The virtues vital for student futures

Neil Jones

I have been involved in education for 25 years as teacher, school leader, governor and inspector. After 23 years in prep schools, with 10 as a head, I have recently taken up the role leading a new Free School. I am fascinated by the way in which people of all ages learn and how we can blend new technology with good communication to strengthen our practice as educators.

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Image credit: Flickr // Carlo Raso. Image credit: Flickr // Carlo Raso.

Whether driven by personal belief, a sense of social justice, or by a maniacal headteacher who espouses innovation and novelty at every turn, we are all, as educators, bound by one immutable fact: children will learn something from us which will last through their lives.

Whether it’s calculus, the causes of the First World War or your very first split digraph, someone enabled you to learn these things. And while arguably calculus and relationships with the failing Austro-Hungarian Empire are not germane to your life right now, you would certainly not be able to read this without a phonological awareness of how to pronounce “germane"! That’s the ‘magic e’ to you and me...

But aren’t their futures, the unknown future of the children in this "rapidly changing" world, the same as they were for any of us? Unknown? We turn ourselves inside out seeking that magic bullet, that Holy Grail, of what "preparation for the future" actually means. “Children are growing up in a world that is already uncertain.”Literacy, yes. Numeracy, yes. Aspiration, yes. Determination to do your best, of course. Being kind to others, I hope so. Yet our children are growing up right now in a world that is already uncertain, exponential in its development and more liberal in its social mores. How do they navigate what will face them in 10, 20, 50 years beyond their time in our schools? And what do we call upon to guide ourselves in providing relevant, effective learning for our charges?

What we call upon is our own preparation for the future, delivered to us in our own school years. For me, being at Primary school in the 70s and Secondary school in the 80s, I have been bequeathed a legacy of service (perhaps from the Catholic schools I attended), of social and political tolerance (given the troubles, race riots and union action of the 70s and 80s) and of an ability to speak some Russian (given that it was the Cold War and I took Russian O-Level because it seemed a sensible choice in 1984. Oh yes, and I was at school in that year...and it didn’t quite turn into an Orwellian nightmare, despite what some of my compatriots may have thought of their school experiences!).

As a result, because we look back and wonder how (or if) we were prepared, we continue to bombard ourselves with questions about what is relevant to our children; about how we can best serve them for the future they will inhabit and will inherit.

So what is immutable? What will join the future of our childhood (ie now) with the future for our children?

Perhaps a telling example of exactly what we should be doing is expressed in a recent Washington Post article. It discusses the results of a survey carried out by Google on its hiring and career promotion record since it was founded in 1998. The National Soft Skills Association summarise the findings and in essence, what Google concluded is that “among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM skills came in 8th. The other seven qualities were all soft skills and include:

  • Being a good coach.
  • Communication skills.
  • Possessing insights into others and different values and points of view.
  • Empathy toward one’s colleagues.
  • Critical thinking.
  • Problem-solving.
  • Drawing conclusions (making connections across complex ideas).

Given the perhaps unsurprising outcomes of the Google survey and its implications, what should we be doing in schools? Far from concentrating solely on STEM-focused knowledge, we must enable our children to communicate, to accept the thoughts and feelings of others, to be tolerant and to keep each other safe. In one word: relationships. In five: to work effectively with others. To paraphrase Simon Sinek, it’s less about what, more about why we educate.

Why should we be focusing on relationships? Well, look at the most recent media coverage of #metoo, Corbyn’s anti-Semitism controversy, equality of pay at the BBC, gender, race and sexuality. All of these issues have been present in society forever, “Far from concentrating solely on STEM, we must enable children to communicate.”but are finally meeting some redress; a real difference is starting to be made to the landscape of human relationships. Our children are growing up into a world in which, I believe, their success will be built on their ability to forge and sustain positive relationships. With clients, with employers and employees, with friends and relations and partners, business or romantic.

Of course, these skills have always been valued, but we are now seeing that they give an even greater competitive advantage. Coping with mental health issues, whether you consider them to be part of the ‘anxiety epidemic’ or something real in yourself or others, requires an ability to understand your own mind and the minds of those around you. Thriving in the contemporary workplace means negotiating new ‘rules’ around gender roles, gender identification, equality and fairness. Even dating, online or otherwise, requires greater resilience and perseverance as the opportunity to start and quickly stop relationships has evolved through the 21st century.

Regardless of the ultimate career or work environment into which our children will be thrust in the future, the skills that they must take with them are common to any role. These will allow them to empathise, communicate, and work effectively and tolerantly with others, whilst also remaining confident in their sense of self and of their own wellbeing.

Thankfully, there exist many excellent ways of doing this; values-based education, coaching schools, philosophy for children, and so on. Even the broader application of autism-focused resources, such as Socially Speaking, provide an excellent platform for communication and relationship building skills. Now there is quality-first teaching.

However, what will make the difference, what will be more innovative, is the way in which these various toolkits are woven together. Below, I offer three ways in which school leaders can develop a culture which places relationships at its heart. By doing so, our children will be more profoundly influenced, as these skills are embedded in each aspect of their experiences at school.

1. Relentless Pursuit of Practice

Policy is just a piece of paper (or a digital file on the school’s website). It has to enshrine practice and not be solely an aspirational attempt to appease the scrutinisers. Therefore, the focus must be on developing practice, on creating cycles of professional development for individuals, groups and whole-staff teams that continually revisit and develop the themes of effective communication and relationships. Give everyone Level 1 coach training. Create coaching support groups. Train everyone in mindfulness practice. Develop individual in-house experts in autism, NLP and philosophy for children. Bring in visiting speakers to illuminate and inspire. And weave these through the regular round of updates on curriculum matters, first aid, safeguarding and tools and tips for the classroom.

2. Model from the top, empower from the side

It’s important for leaders to model strong relationship management. It is essential that school heads are even more proficient at this. Senior leaders, and by that I mean deputy and assistant heads, are most often the most proficient relationship managers in schools. They have to work well with colleagues, parents and children. But too often heads become (or possibly are) bureaucrats and, subsequently, relationship management becomes focused on the relationship with outcome metrics and the scrutinisers. Brave heads retain the relationship skills of their youthful, SLT selves, and are better able to recognise the skills, talents and contributions of colleagues from all sides of the school staff team.

3. Work with parents

Parents’ sole preoccupation should be the welfare and education of their own child. They need to understand how you as a school are taking this individual and enabling them to thrive alongside other children who vary in ability, need, background and behaviour. Parents deserve to understand how we do this, and not perpetuate the ‘black box’ myth of schools. We aren’t impenetrable, inimitable institutions; we need to allow a permeability to the boundaries and by osmosis influence parents to take up the school’s culture and ethos and reinforce its values in the home.

Moving forward

In summary, you can plan a curriculum. You can plan and design a scheme of work. But success for our children's futures stems from the embrace of a framework and school culture that is founded on language, communication and the embedding of values. The Ancient Greeks taught us that our cultural values are built on four cardinal virtues. These virtues are immutable, innate in all humanity. Therefore, if we lead with, teach with and educate for temperance, prudence, courage and justice, our children will be well prepared for whatever their future may bring them.

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