In an increasingly results-driven prep school environment, both in London and beyond, parents are at risk of being drawn into the relentless cycle of tutoring, over-preparing and trophy-hunting in the desire for their children to succeed. Often the silverware and commendations are a reflection of what a child has achieved on the back of heavy tutoring and, sadly, as a result of parents living vicariously through their children. What has happened to the notion of a school being a place ‘where everybody is somebody’ and where academic excellence thrives and children reach their potential precisely because a child likes him or herself? We know emotional stability and happiness fuel the desire to learn. How do we get it so wrong so frequently – as a society, as schools, and as parents?
Recent initiatives in schools and CPD courses to introduce ‘happiness’, mindfulness and mental well-being seem to be the latest antidote to the pandemic we have created. We bemoan the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in pre-teens and adolescents yet simultaneously Google lists of super-tutors. Coffee mornings and online discussions are peppered with ‘Can you recommend a good tutor for French/Maths/English etc; our last one is really not working out.’ Or, ‘I really need our DS in the top set. He has to be if he is going to (insert school)’.
Tutoring can be infectious and an apparent cure-all – a standing item on the extra-mural outings for the week. Yet if we stand back from it all, endless tutoring is almost akin to receiving a school photograph of one’s child, with the option to tick the airbrushing of flaws. Is this not a metaphor for what the most well-meaning parents – and schools – are tempted to do: try to ensure that their children have no flaws at all?
How do we, as the most well-meaning parents, balance letting our child explore creative and sporting possibilities, whether in clubs or less formally, against the perceived desperation to start constructing the child’s impressive CV way before his 8th birthday? ‘Because everyone else is…’ is the stock response – whether tutoring for exams (or not) or filling the child’s days with every activity imaginable. Children need to be bored – and be able to find their own ways to counter their boredom, too. More-over, they need downtime. Time to do absolutely nothing. At all.
Can a school successfully integrate robust preparation for external examinations and a real engagement and a passion for the subject that goes way beyond a curriculum? How indeed does a school navigate preparation for Common Entrance, Scholarship and 11+ assessments, to reassure parents, prepare boys and girls for the next stage of their son’s or daughter’s academic journey and ensure real engagement from teachers passionate about their subject? How do we do this without watching a clock, eliminating ‘minor subjects’ from a curriculum, or teaching to an exam? It is possible but it is an art involving perspective and regular review. For me, getting the balance right at school – and at home – lies in the messages from two stories from my own school years.
The first concerns a young boy who came across a cocoon and watched in anticipation for the butterfly to emerge. Frustrated by and feeling sympathy for the struggling insect trying to squeeze through a narrow hole – and desperate to hasten the creature’s escape – the boy opened up the cocoon. What the young boy did not realise, however, was that the butterfly needed the struggle of squeezing through the narrow hole it had created itself, to strengthen its wings – without which it would never be able to fly. The butterfly lay there, immobile, its wings wet and weak, unable to fit into the environment into which it now found itself. In taking away part of the process that was so vital for independence, the young boy had unwittingly crippled the butterfly. It would never fly.
So, too, can be the most well-intentioned parental influence. The attempt to hurry through each phase of schooling and beat the mob who will take the coveted school place, drives the breaking of these cocoons earlier and earlier. All this despite the fact that any over-tutored child is obvious to those involved in admissions processes and unlikely to thrive in an environment in which he or she is not prepared. How can he or she possibly learn how to fly? At a significant cost.
The second story involves a medieval building site and two stone masons. A passer-by asks the first mason, ‘What are you doing?’ to which he replies: ‘I am cutting stone.’ Frustrated by that obvious answer, the passer-by moves on to the next mason, who replies with a decidedly more inspirational response: ‘I am building a cathedral – and this is the part I am playing to support it.’ How often do we teachers and parents step back and look at what we are doing as helping build a cathedral? How many times do tired teachers and parents mention variations of ‘I am cutting stone’?
For me, what we do in both of these analogies is clear: we allow the child to ‘break the cocoon’, so he can fly. We stand back and look at what we are building in the child – with the child as his own architect, with trained masons supporting him and sharing knowledge – and likewise, we learn from the child. We know the importance of deadlines and strong foundations, of the purpose of having a cathedral as an object of beauty. More importantly, though, we know what the child will become by building it himself, failing, succeeding and being able to reflect on the beauty of the creating – not just the outcome.
An education which encourages children to think should be a blend of cocoon-breaking, cathedral-building, problem-solving, and independent learning. With one eye on the goal, teamwork, perspective, hard work, knowledge and self-awareness are what will result in a piece of art (the cathedral) being created. Perhaps we should be focussing a little more on our pupils’ ‘to be lists’ rather than their ‘to do lists.’ The one will feed the other superbly, if we get it right. Character is for life.
Teaching children to know what to do when they face the unfamiliar – having to adapt and learning to problem-solve – will fuel their academic attainment. And that, as well as learning to like themselves, is what will make them attractive to senior schools, if indeed that is the goal, besides learning to love to learn. As teachers and parents, we need to have that balance. As parents, we need to remember that happy children learn better. Exams are never about exams; they are about thinking about thinking. When we get that right and we have passionate, experienced, empathetic teachers nurturing curiosity and intellectual growth, the results take care of themselves.
Above the door of my classroom sits my favourite quote and one which fuels just about all I do: ‘Life is short. So? Live. Love. Learn. Leave a Legacy.’ (Stephen Covey). Let’s remember those Ls; they are what is really important.