupils real choice and understanding. That said, a school should make a stand in terms of values. It should expect pupils to show respect to others, take part, work hard, engage with their own working lives with a great deal of ownership and self-discipline. Schools should expect young people to be honest, have integrity and take on their share of the hard work and responsibility that making a living breathing community entails. Surely, no one could disagree with these simple things?
I am concerned, however, when I see young people being brought up to think of number one first and to believe that life is simply a consumer experience to be had and for the benefit of individuals only. In other words, an approach that says “this is for me and I would like it my way” and “all things are negotiable, aren’t they? After all, who knows what is true?” This seems doomed to me and not helpful at all to schools. It is socially unhealthy too.
Well, that’s my opinion. I didn’t quite manage to give them all up for Lent, after all.
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