What is the purpose of schools?

What is the purpose of education?

What is your definition of student achievement that drives the work of your leadership team?

These are useful questions to consider when reviewing the vision and mission of your own school.

Few would argue with the widely shared ambition to continue to raise the bar and improve academic standards, supporting young people on their journey to thrive in adult life and in the workplace. However, a definition of educational outcomes and a criteria for success that places a dominance on academic progress can present challenges to models of schooling grounded in human development. Education is about more than the flight towards academic success and employment. It is, at its heart, about human flourishing.

Two activators angage staff with definitions of education to start a conversation. This page then contains a collection of essays to encourage you to reflect as a school on the purpose of education.

Activator: Quilt of Quotes

  • Individually read each of the following quotes.Try to read everyone. Then choose the quote that most speaks to you.
  • Table groups - each person picks a relevant quote. Tell “story” and significance to rest of group and explain how it exemplifies current and future practice.
  • Have a group discussion around the quotes. Which themes come out of your choices – how do the quotes shape your life, how may they affect your work?

The Quotes

Education is soul crafting. (Cornel West)

A road on which children embarked when they first went to school and down which they all walked towards the goals of competence, independence and imaginative pleasure. (Baroness Warnock)

A teacher affects eternity; no one can tell where his influence stops. (Henry Adams)

The great aim of education is not knowledge but action. (Herbert Spencer)

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another; and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the dominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body. (John Stuart Mill)

Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. (John W. Gardner)

There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live. (James Truslow Adams)

For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain. (Dorothy L. Sayers)

Education is the ability to meet life's situations. (Dr. John G. Hibben)

Because we cannot measure the things that have the most meaning, we give the most meaning to the things we can measure.(Fred Hargadon)

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. (G.K. Chesterton)

Education ... has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading. (G.M. Trevelyan)

Education is understanding relationships. (George Washington Carver)

Reflection:

To get a discussion started read Nick Alchin's blog Schools, Happiness and Flourishing in which he explores the concept of flourishing, as opposed to happiness. Click here to access it.

Think piece 1: Human flourishing and educational leadership
Libby Nicholas and Professor John West-Burnham argue for a more holistic view of education that nurtures the whole person and respects the unique identity of every learner.

Think piece 2: Case Study - UWC Mostar

Valentina Mindoljevic and Andrew Watson’s case study from Mostar describes a school mission grounded in a particular vision of humanity and a prophetic concept of the role of schools.

Think piece 3: Our three R’s: restlessness, reflection and rigour

In this essay Peter Green argues that at its heart education should address the formation of character through the development of the whole child. As Peter says, a complete education is one that nourishes the mind, body and spirit. "The whole child is the whole point."

Activity: Use the following Think Piece (s) to reflect on your own vision  

  • Individually read one or all of the following think pieces.
  • Individually share your learning with the group: what resonated with you? What questions did the think piece(s) raise in your mind?
  • Group discussion: Use the reflective questions at the end of the UWC think piece to start a discussion about the vision of your school. 

Think piece 1: Human flourishing and educational leadership

Libby Nicholas and Professor John West-Burnham

Most developed societies might be described as ‘school-centric’. They see schools as the key element in education and schooling as the optimum means of creating an educated society. In many ways this has led to learning being bureaucratised. Central government defines and assesses educational outcomes, reinforcing formal structures and procedures based on the assumption of homogeneous cohorts and universally applicable curriculum models and teaching and learning strategies. This has very clear implications for the work of school leaders in terms of the definition of educational outcomes, the focus of accountability and criteria for success.

The codification of the curriculum is one of the most significant moral statements any government makes. Ease of definition and the need for uniformity leads to the dominance of the so-called academic subjects at the expense of models based on human development and human flourishing as expressed through notions of wellbeing and happiness. All governments seek more for less, and an appropriate balance based on the relationship between efficiency and cheapness. In doing so, they perpetuate the myth of the relationship between educational outcomes and economic success.

