I have been employed in education as a teacher and latterly a leader for over thirty years. Given my subject is History, I have always been cautious about engaging in politics. Far be it for me to expound my views to young people on how they should live their lives. However, for the first time in my career, the moderate agenda which has acted as the lodestone for political discourse in my lifetime, is under threat. So what does this mean for schools?
I am proud to say that the Stephen Perse Foundation, the schools which I have the privilege to lead, are united by our common ethos. We believe that education is about more than qualifications. We are committed to encouraging critical thinking. “Fake news” will be interrogated and challenged. The disturbing peddling of lies by people of influence will be challenged through intelligent enquiry and debate.
We have a powerful tradition of compassion. As the Perse School for Girls, our former incarnation as an institution, we welcomed refugees into our school community. During the Thirties and World War Two, refugee children from Nazi Germany sought asylum in our city. Miss Mary Cattley, the then headmistress, would actively seek out girls amongst refugees to offer them a place in the school. Erika and Doris Rath, German Jewish girls who came to Cambridge as part of the Kindertransport, joined our school at Miss Cattley’s instigation. Indeed Doris performed so well academically that she was advised by Miss Cattley to take the school certificate.
We also believe in fostering tolerance and understanding. Never before has it been so important to appreciate the cultural differences between people. As we struggle over issues of identity, I cannot but be drawn to the views of Jo Cox, the tragically deceased MP, who observed in her maiden speech to the House of Commons:
“Batley and Spen is a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense and proud Yorkshire towns and villages. Our communities have been deeply enhanced by immigration, be it of Irish Catholics across the constituency or of Muslims from Gujarat in India or from Pakistan, principally from Kashmir. While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Educators must not lose sight of the real life imperative to ensure our pupils are equipped educationally to engage with a world where previous givens are now uncertainties. The ability to influence and lead the debate around our national values in an inclusive and positive way has never been so important. No longer can leaders of schools assume that the British Values, which schools are tasked with including in their curriculum by the Department of Education, are shared values nationally or globally.
As such, Jo Cox’s vision of society is a model and inspiration to which we should aspire. As a leader of a school, I shall carry her torch of tolerance, understanding and compassion. We may be in uncertain times but, I believe with an education based upon these principles, we can ensure that we find a way through for our young people.
As with many others, I am absolutely delighted that Mrs Theresa May, our Prime Minister, has placed mental health at the heart of her ” shared society” agenda. In particular, the acknowledgement that funding for young people’s mental health has been lost in the black hole of NHS costs has to be the first step in addressing this deplorable state of affairs. I applaud this honesty and look forward to learning what the next steps will be.
What concerns me in the positive noises coming from Number 10 is that the Prime Minister is now looking to schools to play an even more significant role in addressing mental health issues. Teachers are of course well-placed to assess their students and will do everything they can to support those in their care. However, having identified a student in need of support, what next? Teachers are trained to teach not to offer clinical mental health treatment. The hard pressed CAMHS does what it can but is drowning under the pressure of those seeking help.
I know that the reasons behind the apparent increase in teenagers struggling with their mental well-being are complex hence the necessity for professional mental health care. Yet schools have within their gift the potential to play a positive role unrelated to Mrs May’s current political agenda. Just look at our expectations of young people, the hoops we make them jump through, just to come out the other end as “work ready”. The focus on “hard” qualifications, as supported by Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, was always going to make many young people feel inadequate. The teachers tasked with getting their students through these tests have their own pressure cooker to contend with which inevitably will be a burden for students acutely aware of the significance of examination results.
So imagine, if you can, a world where schools are able to place students’ well-being at the heart of the curriculum; where educators create an educational eco-system which is about stretch and challenge but also about support and focus on the needs of each individual learner? I think this is indeed the starting point for every good school, however, the iron fist of data and centrally led targets have created a dashboard of metrics which drives the soul destroying testing agenda. With Ofsted lurking in the shadows, the measurement of success does not take into account the well-being of students.
Add to the mix the PISA tables and our propensity to beat ourselves up about our ranking and we have a perfect storm of pressure. Yet it would be prudent for our leaders to look at a critical side effect of an emphasis on testing in a leading PISA nation, South Korea. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which organises the PISA testing, knows that South Korea has a suicide crisis and that its test-centric education system is a catalyst. The government there is trying to address this.
So I urge our Prime Minister and Government to consider the mental well-being of our young people in the round. Stop thinking in beleaguered silos. Consider the experience of young people as a composite of home and school. Only in this way shall we transform their life chances and educate and support them to make a positive difference to all our lives in the future.
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.