I was once interviewed by The Good Schools Guide and, during my meeting, I was asked a very good question on which I have been reflecting often since. It is a question I am asked frequently by prospective parents in one form or another: ‘As Head, how do you protect the children in your care from the ills of the world?’
It is a challenging question for any school which claims to put pastoral care and excellent relationships between staff and pupils at the heart of what it does. In these areas I think as a dad and as a head. I feel strongly that tension between wanting my children to be independent and resilient yet hating the idea that they are going to either suffer or get themselves into some kind of trouble. I really do want to shelter them.
After a pause, I admitted that I could not protect them from the ills of the world. I could only lead the school to prepare them as best as possible to face them.
I do not want to seem gloomy but in over two decades of teaching I have witnessed children suffer too much: everything from personal and family illness, breakdown and death to abusive relationships. I have seen them deal with alcohol and drugs, gaming addiction and gambling, their first relationships with the opposite sex and pornography…not to mention all these new technologies that breakdown what we thought our once secure castle front doors.
It is why I have never been comfortable with the trite idea that education is ‘a preparation for life’ as if ‘life’ was something that only happened to children after they finished their education. No, it is a preparation for living. Our children are living life in its best and worst forms right now.
Equally, however, I am not going to be over anxious that this generation of Cranleighans is facing a greater range of ills than those before us. They are just different. Houses in Surrey’s towns are not being bombed; children are not going to work in dangerous factories or climbing chimney stacks; they are not facing potential slavery; there has always been abuse and addiction…
Of course, there are many in the world who still face all of these things, and when we see the plight of refugees and migrants that is all too stark. Like generations before us it is our duty to call for reform and justice and to improve all of our support services. Yet we should not panic but remember with historical perspective that we have had centuries of experience of preparing children for the ills of the world.
At school, we strive to give Cranleighans compass points for direction: a strong sense of community and belonging so they feel valued; places for spiritual and personal reflection; all manner of activities in which they work together to learn to win and lose, to make and sustain and mend friendships; to find a positive outlet for the energy of youth by keeping busy…and yes, as a Christian School, we pray. It is why spend so much reviewing and re-shaping our pastoral education so we give children the right tools to make good choices.
It is through these things that we build character and strength and identity and belonging and wisdom – all those things to equip our children for living. As schools we won’t always get it right; as parents we won’t either – after all we are dealing with human beings who will get it wrong and will hurt each other – and this is how we learn.
Keats, reflecting on the challenges of the human condition, wrote of the inhuman Lamia able ‘to unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain.’ We cannot of course, but if schools and families do their best to enable wholesome experiences to encourage joy and bliss – and I think we do – then we have gone a long way to providing harder hats against the ills of the world.