This in turn has led to strategies that are based around the notion of school improvement, as though schools exist in a sort of cultural vacuum that makes them impervious to the range of social factors. For example Desforges (2003) demonstrates that in the primary years the family is six times more significant than the school in terms of the potential to secure educational success. Yet the focus for a generation has been on improving the school, rather than the family. In terms of impact on educational outcomes, enhancing the quality of family life is more likely to make an impact on educational outcomes than endless variations on the theme of school improvement. The tension is between schooling based on a narrow reductionist view of education, and a more holistic view that starts with the whole person as a unique individual.

Goleman (1995) famously argued that EQ is more important than IQ, Steiner (1997) argues for emotional literacy ‒ i.e., the ability to interact and engage as a more appropriate model. It could be argued that SQ (social capital, or social intelligence) is even more significant. Archbishop Desmond Tutu provides what is probably a definitive definition of the relationship between community and personal flourishing, wellbeing and so happiness.

‘We don’t come fully formed into the world. We learn how to think, how to walk, how to speak, how to behave, indeed how to be human from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. We are made for togetherness… to exist in a tender network of interdependence. That is how you have ubuntu – you care, you are hospitable, you’re gentle, you’re compassionate and concerned.’ (Battle 1997:35)

Ubuntu is an Nguni Bantu term that is usually translated as ‘A person is a person through other people’ or ‘I am because we are.’ In this worldview we can only understand who we are in relationship with other people; only achieve our full potential through that ‘tender network of interdependence’.

The research base now provides more evidence than ever before about the fundamental assumptions underpinning professional practice in education – especially with regard to strategies to support learning. While almost all schools seek to provide a range of learning experiences including the classic social, moral, cultural and spiritual, there are signs that the narrowly defined academic curriculum is becoming increasingly dominant and excluding those elements of learning that do not carry outcomes assessable according to prevailing criteria.

Understanding educational success and failure

If educational policy and the leadership agenda are derived from research, then a very different set of perspectives about the nature of the educational experience emerges. A potentially profoundly challenging perspective to the dominant educational hegemony is summarized in the following diagram:

Obviously the quantification of each element and the ratios between the three factors cannot be exact or consistent, but it does provide a framework for discussion and analysis. The crucial element of this approach is that it is derived from rigorous scientific research, which provides clear evidence of how every individual develops and therefore offers a new rationale for the nature of the learning process.

Traditionally the potential for academic success was seen as a balancing act between social and school factors – with the social dominating. In essence the nature/nurture debate has now been resolved as nature via nurture. The research led by Robert Plomin points to the need to start with the individual learner because of the impact of our genetic inheritance. He maintains that we can make even stronger assertions about the centrality and distinctiveness of the individual learner:

‘Individual differences in educational achievement at the end of compulsory education are not primarily an index of the quality of teachers or schools: much more of the variance can be attributed to genetics than to school or family environment.’ (Asbury and Plomin 2014:9)

In a sample of 11,117 16-year-old twins drawn from the Twins Early Development Study, heritability was substantial for GCSE performance for core subjects (58%) as well as for each of them individually: English (52%), mathematics (55%) and science (58%). In contrast, the overall effects of shared environment, which includes all family and school influences shared by members of twin pairs growing up in the same family and attending the same school, account for about 36% of the variance of mean GCSE scores.

‘Our evidence makes it crystal clear that treating children as blank slates or empty vessels, using a factory model of schooling, and arbitrarily imposing the same targets for everyone, are approaches that work against, rather than with natural child development. Our schools and our educational policies will be improved if they are designed to respond to naturally occurring individual differences in ability and development.’ (Asbury and Plomin 2014:12)

In essence we need to personalise educational provision in order to recognise and respect the unique identity of every learner. This imperative needs to be reflected in each aspect of a model of the curriculum that reflects the full range and potential of the human experience.

