'Here's a generation of so-called self-absorbed, screen-bound snowflakes backing democracy and student voice'

31st January 2017 at 16:22
Student debate and discussion
In a world tumbling into unstoppable confusion, the optimistic urgency of young people's response is crucial, writes one leading headteacher

There’s something about Sundays.

However much dedication I put into pruning back a burgeoning inbox of emails, the messages that begin to arrive on a Sunday evening usually convey one message – that the weekend is over.

Rarely in my 15 years of headship have Sunday’s emails contained much good news. But this week’s did.

I noticed a message from a sixth-form student I teach. I assumed initially that she was either sending the poetry analysis I’d set as homework, or sending an excuse as to why she hadn’t finished it.

In fact, it was neither. Jess’s email was instead a call to action:

Hi Sir,

I know it’s a Sunday afternoon so I'm not expecting a response, but I'm just giving you a bit of preparation time for what I'm about to propose!

As I'm sure you're aware, this whole business with Trump banning refugees and people of a Muslim background in America has dismayed and upset a great many people, myself included. It's affecting a lot of people I know, and I think that we need to make a show of solidarity and strength; we need to encourage students to speak up and represent our values of acceptance and tolerance in a real-life situation.

This is a matter that is affecting both students and teachers alike that I have spoken to and feel it is time that we did something, even if small, to combat this. I also know that this is all rather last minute and may be difficult to organise, but I am willing to volunteer myself to head some sort of event/assembly/campaign type thing if you would lend your support?

I apologise if I'm coming across as some sort of angry activist, but I think this is a topic that should be talked about and should outrage people. So, what I'm actually attempting to say is that I'm going to try and book an appointment with you ASAP to see if we can talk about implementing some of my "radical" ideas and to discuss the sort of things we can do within school

Thank you!

Jess 

With Jess’s permission, I read her letter aloud to staff in our Monday morning meeting. We posted it on our school Facebook page and students and staff came to tell me how much they agreed with her sentiments.

Since ours is a school with a strongly international outlook, we should do something, they said, anything.

So that’s what we’re doing: something.

As staff, we are especially heeding Jess’s words, spoken yesterday morning. "It’s important that it’s students talking to students," she said, "not teachers."  

This makes me proud. After all, here is a generation of young people easily caricatured as a group of self-absorbed, passive, screen-bound snowflakes.

And what I like particularly is the way older students – in our case, the sixth form – want to show younger students that this isn’t about a pantomime-villain depiction of Donald Trump. It’s about principles of democracy, fairness, decency and tolerance.

As in lots of schools across the UK, what we are now doing is giving a legitimate opportunity for students to explain their helpless frustration to one other.

So, as the week unfolds, it looks as if there will be a poster campaign, a live lunchtime debate on whether the Trump state visit to the UK should take place, an article by Jess or one of her friends in the local newspaper, a series of six assemblies led by students for students, a smattering of media attention, and a school of 1,600 students in which those who feel most strongly will articulate to their peers why they feel the way they do.

From the sidelines, I imagine most of the staff will look on supportively, knowing that while this is a tiny protest by a tiny pool of people on behalf of a much larger, mostly helpless, group of fellow human beings, at least it’s something.

We’ll see enacted what in our schools we often talk about: explicit values and principles, celebration of democracy, encouragement of student voice.

None of it counts, of course, in conventional ways – in measuring student attainment, or performance tables, or in Progress 8.

But it counts very much in other respects.

We talk of wanting to prepare students to take their place in society as global citizens. Perhaps that’s part of what we’re seeing exemplified this week.

From where I sit, in a world that tumbles more unstoppably into confusion, that optimistic urgency of the next generation’s response counts very much indeed. 

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, a comprehensive school of 1,650 students in Suffolk, and is a candidate to be general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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