Matthew Burns

HEADMASTER’S BLOG – CHILDREN SHOULD BE TAUGHT ……

Barely a week passes without Schools being told they should teach one thing or another. A look at the past year reveals that in January there were calls to teach all children employment skills and the dangers of online bullying.

Then, amidst the gloom of February, Tristram Hunt wanted “grit and determination” on the curriculum. In March, it was the need for theatre etiquette swiftly followed by the skill of speaking eloquently in April. Risk, survival skills and cycling were the priority in May, and computer coding.

We were given a rest during the exam season in June before it was the turn of cancer awareness and the celebration of sexual diversity in July and August. The new school year took us back to the future with the Prime Minister advocating the tuition of imperial measures, perhaps this was why the dangers of alcohol and First Aid for all needed to be promoted in October.

In November, schools which were “on message” were teaching pupils how to manage their finances and at the same time how to be rebellious and break rules. Primary Schools were focused on the twin dangers of un-brushed teeth and online gambling.  As I write in December, I have just received 50 pages of legislation that require Schools to teach British Values as a result of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.

The breadth of expectation indicates confusion as to the role of Schools so that any institution which sought to meet all these directives would soon find itself in a state of pedagogical chaos.

No-one should delude themselves that Schools teach everything a pupil needs to know. Pupils have a responsibility to educate themselves, well expressed by the American author Alvin Toffler, the author of FutureShock, who also argued that, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. Parents too have educational responsibilities over which we should not trespass. 

Independent schools evolve their curriculum over time, sifting out the faddish from the substantial. Two key factors determine what we teach; firstly that the content be enduring as well as valuable and secondly that it conforms to the character of the School.

It follows that Bear Grylls’ survival skills are consigned to the compost heap whilst competition, athleticism and teamwork combine with emotional and physical resilience to equip pupils with survival skills which are properly relevant to their future. No-one should argue against teaching First Aid, but it needs to be placed in the wider context that serving others is an important and rewarding responsibility which we all share. 

As I wrestle with the instruction to teach British Values, I cannot help but wonder, “Whose values?” Inevitably the question is left unanswered by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools whose Westminster office in cosmopolitan London is a world away from the Howgills. Closer reading indicates that this is largely a call for tolerance in a multi-cultural nation but for once a government document has invited me to reflect on exactly what values we promote and how they have evolved.

Our boarding promotes tolerance, trust and care for others. When we worship in Chapel we embrace the key Christian tenets of love and redemption. On the pitches and in the classroom we reinforce the notion that the greatest satisfaction is found in hard won success.

Our international community brings insight into global issues and the fells act as an ever-present reminder of the importance of our environment. In the midst of their busy lives musicians introduce the importance of an aesthetic consciousness to the pupil body. Teacher role-models invite us to be hopeful for the future.

None of this is new; our ethos has layer upon layer of accumulated history like the patina of a well-worn desk. We are ancient and modern in the same breath.

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