There is a very real and proper debate about the relationship between an individual’s academic success or failure and the relative significance of social and economic factors. In most developed societies negative social and economic factors do seem to be linked to perceived educational failure, and the converse is clearly true. There are distinguished examples of schools that have questioned and successfully repudiated the inevitability of failure. However it remains true that a very high proportion of those young people who do not derive full benefit from their school years share negative social and economic factors – notably poor parenting, dysfunctional communities, low social class and poverty.

‘…even if we found all the factors that make schools more or less effective, we would still not be able to affect more than 30 per cent of the variance in pupils’ outcomes. . .. Interventions will need to impact more directly on pupils’ environment and life chances.’ (Muijs 2009:96)

In essence it may no longer be enough to run a good school:

‘At present, the tragedy of school change is that only about 30 per cent of the explanation for variations in school achievement appears to be attributable to factors in the school . . . Perhaps it is now time for leaders to … exert their influence far beyond the school walls’ (Moreno et al 2007:5)

Focusing on human flourishing and well-being

Malcolm Gladwell provides one of the most compelling accounts of an effective community in his book Outliers. He describes the Italian immigrant community of Roseto in Philadelphia that was probably one of the healthiest in the USA in the 1950s. Roseto became famous when it emerged it was effectively free of heart disease and almost all other chronic illnesses, and equally free of psychiatric disorders. The people of Roseto were not healthy because of their Mediterranean diet (long since abandoned) but ‘because of where they were from, because of the world they had created for themselves in their tiny little town in the hills.’ (Gladwell 2008:7)

To understand why Roseto was so successful the researchers had to ‘look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was part of, and who their families and friends were. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.’ (Gladwell:2008:9)

The people of Roseto were physically healthy because they had very high levels of personal wellbeing and happiness and that made them socially healthy; and they were socially healthy because they lived in an effective community. It might just be that they were healthier because they were happier – which seems to be an entirely appropriate model to influence the education of children.

Circumstances appear to be even more propitious in Sardinia:

‘In Sardinia 10 times as many men live past 100 than the average. . . a sense of inclusion turned out a to be a crucial piece of the longevity puzzle. Every centenarian we met was supported by kith and kin, visitors who stopped to chat, bring food and gossip, provide personal care, a kiss on the cheek.

Our survival hinges on social interaction, and that is not only true of the murky evolutionary past. . . social integration – the feeling of being part of a cohesive group – fosters immunity and resilience.’(Pinker 2015:57)

There would seem to be a very strong case for an educational equivalent of a ‘kiss on the cheek’. There is a strong correlation between living in an effective community with high social capital, wellbeing, enhanced life chances and educational success. One of the factors that explains the success of some independent schools is the very powerful sense of community and belonging they create. If a school is an authentic community in its own right, and if it provides a range of authentic experiences beyond the confines of the traditional academic curriculum for its pupils and their parents, then there is surely the possibility that the school will help to influence the nature of the community that it serves?

There are numerous formulations as to the criteria for an effective community, and the type of community and its context will always determine the particular set of permutations. However for most purposes the following factors would seem to be relevant:

  • shared values and norms that actively inform day-to-day life
  • a strong community identity and a sense of place
  • positive social relationships, high trust and a sense of interdependence
  • open communication based on a shared language
  • a sense of equity and fairness.

Implications for school leadership

Perhaps the greatest challenge for leaders of schools and academy trusts is to develop an holistic model of education that serves multiple masters and highly varied outcomes. We understand better than ever what is needed to secure consistent and sustainable improvement in terms of academic outcomes, and schools’ academic performance is improving, albeit slowly. What is now necessary is to develop educational experiences that engage all the dimensions of the learner’s life – especially those of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged learners. Their educational potential may be inhibited if not actually compromised by the lack of access to those aspects of learning and development that enhance personal aspiration, a sense of efficacy and self-respect. Most important is the opportunity to grow in community and so enhance physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing.

For leaders this means developing strategies that address the following areas:

  • Personalising the learning experience: in effect this means starting with a deep respect for the uniqueness and integrity of each individual. This in turn involves designing the total educational experience around the needs and interests of each learner through the provision of valid alternatives and the opportunity to make personally authentic choices.
     
