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Headmaster's Blog

"Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others" – Winston Churchill

When schools reflect on what ‘defines’ them, the starting point for that process is crucial; it sets out a marker for what is important to that establishment and asserts to the families looking in at them, what virtues they wish to see most strongly exhibited in their pupils. Many schools will extol the virtues that we definitely want to see, the virtues that we encourage in our children at home; virtues such as compassion, ambition, aspiration, thoughtfulness, kindness, consideration will rightly, and commendably, feature in the values and ethos statements. There is nothing wrong with any of these, indeed these are virtues that you should be looking for in a school, but above all else, I would encourage you to look for schools that put courage at the heart of what they stand for – for themselves and for their pupils.

In 1931 Winston Churchill wrote an article about King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and the piece included Churchill’s cogent remark about courage.

Men and kings must be judged in the testing moments of their lives. Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others. Courage, physical and moral, King Alfonso has proved on every occasion of personal danger or political stress. Many years ago, in the face of a difficult situation, Alfonso made the proud declaration, no easy boast in Spain, “I was born on the throne, I shall die on it.”

The crux of the quote is the second sentence which itself is thought to have been contemporised from words said by Samuel Johnson in 1775 when he was talking about public speaking. I suspect Johnson was commenting on how public speaking requires considerable courage and with courage comes a sense of belief, confidence and an intrinsic understanding of what is right and wrong and values by which to live by.

From the moment children start in a school, whatever their age, you want them to be encouraged to be courageous in all that they do. That first assembly or Form time, as the children are brought together for the first time, is about building within them an expectation of what they might be able to achieve that day, that week, that term and that year with the challenge to seize every opportunity to discover something new about themselves. If there is any sense that complacency might be allowed, that the children might feel that school life is just a continuation of what is familiar and comfortable, they will never fulfil the potential that lies within and that would be a tragedy. And in presenting this challenge, it is so important that it is not with a specific academic focus; if it is in academia that a child derives excitement in discovering their talents then that is wonderful but it is just as wonderful if it comes from music, drama, art, sport or something completely ‘out there’ that you and I might not even consider. I remember a pupil whose great dream was to learn to fly and he achieved his first solo flight on the day he turned 16 – incredible. For another it was an intense curiosity of nature that had him digging in his garden and already, at the age of just 5, he was reconstructing the skeleton of a fox that he had unearthed and from that experience emanated an ongoing interest in the living (and not so living!) world and passion for the environment. The skeleton is now taking pride of place in a display cabinet in his home!

If you were to ask any of the pupils in the school, what our mantra was, they would ‘hopefully’ all respond immediately with “Better today than yesterday, better tomorrow than today” and that is what every school should be promoting – that idea of small incremental gains that over the course of time will have a profound impact on shaping every individual (and establishment) and establish that growth mindset that is so crucial to success and fulfilment in life.

There should never be any limitations to children about what talents and passions they might wish to pursue and the best schools will stand out for the frequency with which they have ‘unique’ pupils who have had the freedom to ‘discover’ themselves. A good school seeks to be a facilitator rather than tell families what their children should be. Now that may not be for every family, and I am all too aware of those families who have planned out their children’s future for them. Many of those children go onto achieve incredible accomplishments but one can’t help but wonder that if they could do so well in something where they had little choice, what might they have gone on to do if they had been given the freedom to put that ability into something about which they were uniquely passionate and whether their curiosity could have led to one of those great discoveries which future generations would have looked back upon with awe and wonder. It is perhaps the greatest privilege that schools have to be able to work with young minds and take their dreams and help them turn them into reality. As we get older in life, it is too often the case that dreams remain just that and we lack the self-belief and drive to make them happen but when children are young, never tell them something is impossible because if anyone can make the impossible possible, it will be them. It was Audrey Hepburn who said “Nothing is impossible; the word itself says I’m possible”, something that as adults we perhaps, regrettably, too readily forget.

I alluded earlier to the importance of that first time when the children come together. Whilst every child will have talents unique to them, getting them excited as a group about that desire to discover those talents, is what will spur them on to bring out the best in each other. Journeys of discovery are rarely achieved alone and embracing a challenge will also require the courage to seek and accept the support of others along the way. Those classmates (and teachers) are so important in bringing out the best in one another and sharing a sense of ambition that will spur each other on.

In bringing out the best in each other, a test of a school is its openness to criticism. As teachers, part of our role is to be critical friends to the children and it is just as important that the teachers have the courage to accept that they will not always get things right. In such schools, you can be confident that you will find versatility to problems and challenges and when they recognise that something has not worked and they look to find a solution and alternative approach, that is always going to encourage a progressive view on how to best educate your children. There will be those schools that are steeped in tradition and history but those traditions are not necessarily strengths if they lead to an intractable approach that keeps them stuck in ways that retain a sadly narrow view about society and reflect an unwillingness to change in a world where change is not only a positive but a necessity. Thankfully those institutions are dwindling but don’t let the name of the school and its successes in the past blind you to the possibility that it may no longer be the school that it was once upon a time. It is now those schools that are constantly reflecting on our changing society and who have embraced challenges when they have beset them, who are the schools to look out for. They will be open to change, adaptable and versatile, and understand that the education that their own teachers had when they were at school is no longer the standard that our ever-evolving world requires.

Education has too often languished whilst the rest of the world has taken significant strides forward. Look out for those schools who have the courage to be bold and different and who are closing that gap. They may not be providing the education you had at school, but then they shouldn’t be! The world of tomorrow is not the world of yesterday. I say that as a historian for whom it is part of our DNA to emphasise the importance of looking back on the past to avoid the mistakes made by our predecessors but the biggest mistake would be to repeat those mistakes and lack the courage to be different. Of course, schools need to look back at what has been done before but digesting that and reflecting on how that can shape our children’s future is the act of courage you should hope to see in the school’s leadership. Perhaps it was an homage to Johnson when Churchill said “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak” but in the very same sentence, Churchill also observed that “courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”