I pride myself on leading a school which embraces wholeheartedly the belief that our young people are global citizens. The city of Cambridge is a focal point of excellence in the world with its historic university and Silicon Fen acting as a magnet for talent and investment from across the globe. Many of our alumni, immersed as they have been in this cosmopolitan city, are living and working in countries across the world. Our parents include many from overseas who are working in Cambridge. Our student body is therefore wonderfully diverse with approximately 40 other languages spoken.
It is therefore from this vantage point that I view the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Trump is self evidently a divisive figure. His careless racism and misogyny demonstrated during the presidential campaign unleashed an ugly political discourse. America, the land of the free and the brave, found itself the focal point of unprecedented debate around building a wall, banning Muslims from entering the country and sexual assault. None of this laid a glove on Trump who apparently connected with Americans seeking someone different in Washington from the usual suspects.
Far be it from me to offer a view on the democratic choice of the American people. However, I do feel strongly that the ‘ugly discourse’ needs to be called out. I was therefore impressed with the response of Angela Merkel to Trump’s triumph. She said:
“Germany and America share common values: democracy, freedom, respect for law and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction. On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship.”
A brave and clear message of the values which have united us across the globe. We have taken these values for granted. What the Department of Education call British Values are actually values underpinning the United Nations since World War Two. In my lifetime so much progress has been made towards achieving Merkel’s vision of respecting the dignity of people across the world. But we have this year, with Brexit and President Trump, reached a water shed. Political commentators are writing a myriad of columns on this trying to understand the zeitgeist which appears to be gripping the developed world, apparently repelled by the impact of globalisation.
For me, the challenge is what does this mean for the education of our young people? How do we prepare them for a world which is increasingly different from the world we have known? How do we help them view their future optimistically? I have been reflecting on this and wondering whether we need to rethink our vision of education focussing on our island History and the national interest. It took very little time for me to come to the conclusion that not only is this the wrong thing to do, being regressive and parochial, it actually would be morally the wrong thing to do. No nation of the world can vote to cut themselves off from the world. Isolationism and self interest merely serves to increase international tensions and sour relationships. It also encourages a survival of the fittest approach between nations which cannot but remind us of the dark days of Merkel’s homeland back in the 1930s.
So for me, the educational imperative is clear. We ARE educating our young people as global citizens. Never before has tolerance and understanding been so important. Our aim is to educate generations of young people who can be change makers, reaching out rather than looking inwards, who really care about everyone whatever their colour or creed. As we teeter on the brink of an uncertain future, let us remember the words of a man who epitomised Merkel’s values:
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Every year the leaders of HMC independent schools come together to discuss education. We are challenged, rightly, to reflect on practice in our own schools. Are we really offering the best possible experience for our pupils? Are we equipping them to thrive in the world in which they will live?
This year, for the first time, our positive aspirations for our young people seem to jar with the dissonance of anger and xenophobia which colours our national politics. I read the commentary coming out of one party conference and shudder at the values which are being presented as our national destiny. The Stephen Perse Foundation, a family of six schools in and around Cambridge, is unashamedly global in outlook and seeks to understand the complex world we live in rather than fearing it. Living in an international city, inevitably our view of the wider world is coloured by living cheek by jowl with people drawn from across the globe. Whether from the field of biomedicine, technology or academia, we enjoy interactions with the brightest, the best and the simply interesting; our Foundation often enjoys the privilege of educating the children of these families. I defy anyone to say that welcoming children from abroad into our school community does not add significant value to the learning experience of our home grown youngsters.
I do of course understand the genuine concerns felt by people for whom the benefits of globalisation seem less clear. It would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the sentiments of those who voted to leave the EU in the recent referendum because of anxieties around free movement of people into the U.K.. This is clearly not a subject for me to comment on respecting as, as I do, the outcome of a democratic process. However, surely it behoves our government to calibrate this and assess how best to manage immigration to ensure we do not give the message to the world that immigrants are not welcome, full stop. A commentary suggested by the Home Secretary, which almost appears to seek to name and shame “foreigners” is little short of alarming and a throw back to the accepted prejudices of the past.
Mindful of the impact Brexit could have on our school community, with reported increase of incidents of racism nationally, I took an assembly with our sixth form in which I shared the changing social mores in popular cultural during my lifetime regarding prejudice. Remember “Love Thy Neighbour”? The easy racism engendered complicit laughter with the audience. “Till Death Us Do Part” which is regarded as a classic piece of comedy can be difficult to watch now as racism forms a staple of the humour.
So it was with absolute pride that I reminded our sixth form of an event which inspired us in their life time – the London Olympics and Paralympics in 2012. The celebration of sport and the multi cultural identity of our sportsmen and women was truly inspiring. We were told the events of that summer were to inspire a generation. Tolerance, inclusion, diversity were as important watch words as “Citius, Altius, Fortius”.
Although only four years ago, the spirit of the Games seems to be overwhelmed by the anxiety around the arrival in our country of people from other parts of the world. A complex narrative, politically the debate around immigration has been debased with the unintended consequence of unfortunately giving permission to those who harbour xenophobic and racist thoughts publicly to share their hatred. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, told a hearing at London’s City Hall in September that hate crime in the city was showing signs of decreasing after a sharp rise in June and July, but it had still not returned to pre-referendum levels. And many of the victims were of Eastern European origin. There have also been reports of racist hate crimes in Cambridgeshire after Brexit.