  • Developing personal skills and qualities: empowering learners by giving them the skills and behaviours that move them from dependency to interdependence to personal autonomy. Such skills and qualities might include emotional literacy, collaborative learning and working, self-management and crucially developing the strategies to manage personal wellbeing, and physical and psychological health.
     
  • Early intervention to prevent failure: this strategy works on the principle of moving from putting things right (finding and fixing) to stopping things going wrong (predicting and preventing). It might be thought of as social and cognitive vaccination or upstreaming (Manchanda 2013); ie, understanding the impact of cause and effect and looking upstream to understand what is causing illness and failure. For example,educational success is significantly determined by literacy. Exposure to language and conversation at an early age is far more effective than remedial strategies later in childhood.
     
  • Developing the school as an authentic community; as was discussed previously with the examples of Roseto and Sardinia, social context is a vital component of human flourishing. Even if children come from highly dysfunctional communities there is still the very real possibility of learning to live in community in school. Many schools, especially secondary schools, are effectively modelled on organisational structures and roles. There is a case for exploring what it might mean to develop schools as communities – possibly taking the village as a model. This might involve learning in family size groups, all-through education, progressing on the basis of stage not age, and sharing in a wide range of social activities and a sense of identity and common purpose.
     
  • Designing an integrated and holistic curriculum: traditionally a curriculum refers to the subjects taught in schools. However it might be more appropriate in the context of this discussion to explore the usage in terms of curriculum vitae – ‘the course of my life’. The curriculum has to be seen as the total potential life experiences of the learner, rather than narrowly defined academic subjects. This approach would integrate the various points made above. In essence there has to be movement towards creating a community in which learners work collaboratively to solve problems.

All of these points will only work if they apply equally to all members of the school community, irrespective of age or status; and if school and trust leaders model in their own working lives the centrality of flourishing, wellbeing and so happiness. The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca talks of our duty to ‘cultivate humanity’ – there is perhaps no better summary of the search for wellbeing and human flourishing, nor a more precise injunction to educational leaders debating their core purpose.

References

Asbury K and Plomin R (2014) G is for Genes Chichester Wiley Blackwell

Battle, M. (1997). Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

Desforges, C. (2003) The impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: A Literature Review Research Report RR433 London, Department for Education and Skills p.21

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. London: Allen Lane.

Manchanda R (2013) What makes us get sick – look upstream https://www.ted.com/talks/rishi_manchanda_what_makes_us_get_sick_look_upstream?language=en

Moreno, M., Mulford, B., and Hargreaves, A. (2007) Trusting Leadership: From Standards to Social Capital. Nottingham: NCSL. P.5

Muijs, Daniel (2009) Effectiveness and disadvantage in education. Can a focus on effectiveness aid equity in education? In, Raffo, Carlo, Dyson, Alan, Gunter, Helen, Hall, Dave, Jones, Lisa and Kalambouka, Afroditi (eds.) Education and Poverty in Affluent Countries. Abingdon, GB, Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2015). The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter. London: Atlantic Books.

Think piece 2: Case Study - UWC Mostar

Valentina Mindoljević, UWC Mostar Headmistress, and Andrew Watson, UWC Mostar Board Member

The United World College (UWC) Movement aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. UWC believes that to achieve peace and a sustainable future, the values it promotes are crucial:

  • international and intercultural understanding
  • celebration of difference
  • personal responsibility and integrity
  • mutual responsibility and respect
  • compassion and service
  • respect for the environment
  • a sense of idealism
  • personal challenge
  • action and personal example.

The school year 2012-2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the United World Colleges, the Atlantic World College in Wales having opened in September 1962. Atlantic College challenged the legacy of the Second World War by bringing together young people from Britain, Western Europe and North America, to live and study together for their formative years 16-19 in the same school. In time they would, it was hoped, be joined by contemporaries from the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe. The following years saw United World Colleges open in Singapore, Canada, Swaziland, Venezuela, the United States, Italy, Hong Kong, Norway and India. Along with this geographical and cultural expansion went an engagement with the issues of racial equality, human rights and third world development.

