It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves.
It may come as a surprise that I am not a regular watcher of the TV show Love Island. That said I do have something of a guilty secret regarding the 2006 series of Celebrity Love Island which I put down to being sleep deprived following the birth our second child. The current iteration of the show has received stellar viewing figures; some 4.2 million individuals tune in to watch the contestants’ antics on a regular basis. As such it is simply the latest version of a well-worn concept – put a group of people together, deprive them of their normality and see what they do. So far so Lord of the Flies. I like to think that I watched all those years ago with a profound sense of irony, I’m not so sure that our young people have such an opportunity. Young people growing up today have little choice but to be bombarded with a near constant barrage of images of perfection and success that they are challenged to match. Heavily curated lives and chemically enhanced appearances seem to be the norm and who would blame our young people if they are led to believe that this image is one that is to be admired. Perspective is sometimes difficult to achieve.
During the last fortnight we could be accused of having done much the same thing as the TV producers hunting ratings. Years 6-9 have been taken off to an unfamiliar environment, set a series of often demanding challenges and expected to get along with each other when tired, wet and perhaps a little bit uncomfortable. I had the great privilege of seeing Years 7-9 in the Alps this week. I saw sailing and raft building and I am still attempting to recover from numerous dunkings in a glacial river at the hands of Year 9. It has been the wettest week ever for our expeditions and I have to acknowledge the amazing work done by the instructor team from Alp Base who have found still more inventive ways to challenge and inspire while the rain teams down. Weaseling? Apparently good in the rain… ask a Year 8 or Year 9 and they will fill you in. Huge thanks also to the members of staff who have taken time away from home to accompany these trips; without them this extraordinary opportunity would simply not happen.
There is a big difference between what has been going on down in the Ecrins National Park and what has been happening on “the island”. There has been a distinct lack of preening and a whole lot of getting stuck in. Above all our pupils have demonstrated an awareness of each other; I saw the quiet word when someone was a little nervous, the sharing of a packed lunch when another was still hungry and the lending of kit when someone was shivering. Communal living is not easy at the best of times and it is much more difficult when all your stuff is wet. This kindness, this willingness to recognise the needs of others is perhaps the most valuable lesson that will be taken from the week away. So a massive well done to all involved, you have shown that there really is more to life than vacuous celebrity and rampant narcissism. Even if you never step foot on a via ferrata again you’ve done it now and I hope that you remember the value of working together.
…citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we, all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.
Over the years they have been described in many ways. The journalist Tom Brokaw called them “the Greatest Generation”. We may call them heroes or simply veterans, they are, of course, the D-Day generation. In many cases they were little more than schoolboys when they were charged with the task of prosecuting a crusade against tyranny. Modest and self-effacing, these veterans returned to Normandy yesterday not to receive thanks but to pay tribute to their fallen comrades. If we are to look for a defining feature of this generation it is in their acceptance of service as a key element of their existence. This characteristic is perhaps best personified these days by the Queen. She has seen Prime Ministers come and go, indeed she sees the last of another today but her mission does not change. She seeks to serve; today this steadiness seems more relevant than ever.
This week our Nursery class were studying palaeontology, a period of prehistory that also relishes in generating generational epithets. Cenozoic and Mezoic. Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic to name but a few. An inspiring week has been enjoyed by our youngest pupils as they have hunted for fossils, curated a museum and explored dinosaur filled worlds. How lucky they are to be embarking on the journey of wonder that is education. Historians have given names to many periods of history. From the Neolithic to the Industrial Era by way of the Dark Ages and the less stylishly titled Early Modern Period we delight in giving names to time. Similarly we try to personify groups with other titles such as Generation X or Y, millennial, slacker or snowflake.
Having looked at the ninety year olds on my television screen and having watched our own three year olds learning in such vibrant a fashion, I could not help to wonder what label would be given to them as a generation. Will their title be in response to environmental catastrophe, or a reaction to conflict or will it reflect a technological leap – the AI Generation? Or perhaps they will be the Responsible Generation? Will they be the group who question our behaviour as a species? Who knows? As a teacher (and indeed as a parent) there is only so much that can be done, the really important decisions made by the next generations are taken on trust. We can provide examples, give lessons but what is to be done is to be decided. We have to trust in those who are to come. Thus it is our job to prepare them well.
There are parallels between the growing generation and the greatest generation. Our school is a crucible of nations, cultures and ideas. In having had the opportunities to learn together and play together I believe that we are preparing people who will value cooperation above conflict, compassion above selfishness and service before self. It is our role to nurture these traits as best we are able. Being in the fortunate position of visiting many parts of the School each week I think we are certainly heading in the right direction.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on how much responsibility a child should be given and at what age. Famously Maria Montessori came up with a list of tasks that could be completed by age and perhaps, in her centenary year, we should pick the best bits of her ideas about child-led learning.
There have also been many articles of late about helicopter parenting, snowflakes and how young people no longer take responsibility for, well, anything. Back in my day when life was sepia toned, children were expected to be able to do just about everything that a grown up could. We could re-shoe horses, compose a symphony and stop a ship from sinking while writing sonnets… in Latin. Today, they’d have to use an app (and that is just typical) say the cynics. I certainly enjoyed a far greater level of freedom as a young person than many children would enjoy today; perhaps my parents were simply far less responsible than I am, perhaps it really was a different world. Some observers would say that we are guilty of “spoon feeding”, of doing too much, saying too much, of expecting not enough and indeed there may well be some truth in this opinion.
I’m the first to encourage young people to take responsibility. I couldn’t have been more impressed with those politics students who stood as election candidates and had to do that most difficult of tasks – standing up and talking in front of one’s peers. Similarly, all those who managed to manoeuvre their bicycles down to the green pitch by themselves on Wednesday morning. Last weekend one intrepid band of D of E Award participants took their own route, only to discover that they had to put it right. They must have done because they were in school on Monday. In the course of any day our pupils both take a lead and accept responsibility. Whilst there are often adults underpinning these activities, important habits develop. British education is all about the whole person and that sometimes means taking risks and this also means not always being right. Most difficult for teachers (and parents), it also means that we have to stand back and let young people “get on with it”. Sometimes education works best when we don’t helpfully interfere.
If there is one place where we have no choice but to allow independence, it is the exam hall. Once there parents cannot assist, teachers can’t advise and for once students are by themselves. Whilst I am no great fan of high stakes testing, one thing I do like about exams is that children have to think and do for themselves. They are accountable for the result that they get and perhaps more importantly they are responsible for what they do with the mark or grade later on. Do they take it as a spur to achieve or a reason to give up? If we want to know the real value of exams this is perhaps it; not the result but the reaction. Saul Alinsky may just have had it right when he said in his Rules for Radicals that one should never do for others what they can do for themselves. He wasn’t thinking about cleaning a pair of shoes or doing the laundry, nor was he talking about packing a bag for a forthcoming school trip but he might as well have been.