Listening to the radio, I heard recently that wisdom is lost to the young because they cannot see. I was somewhat taken aback by this statement, because my regular contact with children at Claires Court provides me with an awful lot of evidence to the contrary. It’s fair to say that children’s experience is driven very much by their family, school, faith and community channels; for example, if they spend their Sunday mornings at Mini Rugby for 7 years, their thinking about the purpose of Sunday is going to be very different from those that go to Morning Service or Shul. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the children here reach out to support and protect others in ways that are typical of the generosity of young minds. However, I do see problems. Firstly, as children enter their adolescent years, their growing desire for independence from the adult ideas that surround them does become noticeable. Separately, there is a paucity of agenda of many adults who lead education who seem to focus solely on the academic outcomes for children, without thinking about the broader skill base learners need to acquire in order to live successful lives as independent adults.
Others speak in similar negative ways – here’s the Dalai Lama’s take on the matter: “Real change is in the heart, but in modern education there is not sufficient talk about compassion,” the Dalai Lama told a conference entitled Educating the Heart held in Vancouver, British Columbia, during his 2015 fall tour of North America. “Through education, through training the mind and using intelligence, we can see the value of compassion and the harmfulness of anger and hatred.” You can find a much fuller article by Melvin McLeod on the Dalai Lama’s thinking on UK tour here.
I guess I am particularly lucky to work in a family of some 370+ independent schools where the education of the whole child is paramount, where year by year our biannual conferences focus on that common language that brings educators into the profession, to teach, to make a difference, to lead learning for all not just for those that find it easy. As Chair of Professional Development for ISA, I have made it my mission to promote the essence that underlies successful education, to place children at the heart of what we do and support their growth of intellectual and spiritual development using tools honed by evidence and ethics. The latter is important by the way, as we do not permit corporal punishment for example as many of the more successful far eastern education systems still do.
It’s interesting to distinguish what I mean by children at the heart, and what perhaps others pejoratively describe as child-centred theories of education. I am not connected for example to the principle that children need to learn at their own speed, for if that were true, we would not have age-related boundaries for driving, alcohol usage and sex, and we know that intellectual development is only part of the growth in wisdom we see as adolescents mature. Emotional intelligence is important too, as is the ‘fledging process’ that human families take their children through as they seek to leave home and set up home for the first time. The genuine success the English Middle class have in using the University destination for 3 years is really notable; as a country we are much more successful in graduating our own children (as measure in the conversion time to degree award and chronological age of graduation) compared with our counterparts in the USA and Europe. In short, there is a dynamic balance between pace of education and achievement; many more able children need time too to catch-up before moving on. This is Singapore’s positive gift to the world, ‘do less, and do it better, and don’t move on until that’s so’.
Years ago, one of the great Professors of Education, Tedd Wragg of Exeter University was contracted by Singapore to identify why their students were so good at passing Accountancy part 1 and so bad at passing part 2s. Part 1 was all about adding up the spreadsheet on a business (let’s say a leisure centre, his example),and part 2 was a test of the advice the accountant could give the business based on the evidence the numbers showed. To his audience (ISA Annual conference 1990s) this came as no surprise, experienced as many of us were in educating multiple nationalities in our school. There is something innately British about being a shopkeeper, and our children almost from the very start are taught how to set up and run businesses. Nursery schools around the land have make-believe as part of the children’s play, and this is embedded in the Early years Foundation stage and we should be hugely proud as a nation that we have this as our starting point. Singapore noted that from an early age their own curriculum was jam packed with content at the expense of skill acquisition, reacted really positively to Professor Wragg’s advice, and we can all reap that benefit of the changes they made for example to their maths programme now.
Back in April of 2010, the Icelandic volcano of Eyjafjallajokull erupted with such ferocity that Europe’s airlines were grounded for 6 days. Claires Court had just returned to work for the summer term and our Boys Reception classes had just started using their new outdoor garden, complete with hundreds of wooden blocks. Within minutes of their occupation, and unrelated to any adult intervention, the boys were building roads across the bark laden floor in an East West location. “What are you doing, chaps?” asked the Head, Jeff Watkins. “Building runways, so the airplanes can land safely” came the reply. This is brilliant anecdotal evidence that children can see challenges the rest of us can’t and respond and learn. We don’t have to proscribe the learning opportunities available, though do need to prescribe that we have breadth, diversity and challenge.
The danger is that external pressures on teachers and school leaders to ensure they perform and deliver against targets becomes the reason why they come to work. The measurement of outcomes at the expense of process is one of the great corrupting features visible in education and we are served very badly if schools are monetised by these principles. The growing permanent exclusion of unwell children from more successful schools for fear their presence damages their educational statistics is well known in England, and as one of the more influential state headteacher think tanks, the Headteachers Round Table make clear, schools need better accountability systems than just counting who gets the best pass rates in national exams.
It’s Fireworks night at Claires Court on Saturday, SL6 4QQ, and we expect as ever a fantastic turnout of our community for our first mass bash of 2015-16. Year 10 and 11 are very much in charge of the extra fundraising stalls, and we have interesting innovations from the STEM club and Young Enterprise to experience. For the first time we have Metcalfe*’s skinny popcorn to run alongside our Children’s film showing and live Rugby World Cup. Yep, I might be OK about children’s empathy for other’s less fortunate, but I am not yet convinced all are completely sound on sweet and sticky.