A little while ago I had a very interesting conversation with a prospective parent. The father sought my view on the pursuit of excellence. Before answering – I think I was subconsciously playing for time! – I asked him what had prompted this question. He explained that he and his wife had recently been taken around another school and the Headmaster there had told them that he believed all children could achieve excellence in some field and that, if their son joined his school, it would be their goal to ensure that he did so.
My thinking time was now over and I responded by saying that I thought this was nonsense, unless you were prepared to define excellence in such a way that it had no real meaning. The reality is that most people live out their lives and pass away leaving no mark on history. Very few indeed achieve excellence and this should not be the goal of schools or parents. We should be seeking to educate young people so that they can live happy, fulfilled lives, based on an appropriate level of self-worth and positive relationships. I argued that encouraging youngsters to believe they could all achieve excellence was certain to make many unhappy because they were bound to fail in pursuit of this elusive ambition.
I do think that this issue is connected with the plentiful evidence of children being very hard on themselves. I was a history teacher before I became a Headmaster and I have long been determined to avoid the trap of believing that things were better in the past. That said, I do not remember my friends and I being as self-critical as many children are today. I love watching school sport but it does concern me when I see boys blaming themselves for missing chances in football matches or failing to make tackles on the rugby field. They are similarly hard on themselves when assessing their performances in concerts, plays, debates, public-speaking competitions and, of course, in examinations. I believe all pupils should strive to do the best they can but they must realise that they cannot get everything right all the time. In life, as in sport, it is true that you cannot always win and you must be prepared for the possibility, indeed the inevitability, of defeat.
These observations are anecdotal, of course, but there is clear statistical evidence regarding the mental health of young people. A survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) back in 2004 found that one in ten children and young people suffer from a mental health illness. Nearly 80,000 children and young people in the UK live with severe depression, with more than 8,000 under ten years of age. Sadly, most of us are now familiar with the phenomenon of self-harm and, according to the charity NSPCC, nearly 19,000 children were admitted to hospital in 2015 as a result – an increase of 14% over the previous three years. The factors which cause anxiety and depression and prompt so many to resort to self-harm are complex but schools have a responsibility to promote well-being as a way of helping youngsters avoid such mental health disorders.
At my own school, we have tried to raise awareness in recent years by organising two national conferences. A keynote speaker at the first event was the clinical psychologist and author of The Compassionate Mind, Professor Paul Gilbert from Derby University. As part of his presentation, he played a clip from a wildlife film which showed a herd of antelopes grazing quietly. The music changed ominously and a pack of hunting lions came into view. As soon as the antelopes became aware of the lions they started to run but, inevitably, one of the herd was picked off and brought down by the lions. At that point Professor Gilbert stopped the clip and asked us what the herd of antelope did next.
There was silence in the lecture hall until one bright spark said that she thought they simply went back to grazing. Professor Gilbert agreed and used this to draw out the difference between us and the antelope. Instead of carrying on with our lives we would have been thinking how lucky we were, that it could have been us that the lions caught, that this was clearly not a safe place to live and that we should move ourselves and our families somewhere more secure and so on. The fact is that our brains have evolved in such a way that we can think about the past and the future and use this analysis in remarkably creative ways. This evolution has, though, made us susceptible to mental health issues which do not affect other living creatures so severely. In short, our brains can work in our favour but we need to understand them better in order to ensure that they are not a source of unhappiness.
It was our work with Professor Gilbert which prompted my school to introduce compassion as a key element in the personal, social, health and economic education programme. I believe it is vital to enable pupils to recognise their worries and concerns and provide them with the tools to overcome these problems. Sometimes compassion is associated with an attitude which might be summarized as: 'There, there, never mind'. The goal should be to draw from the pupils a response to challenges and difficulties along the lines of: 'Right, I am now going to do something about it'.
We recently welcomed the Chair of the Compassionate Mind Foundation, Dr Mary Welford, to speak to Years 5-8 about developments in neuroscience and the importance of mindfulness and self-compassion. She explained to them the way in which our brains can drive us to achieve significant goals, how they respond to perceived threats and their capacity to soothe us when we are under pressure. She emphasised that it is vital for our own well-being that we recognise what drives us on, what engenders stress and the ways in which we can ease that stress. Dr Welford also spoke to many of our parents and advised them on how best to help their children regulate their drives, fears and sense of stress.
For this to make a real difference in a school, it is vital that compassion permeates all aspects of school life rather than being associated with one subject. Key messages can be imparted to pupils on notices around the school: 'Success is not always what you see'; 'If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?'; 'If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete' and that pupils should 'Never lose hope'. It is also important that teachers frame their language in ways which support such an approach. Rather than saying to a youngster, for example, that he or she has failed a French test, we might explain the need to develop greater confidence with a particular vocabulary list. They should revise it more carefully so that their knowledge can be checked again. In short, we are encouraging pupils to recognise the challenges they face and seek to overcome them in a calm, thoughtful way rather than chastising themselves and succumbing to defeatism.
We live in an era when statistically measurable targets are the order of the day but many goals in education cannot be subjected to this kind of analysis. Building values and a school ethos come into this category but these are nevertheless real and important features which people quickly identify as they move around a school and meet the pupils and teachers there. We do not expect that our work on compassion will result in an overnight transformation but if we maintain our focus on this issue we believe that we will change attitudes throughout the school for the benefit of everyone. My hope is that others will adopt a similar approach to compassion, making schools happier, more purposeful and even more successful.