These same three decades saw the continuation of the Cold War. The foundation of the United World College of the Adriatic in September 1982, only a few kilometres from Trieste, the southernmost point of the Iron Curtain, was the UWC response. By 1990, one third of the college’s student body was being recruited from the countries of the eastern bloc. The decay of the socialist regimes of Eastern Europe, the consequent collapse from within of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 confronted the Adriatic College with new challenges and opportunities. Throughout the 1990s the college recruited and funded students from all parts of the now bitterly disintegrating Yugoslavia.

The United World College in Mostar

The war of 1992-1995 led to the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into independent republics. Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular suffered horrifying devastation – mass destruction, more than 100,000 people killed, most of them civilian and roughly 50% of the population displaced. Demographic structures of the country changed and many previously culturally mixed cities became dominated by one of the three main national groups.

Mostar, the scene of such bitter fighting and still a critically divided city in both mentality and practical administration, was at the same time a clear focus and litmus test for international aspirations and international aid. The relevance of the UWC mission in international education, the prospect of joining forces with all those who were determined to revitalise Mostar itself in the face of bitter antagonisms – was an opportunity that would carry its own message and mission.

The insertion of a United World College into the premises and the life of a national school, the students living in local accommodation and taking part actively in city life with their international composition and UWC ideals, would create a whole new dimension for the UWC movement itself and for international education as a whole.

In May 2016, UWC Mostar will be celebrating its 10th anniversary, a milestone that at one time, as the college buckled under economic, political and bureaucratic pressures, seemed an improbable aspiration.

At its heart, UWC Mostar has twin purposes. First, it is a United World College for 16-19 year olds who study for an International Baccalaureate Diploma. Second, the college aims to affect meaningful change in Bosnia and Herzegovina through education.

Just as the college itself sits on the former front line of what Martin Bell calls ‘the most consequential war of our times’ so UWC Mostar is increasingly recognised as being at the front line of the UWC movement. What really makes UWC Mostar stand out, even among other UWCs, is how the daily lives of staff and students are woven into the fabric of the town. Student residences lie on both sides of the Neretva river - spanned most famously by the Old Bridge, the 2004 reconstruction of the 16th-century Ottoman bridge. The Old Bridge has become a living symbol for the work for the college, one that reflects its mission and vision to come to terms with the past, engage with the present and prepare for the future.

The college board quite consciously encourages a local and global balance in a student demographic drawn from areas of conflict and post-conflict from around the world. Of the 200 students who study  the IB Diploma, 50% are drawn from the ‘old Yugoslavia’ and 50% from elsewhere.

In their four-bed dormitory rooms, students are deliberately placed in cultural juxtaposition. So in one room, you might have a Palestinian living with an Israeli, an American and an Afghan; in another, you might have a Serb, with a Croat, A Bosniak and a Slovenian. This simple strategy reflects the vision of Kurt Hahn, the German founding father of the UWC movement, who believed that living and working together as young people is the best antidote to hatred and the best way of avoiding conflict. There is a wonderful story from Mostar of the young Croat student from the town who had never ventured to ’the other side’ of the Old Bridge. She was taken there for the first time by her friends, a Palestinian and an Israeli.

At UWC Mostar, experiential learning comes first for students, and inspires both the subjects and the internal assessment of their International Baccalaureate Diplomas. Indeed, its IB Diploma programme is created to reflect the moral purpose of the college. Global politics, for instance, is one of six IB diploma subjects that students can take, alongside literature courses which examine identity and world views through local and world literature. Moreover, three mandatory components at the heart of the IB diploma allow students to develop in-depth understanding of what they are doing and why. First, through the creativity, activity, service (CAS) programme, students have to actively engage in a range of experiences with local, regional and global resonance. Students in Mostar work every week with refugees, orphans and minorities in the town and engage with local and regional governments, NGOs and the United Nations to share their experiences. A 4000-word research based extended essay must be written in an IB subject; increasingly students feel inspired to write essays born of their CAS experiences, in subjects such as human rights. And a critical thinking course called theory of knowledge demands that students explore multiple perspectives, enjoy the ambiguity and understand what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the ‘danger of a single story’.