Our young people are not stupid. They listen to the arguments and they look to educators to help them understand – the posturing and positioning of one politician after another on immigration is far from edifying for them. Suffice it to say, that as a school committed to educating our young people for the world they will live in, we shall continue to celebrate our wonderfully diverse community. We shall encourage mutual understanding and cultural interest; we shall ensure our young people understand that they are global citizens; and, most of all, we shall ensure that our narrative around immigration is founded on valuing and supporting each other as individuals whatever our background.
So where have all the teachers gone? The existential crisis of our times in education is in teacher recruitment and retention. Just as we have lost the familiar conveyor belt of teacher recruits with university education faculties across the country face the challenge of funding PGCE places and Teach First grappling with high drop out rates, there also is the growing disaffection of serving teachers. A report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has found that 23% of teachers are considering quitting teaching compared with just 17% last year with workload identified as a key reason for the increase. It is fair to say that Headteachers across the country are despairing about maintaining staffing levels in their schools.
So what is the first education initiative of the new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, to address this crisis? Bring back grammar schools. It seems to me that in our post Brexit world there is a simplicity about our politics, with politicians offering simple solutions to complex problems unfettered by any evidence to support their view – just a feeling that they are right. And probably an anecdote or two just to add some substance whilst blithely ignoring the ample data on the relatively poor attainment of low income disadvantaged young people in selective areas as opposed to non selective areas. Surely education is too important for the future of our country to be managed in this way. Our young people deserve better than glib sound bites that serve to distract from the true challenges facing the education sector.
What is hugely frustrating is that the teacher recruitment and retention crisis is not unknown to the Department of Education. Only recently Estelle Morris, a former Education Secretary, wrote an impassioned piece in the Guardian ( https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/06/teacher-recruitment-greening ) exhorting the Education Department to take responsibility for addressing this crisis. Surely the keystone of any educational system is ensuring we have the right number of qualified and appropriately trained teachers serving in our schools. You can offer a lavish smorgasbord of different schools, including more grammars, but if the teachers are not there to teach our young people in the classroom the whole exercise is somewhat futile.
This headline grabbing announcement can only serve to damage further morale in all our schools across the country. Even the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, not himself averse to criticising teachers, has been quick to condemn the initiative pointing to the sustained improvement overall in the maintained sector in recent decades for all pupils. So who would want to be a teacher when politicians see education as useful tool to further their own personal agenda? And at a time when the teaching profession is not really valued as it should be by the government for the vital work they are engaged in?
So instead of pandering to the urban myths around educational success, Justine Greening, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, must focus on the what really needs to be addressed in education. There should be unequivocal support for teachers and a commitment to making the profession a desirable option once again for graduates. A comment from a Mathematics don in Cambridge summed up the situation rather pithily. Whilst in the past, there were always graduates considering entering teaching, his recent experience was that there was little if any interest in the profession. Why be a teacher? Until the government can answer that question we face a very uncertain future with a ticking time bomb about to explode in our schools.
Yesterday afternoon I observed a Year 10 History lesson on the origins of the Cold War. The teacher introduced the lesson with the inclusion of a speech by Winston Churchill given in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Churchill, who had led his country successfully through a devastating war, outlined his vision for the future which put an end to conflict in Europe:
“Yet all the while there is a remedy which, if it were generally and spontaneously adopted, would as if by a miracle transform the whole scene, and would in a few years make all Europe, or the greater part of it, as free and as happy as Switzerland is today. What is this sovereign remedy? It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
Thus this class of young people received an insight into the concept behind the European Union on the day our nation had decided to leave it. These young students of History also knew that they were witnesses to a important moment in History of our nation. And I think it is fair to say that they are troubled.
When I arrived at school yesterday the sense of shock at the decision of the referendum was palpable. Students of different ages were debating what Brexit meant for them. I heard time and time again during the course of the day the strong sense of injustice – that they had no voice in a decision which will affect the rest of their lives. They raised concerns about a range of issues. Being in Cambridge, an international city, our community is diverse with a large number of students’ families coming from different parts of the world. So did the vote mean they were less welcome in our country? Those who were looking to Europe as a university destination wondered what now? More generally the strong sense of identifying with Europe and having a globally connected mindset seemed to them to be at variance with our possible future. As a school, we offer a choice of five modern languages for a reason.
Clearly the younger generation have a fundamentally different outlook to older voters. Indeed, we know that three quarters of 18-24 year olds voted to remain in the EU. Our politicians, in the months and years ahead, must be mindful of this generational divide. And educators need to reflect on what Brexit means for schools. The future is not pre-ordained. There is no reason why we should not remain globally connected and globally minded. And our young people need to be prepared to be active citizens nationally and internationally.
Educationally the narrow focus on qualifications, the idée fixe of the current government, is not the best preparation for life in this globalised society. The facility to pass a test is entirely different from having the capacity to thrive and prosper, to make a meaningful contribution to society and to respond to the demands of a world where change is, if anything, accelerating. I lead a group of schools which educates young people from the ages of 3-18 and their education for me, as for every school leader, is a solemn responsibility. We have a duty to educate our young people for the world they live in rather than the world their elders grew up in. Yes, we offer a rigorous academic education of which the Education Secretary would be proud. However, we are committed to ensuring the curriculum offers breadth and depth. We value not just the examined life but also the unexamined life. For us, we are about educating individuals not just cohorts because it is individuals who make the difference.
The reason I am optimistic about the future is because of our young people. I believe in them. Let’s ensure we equip them educationally to live a life worth living in our globally connected world.