We have just celebrated our annual prizegiving. Every year, the event provokes in me profound amazement and humility at the results and the prizes that our students win; their courage in their sporting and outdoor education endeavours; their astonishing artistic creativity; their stunning talents on stage and platform; and their fundamental human integrity.
As US president Franklin D Roosevelt famously said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” That must be the shared enterprise between parents and educators that drives and sustains every school.
The challenges that our students face are tremendous. They are assessed and measured in everything they do throughout their childhood and youth, and they face the pressures and expectations exerted on them by media of all kinds. They seek to make those they love proud of them and they aim to impress their peers. There’s nothing wrong or new about that. We all seek to make the right impression, regardless of age. Just a few weeks ago in the press, we saw a woman of 100 who had just become a model for the first time.
We are all under pressure to look beautiful and attractive, to be clever, to win all the time, to keep fit, look after our bodies and exercise our minds. This relentless pursuit of perfection is the scourge of our age because perfection comes at huge cost to wellbeing and emotional wholeness.
In our school, we don’t look for perfection but we are always on the look-out for excellence in full knowledge of, and respect for, the fact that no one can give more than their best.
Those two words, excellence and perfection, in themselves suggest an answer. One can only be perfected – it is a passive state that requires the submission of the subject. But to excel is to be motivated, committed and driving forward with huge energy. The progress is in the hands of the protagonist, who is taking ownership of his or her own educational journey and developing a sense of personal responsibility for the things that happen in life.
The most effective means we have of ensuring the wellbeing of our students is through a genuinely holistic education, because research has demonstrated that the narrower the academic focus of a school, the more likely that the wellbeing of its pupils will be made vulnerable. The tighter the educational roadway, the less opportunity it provides to enable excellence to shine through in areas that feed the passions and the ambitions of young people.
Of course, it’s true that a rich curriculum has to be matched by rigorous tracking and innovative teaching, but the best way to produce an educated person is to enable students to follow their own intellectual curiosity, and to help them build the personal courage and integrity to take their talent as far as it will go.
We live in a blame culture in which everything that goes wrong must be laid at someone else’s door. We only have to look at the societal ills for which the teaching profession has been – and continues to be – held responsible to know that.
The skills of taking responsibility and learning from our mistakes must be part of the smorgasbord of ethics and philosophies that we lay before our students, as we seek to equip them with values to which they can hold – and which will inform the parameters that guide them through life.
Sue Freestone is headteacher of King’s Ely in Cambridgeshire