Finding education’s sweetspot
As a head teacher I have in my mind the picture of an ideal school: a school where everything runs according to principles and practices which offer the best possible outcomes for our young people.
In this ideal school, students would take full responsibility for their learning; their parents would encourage this and would trust and work with school to support their children. The teachers would be enthusiastic innovators, sharing their love of their subject and ensuring that all those in their care were excited about active learning. Students would know that learning involves risk-taking and failure as a route to success, and they would embrace this as vital to their progress. They would learn how to bounce back from disappointment, rather than be discouraged, how to learn from their failures and build genuine resilience. Parents would not seek to step in and solve all their children’s problems. Rather, parents would support them as they learn from their own mistakes, experience the consequences of their actions and become able to cope and manage on their own, thus developing inner confidence and genuine self-esteem.
Teachers would feel enabled to take risks in their classrooms, trying new techniques and ideas to stretch and challenge their students. They would not feel tied to the traditional grind of setting and marking endless piles of homework and assessments.
Girls in particular would be comfortable blowing their own trumpets: showing appropriate pride in real achievement and not being afraid to say so.
Good mental health would be understood as a priority for all. Students, parents and teachers would all recognise the importance of well-being and school would provide regular opportunities for everyone to practice techniques to improve their own well-being.
And perhaps most importantly of all, the young people in our care would accept that perfection is rarely worth chasing and understand why the search for perfection is often the enemy of achievement.
I want to abolish the old myth that schools must either be academic hothouses where examinations results are all that matter or alternatively cosy pastoral havens where academics don’t matter at all. There is no reason at all why schools cannot excel in both.
None of this is very surprising, I am sure you would agree; implementing it is trickier than any of us would wish. If schools could operate in their own little bubbles, without interference from the outside world, then it might be easier. As it is, we are under all of society’s stresses and negative influences and must learn to cope with these and help our students to do likewise.
Since becoming Head of Lady Eleanor Holles School, I have been on a mission to make LEH “the ideal school” – I feel sure every Head in the country is on the same mission! We are making progress all the time, despite experiencing every day the influence of external forces which seek to undermine our efforts. It used to be peer pressure around alcohol and drug-taking, now it is social media pressures to be the perfect person leading the perfect life, enabling people to act very badly seemingly without consequence. It is truly shocking, and a genuine worry for all adults who know and care for young people. We’re trying to fight back. Our first Wellbeing Day last October aimed to help pupils find balance and fulfilment in their sometimes hectic lives. My initiative to give an alarm clock to every student in the school, so removing the need for mobile phones in their bedrooms, underlines for our students the importance of getting a good night’s sleep.
Now more than ever in the history of compulsory education, schools are being called upon to solve society’s ills – and I can see why. Teenagers spend more time in school than anywhere else. It is here that they have the opportunity to build strong, positive relationships with adults who will provide good role models (either alongside or, occasionally, instead of parents). We have to own-up to the fact that, as educators, we are perfectly placed to help – and we need to spend more time thinking about how best to do this; seeking to improve and develop our skills through good research, both academic and practical.
To return to my comfort zone and my ideal school: we will know we have hit the educational “sweet spot” when our 6th formers leave as well-rounded, well-adjusted individuals with a strong sense of themselves. They will be proud of their strengths and their achievements, cognisant of their weaknesses, accepting these with equanimity safe in the knowledge that, as expert learners, they can improve it if they put their minds to it. They will never lose their sense of curiosity and love of learning. They will have enough self-knowledge to recognise when they need help and be confident enough to ask for it. And they will have a strong sense of their place in and responsibilities to society, whether local, national or global.
LEH is over 300 years old and its crest has the motto Spes Audacem Adjuvat: Hope Favours the Bold. In more recent years, the school stated as its goal: to produce young women of grace and integrity. Nowadays, we talk about producing remarkable young women. In my book, a remarkable LEH alumna will be someone who enjoys challenges and places a high value on friendship; who take risks and becomes bold; someone who, by the time she leaves LEH, has discovered her passions, her talents and herself.
Heather Hanbury, Head Mistress, Lady Eleanor Holles School
This article was first published in The Week Independent Schools Guide Spring/Summer 2018.