Matthew Burns

HEADMASTER’S BLOG – TEAMWORK

I blame Pierre de Coubertin who inspired generations by lighting the flame of the new Olympic movement with his catchy strapline, “Swifter. Higher. Stronger.” There can be no doubt that we live in competitive times.

Clarissa Farr, High Mistress of the chart-topping St Paul’s School for Girls is clearly feeling the pinch of competition. She tells us that parents of pupils at her school are “not at all on board with the idea of school as a community, learning to come second or that learning to give ground is an important part of education.” (Top Head attacks ‘Snowplough’ Parents’, The Times 29.11.14) She continues, “children are growing up unable to cope with failure,” and goes on to say that they are ill-prepared for life.

St Paul’s School for Girls is for the academically gifted and we should salute the achievements of the Paulinas who gained A* in 94% of their GCSE exams last year. They are performing at the highest levels of academia and surely fulfilling their High Mistresses expectations. But human nature is competitive so it is no good Miss Farr complaining about a Darwinian attitude amongst her pupils’ parents.

It is natural selection that has provided her with prodigiously intelligent pupils and in any case, she isn’t going to change parent behaviour by complaining. She is looking in the wrong direction for the solution.

If Miss Farr wants her parents to celebrate the school community then she must create and value opportunities where the community comes together. We call these communities “teams”. Our school orchestra is a fantastic team and our school plays represent exquisite teamwork. Our Houses are social teams.

However, as a foil to the competitive instinct, team sports are top of the league. It is stating the obvious to observe that teams succeed and fail, through which experience participants learn to win magnanimously and to lose graciously. They provide a rich sharing of experience which applies to parents just as it does to pupils. By way of example, I recently received an email from a parent of a school against which we had played, he wrote, “It was a pleasure to share the game with such fair-minded, positive and gracious followers as yours.”

If the High Mistress really thinks her pupils are ill-prepared for the world that lies ahead of them, she has an obligation to change the experience they receive, not complain about their parents. There is plenty she can do; cut academic study time to three days per week and require pupils to serve in the community or invest in high quality team sport.

She might lose 2 percentage points on her grades, but what price preparing pupils for their future? And if her Snowplough Parents abandon St Paul’s, I have no doubt there will be a queue of more enlightened families lined up outside the door.

Forgive me, I have always pitied those pupils who attend centres of academic exclusivity and believe they leave only part-educated. Clarissa Farr has cemented my views.

Andrew Fleck is Headmaster of Sedbergh School

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