Focus or breadth? The pupils can have both

Anthony Seldon

I was dreading speaking to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in Birmingham last week. I was to talk about educating all the intelligences of each child, rather than just the academic abilities, and expected to be duffed over, as I had been at an audience in the City of London earlier that week. But those who asked questions appeared interested and supportive. I even had the audience meditating for three minutes. My point to them was how much better their own lives might be, and their schools, if they had a regular time or times each day when they were still and reconnected with calm and with themselves.

The SSAT has achieved remarkable things with specialist schools over the past ten years, improving the lives of innumerable pupils through better results and improved schools. I have been constantly impressed with its literature, conferences and ideas. But in my talk I said that the time has now come for the SSAT to shift its focus away from the drive for improving results and emphasise instead the importance of all-round education. The truth is that one does not have to choose between academic focus and breadth: one can have both; and indeed, the more rounded the education is, the better the children seem to do at their exams.

Many state schools do excellent work in offering breadth of education, providing not just excellent teaching of the two academic aptitudes, logical and linguistic, but the other six as well: sporting, cultural, intrapersonal, interpersonal, moral and spiritual. This is vital, because it is wrong that independent schools, which educate the already most privileged, should also be offering far greater breadth of education. It is fundamental that schools should be helping children learn not only how to do well in exams but also who they are, what they love and are best at and how to live their lives to the full.

Schools must become, where they are not already, intelligent communities, in the broadest sense. Such schools have common traits, of which three stand out. First, they are optimistic places. Cynicism and derogatory comments about others, whether between adults or pupils, have no place. Adults and pupils are encouraged to reflect on what they are grateful for.

Second, the ethos in these schools, like all intelligent communities, is one where the individuals strive to do good (altruism) rather than feel good. Too often in schools, as in society, the message is to indulge oneself rather than look after others.

The final trait is stillness. It may appear a weird idea that individuals and groups should spend a little time each day with our eyes closed and being still. But nothing could be more natural, and children, once they are used to the idea, like it.

Positivity, altruism and silence could all come far more into schools as the natural adjuncts of a renewed commitment to a more rounded vision of education. But which of the three is the greatest? Practise them, and they in fact become indivisible.

Wellington's conference on well-being is on January 18.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, Berkshire.

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Anthony Seldon

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