If there’s one thing harder than getting children to work, it is getting them to walk. Even a learning task requiring students to cross from one side of a classroom to another can appear too much for some of them.
So it was no great surprise, on a recent family visit to the Lake District, to hear one of our own children begin whining – the unique bleating of plaintive child on countryside footpath.
Admittedly, some renowned predecessors around here have also wandered along in a miserable manner – lonely as a cloud – but in Wordsworth’s case, the misery was soon followed by that splendid daffodil discovery.
In our case, the only golden prize on offer was the questionable glory of conquering the official 112th highest peak in the Lake District.
Well, to be honest, the weather began to deteriorate to such an extent that we were no longer entirely sure which peak we were ascending.
Then, as the mist and cloud cleared momentarily, we spotted that we were not completely alone in our weather-defying mission. One other group was ahead of us on the hillside – with children less than half the age of whingeing son, I pointed out.
Though, as we drew nearer, we found that there was a similar mood of malcontent in the ranks.
One child was crying (having fallen in the mud) and a disgruntled sibling was being cheerily coaxed up the hill, step by step, by an encouraging, patient mother, who then slipped over in the mud herself. We overtook them with a sympathetic greeting.
As we began to pull away I then heard “Mr Petty?”
The mother in the mud turned out to be my former student Katy – someone I had taught 20 years ago and 250 miles away.
She had been a memorably bright, joyful, independent, hard-working yet pleasingly off-beat student and so the slightly bizarre circumstances of our re-acquaintance seem, with hindsight, wholly appropriate – almost to be expected. Apt, too, to find the same determined and resilient spirit still expressing itself.
In fact, I find that the most surprising re-encounters – paradoxically – usually have a certain air of predictability about them.
On my honeymoon, for instance, I now realise that it was almost inevitable that I would spot former student James taking tea on a palatial lawn near the Victoria Falls. Despite his bodily presence at our comprehensive school he had been mentally living the old colonial lifestyle since the age of about 11.
Or there was the time I spotted Dan, drunk and solitary in the corner of a Norfolk pub. This – sadly – was just how I feared I would next chance upon him.
As with the landlord at this pub, schools in Dan’s days of disaffection tended to sit back and let their young people make too many poor decisions.
Today the Dan-equivalent would get supported with compulsory coursework catch-ups, extra lessons, controlled revision classes. He would get enough decent grades and surely be in a much better place now. That is the plus side of today's obsession with getting them all through the pen and all that goes with it.
The downside is the longer-term effect all this can have on other students, such as Katy.
I wonder if today's ultra-supportive, exam-focused schooling would enable her to keep that fantastic, joyful spirit of independence and individualism in an age when risk-averse schools take so much out of students’ hands?
So whatever our view on education, let’s concede that any path ahead is slippery and shrouded in mist – and may easily be the wrong one.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire. For more from Stephen, see his back catalogue
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