"The key to educational success? Side with the teacher, not your child." Katharine Birbalsingh – *particualrly important in the 2020s

Dear Reader, before current parents being to froth at the mouth at my choice of Blog title for the new Decade of the 21st Century, I must quickly make clear that the title is not of my making, but the words written by Katharine Birbalsingh, headmistress and founder of Michaela Community School, Wembley Park. I’ve met Katharine on a couple of occasions in the distant past, just when she was articulating what kind of Free school she would like to establish, and indeed we loaned her the projection kit so she could run some presentations for potential future parents.

It’s my *byline to confirm that this approach is particularly important in the 2020s, at a time when family, society, life itself might possibly be becoming even more complicated. Going back to the 1960s, when I was growing up as a child reaching for his teenage years, my extended family and real friends tended to put me right when I was in disagreement with my father or mother, or indeed any one of the many teachers who had responsibility for my care at school. Inevitably I was contained within a bubble of societal expectations that constrained and informed my actions. Obviously I knew by Summer of 1966 that England was the best football side in the world, that ‘pop’ music was a new medium in which I could become an expert way ahead of my parents, that ‘free love’ was something to find out more about, because ‘it’ was all over the popular press and that if I did wander off into the woods, I was unlikely to meet something nasty there. The nearest point of call to the ‘matrix’ was the red telephone box down the road, and a punishingly high cash tariff in loose change should you actually choose to make a call.

I have a very clear memory that by age 17 (when I completed my A levels) many good habits had become permanently ingrained. Good handwriting was completely expected of me, and I show colleagues now my exercise books when I was aged 8 and 9, and they are amazed at the high quality of fountain pen ink writing therein. We spent hours learning to handwrite, and every lesson we took was a handwriting lesson. Mathematics was a different language, and learning to draw diagrams, using a fountain pen upside down, with a ruler equally inverted, to keep the ink lines thin and to prevent capillary attraction of the liquid to the wood was a skill we had to master. Without calculators we had to master the use of logarithm tables and slide rules, antiquated mechanical devices that were more than a nod to the alethiometer of ‘His Dark Material’s’ fame. I don’t joke when I say that the craft skills to pass A level Sciences were really quite intense; the practicals were monstrously difficult, making extensive use of the laboratory apparatus seen as a backdrop to Frankenstein movies and their ilk. In short, as there were few opportunities to waste time, we learned to like practicing using the protractor and draw accurately, because work demanded it and we did not actually like having to ‘DO IT AGAIN’!

It seems to me there are 4 quadrants to success at school, those best shown by the graphic below:

At my first assembly of the term this morning, I re-introduced this image to Senior Boys, highlighting that none of us can achieve our ambitions unless we learn the value of each of all 4 elements. The greatest in every field of human endeavour always reference the value of practice in making a skill or ability perfect and permanent. Once a bike has been learned to ride, or a car driven, the skills are in place and can be readily recalled. But getting there is the journey that needs to be made, involving the falling off, the bruising of knees, the knocked bumper or a red light ‘run’. I shared a showreel of the latest ‘Alumni recruits’ to my staircase showreel, all stills except a short video of Tim Harbour creating his music track ‘Made of Paper‘ to emphasise this point. But I could have shown other of this term’s recruits, Phil Clapp choosing to break the Skierg World record , or Michael Mcquhae’s B-Reel company’s film work, this one giving athletes a platform for their own voice, or how Anton Jerges managed to recreate the League of Legends battle arena across 3000 square metres of ExCel London including a 500 person LAN gaming area, live streaming, and global broadcasts, linked in with live announcements from Global HQ in the US, live performances and an after show party. Gulp.

The skills, talents, imagination and perspiration on show highlight just how much of success comes down to repetitive hard work, put in over a sustained period of time. Yes of course there are some short cuts, but that’s of the cut-and-paste variety when iterative activities are needed. What’s emerged in recent years across the world is a sense that learners should be able make use of short cuts to avoid the hard yards that otherwise help shape the learning experience. The epidemic rise of plagiarism for university and school coursework is one of the most obvious signs that cheating is supported in ways it has not been hithertoo. This Guardian article highlights the growth in legitimate private tuition outside of schools in the country, with somewhere between 27% and 41% making use of such services, and highlights just how big an ‘arms race’ now exists to raise achievement on paper. The same newspaper carried this story last month of the exponential rise in cheating through the use of technology in exam rooms in schools, plus the hacking of school systems to steal exam papers and the use of social media to ‘sell’ cheat sheets to exam candidates.

Parents and Schools are clearly entitled to disagree with the methods being used in school, and such conflict is often a useful safety mechanism that leads to school improvement. Conflict is not Combat though; here’s Birbalsingh on the matter ” When you go marching in to “give that teacher a piece of your mind”, all you are doing is letting off steam and seemingly taking your child’s side. Yes, teachers make mistakes. But do you really want to win the battle and lose the war? Do not underestimate the power of the relationship between teacher and pupil and how much you as a parent can influence it. Sometimes waiting, biting your tongue and thinking is the best strategy.

She goes on to write “Children depend on their parents to expect the very best of them. Being a good parent does not mean indulging your child’s every whim. It means making sensible decisions and pushing back when your child is behaving like a child. Kids are kids. It is what makes them so adorable. But a good parent needs to trust their school if the child is to succeed.

Why consensus between school and home is more important than ever in the 2020s is because children are not less supported then before, but supported differently by the countless thousands of opinions out there they can secure from their extended virtual ‘friends’ to demonstrate the clear ‘unreasonableness of family and school’. With so many more families being divided and united in different ways, through divorce, separation and repartnering, ‘kids’ are pretty good at squeezing through the gaps and getting their own way between parents and/or schools who might be in disagreement. It’s scary too how quickly children can find short-cuts on the ‘net’, and learn really quickly that the ‘answers are out there’, just ‘copy and paste’ to pass the mark, or ‘pay the money’ for drugs and worse to be dropped outside your house. The explosion in modern day slavery, county lines, exploitation and ‘underage’ pornography has made children more vulnerable than ever. As the letter I endorsed from every secondary headteacher to their communities in Buckinghamshire made clear, the epidemic is real, here and in every layer of our community.

Whether you are a parent or teacher, neither or perhaps even both, it’s worth bearing in mind that consensus and agreement builds harmony amongst adults, tightens our ranks and provides for a better safety net for all. And if ever there was a cautionary tale to be told on how inventing new solutions develops new problems, it is in the rise of Conflict Resolution Careers in the world of work! In the past I would have called this solving arguments and providing solutions, but it’s clearly become a big business in the adult workplace, and inevitably is cascading into family and school life too. Company executives now talk of an epidemic of conflict emerging, perhaps because ‘conflict managers’ need ‘conflicts’ to resolve. Schools may for ever been regarded as ‘conflict zones’ but actually they are not; education may be the most complex of all human activities, but children and teachers value hugely fairness and the value of arbitration and peace-making. In recent days I can speak out firmly in favour of our own parent community who have communicated rapidly and honestly on matters of concern taking place over the Christmas break, because children (or parents) have put themselves at risk and trusting (rightly) that sharing such information precipitates the ‘right’ support ‘right’, and from the get-go.

I sense that as we enter the twenties our country has reached a consensus (even if pro-tem) about its future, and has now resolved to do its best. I was heartened at the close of today’s assembly that boys young and old came to speak to me about their hopes and optimisms, and thank me for starting off the decade on such a positive note. That’s good noticing and well done them.

Today’s assembly show-real of ideas can be found here. The short football film was to highlight the arrival of ball skills that can only arise through hours of practice.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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