Attending school was never a conscious decision for the vast majority of us. Any initial protestations were swept aside by our parents’ wholehearted commitment to our betterment and their sure intent upon ensuring we received a suitably rigorous schooling. However, some young people experience very different childhoods, entirely free from the structure and rhythm of school life. The celebrated author Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho and her childhood was spent helping sort scrap metal in her father’s junkyard. Tara was not encouraged to attend school and her radical parents (Mormon survivalists) were busy preparing for the end of the world by stockpiling food and ammunition. For them, formal schooling was both dangerous and unnecessary.
Consequently, at the age of sixteen, Tara took the decision to educate herself. Her struggle for knowledge started with a determination to obtain rudimentary textbooks but it ended up with a Gates Scholarship to Cambridge and a visiting fellowship at Harvard University. In 2014, she obtained a PhD in intellectual history and political thought. Tara’s memoir of her childhood struggle to achieve an education is astounding and inspiring in equal measure. Writing of her childhood she reflects that:
All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what to do if I left the mountain, if I crossed oceans and continents and found myself in strange terrain, where I could no longer search the horizon for the Princess. He never told me how I’d know when it was time to come home.
Empowering our children ‘to leave the mountain’ is an essential aspect of parenthood. In essence, it means, inspiring them to look beyond the context of their childhood. It means encouraging them to explore a world of infinite possibilities. It means accepting that their horizons will be different to ours and that their dreams belong to them and are not ours to mould.
Tara had to fight very hard for her education and countless others before her have had to do likewise. One thinks of Malala Yousafzai who was shot by Taliban gunmen on her way to School in 2012. Rather less dramatically, the Irish author Frank McCourt was forced to leave School at thirteen and was forced to blag his way into New York University by arguing that he ‘was intelligent and read a good deal’. His struggle to receive a decent education is documented in the second volume of his autobiographical memoir ‘Tis.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights concerns education and states that:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
Bold claims but, for many, such an education remains wholly unobtainable. What is fought for so keenly by some youngsters is taken for granted by those who benefit from it in abundance. And let’s face it, as children, we all struggled through lessons which we felt were tortuously dull. Think of the teacher in D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘Last Lessons of the Afternoon’ who moans:
When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?
I can haul them and urge them no more.
It would be unreasonable to imagine the children in this particular class appreciated the gift of education and why should they? Who can forget Carey Mulligan’s extraordinary monologue in An Education when the character she plays (Jenny Mellor) tells her prim and proper headmistress that ‘studying is hard and boring’ ?
There is nothing more irritating than reminding young people how lucky they are but it is sensible to discuss with them the extraordinary value of education. It is reasonable to encourage them to have high expectations of School. Lessons should be accessible, engaging and fun. The challenge for us is to ensure that our boys and girls understand why they are developing new skills or learning about particular topics. As Jenny says:
It’s not enough to educate us anymore Ms. Walters. You’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.
So where does all of this leave us? Put simply, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that the quality of teaching at Rossall is routinely outstanding. It means ensuring that we inspire young people to become the best version of themselves because they enjoy their lessons and feel that they are making strong progress.
I always wince when I hear people quoting with some authority that Rossall is ‘becoming more academic’ not least because without qualification it is nothing more than a meaningless soundbite. What we are intent on doing is:
- Ensuring an outstanding quality of teaching
- Providing an exciting and engaging curriculum
- Inspiring young people to become lifelong learners
- Encouraging young people to have confidence in their ability to develop their skills and knowledge.
- Working in close partnership with parents to provide a context and environment conducive to personal happiness and professional success.
- Supporting high aspirations and helping young people realise their dreams
- Ensuring children are constantly challenged and not allowed to coast.
Being ‘more academic’ does not mean:
- Becoming any less inclusive
- Focusing on statistics at the expense of individuals
- Devaluing other aspects of life such as sports, music or the arts.
In short, I believe that at Rossall we are resolutely focused upon providing what parents want and what our children undoubtedly deserve.