In addition, staff at UWC Mostar have developed a Balkan studies programme, mandatory for all students, which creates a focused understanding of context in the town they are going to live and work for at least two years. It is grounded in experiential learning, teaches local languages and fosters understanding of the complicated narratives of the social, cultural, economic and religious history of the country and region.

Potentially most significantly, an active board has worked with the principal and staff at the school to develop a programme on education in conflict and post-conflict contexts programme to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Dayton peace accords. This hugely ambitious programme provides a challenging, transformational experience to a diverse cross section of participants from education, politics and non-governmental organisations from around the world. The programme reflects on the relationship between education and conflict, learns from conflict and post-conflict contexts in which we live and work, demonstrates how the UWC mission is ‘lived’ in Mostar, and imagines and designs strategies for education that can respond to humanity’s most urgent issue.

Being a teacher or student at UWC Mostar is an intense sensory immersion experience for people who really do want to change the world for the better.

‘Arriving here certainly was a cultural shock. All of us had to learn to live in a city full of destroyed buildings. In fact, soon we came to terms with the fact that Mostar is a tale of two cities. That there are two post offices, two bus stations, etc; that bread can be Bosnian: ‘hljeb’ and Croation; ‘kruh’.’ – Elena Garadja, first generation student from Russia.

‘The college is situated in a country deeply wounded and in a region where tensions are still simmering … the bravery of youngsters to join the adventure and to confront their prejudices, having been taught all their lives that they were different from each other … the courage of parents to go beyond their memories of the war and the associated suffering and to support their children in attending the college ….’ – Melanie Coquelin

‘Two girls, citizens of the divided city of Mostar, who previously attended the same school but were taught different curricula and never met in the school’s corridors, were also scheduled to share a room. What we all witnessed was the growth of a new understanding and friendship. They enrolled in the same university, so their story continues.

‘After watching the news on TV, it becomes even more interesting to read the names of students on bedroom doors and realize over and over again that they come from every corner of the world, in particular from the middle east and former Yugoslavia, and despite that live together and enjoy their time here, respect one another without prejudices.’ Zdenka Susac

‘I felt weak and incapable to change anything in my previous school. This was the opportunity to grasp something pure, disinfected from all the prejudices … we teach them how important it is to accept the role of an activist … the majority of our students come from societies oppressed in this or that way … those who come from the developed parts of the world learn that the world is far away from being an idyllic planet, they become ready to see and grasp the reality. And the most important virtue of our college is by far its location. This is where the problems exist and this is where the students need to act.’ – Ivana Knjezevic, English B teacher.

‘International education will remain truly relevant in the globalised world of the 21st century only if it manages to provide answers to the acute problems and questions of our time. The UWC and IB work in Bosnia has been an important opening in that direction and offers many lessons that should be taken into account.’ – Pilvi Torsti, co-founder UWCM and chair, Education in Action.

Transferable reflections

The UWC in Mostar provides an opportunity to reflect on the purpose of education in the development of human flourishing.

  • A school’s mission can be based on a vision of humanity it is trying to nurture. To what extent is your mission aligned to the view of humanity you are nurturing?
  • This vision can be articulated to all stakeholders – families, local, regional and national. Schools need not be limited to being part of the service industry. They can also have a prophetic role in society. What is your prophetic voice? Where is it heard?
  • The curriculum is built on the foundation of carefully thought through rich experiential learning experiences that nurture the heart, mind and soul. What experiences are you immersing students in? What impact are you anticipating?
  • The college articulates and attempts to address some of the most pressing issues of our age. Which issues are you trying to address? How do you encourage students in your school to actively engage with the community in social action?

Think piece 3: Our three R’s: restlessness, reflection and rigor

Peter Green, Headmaster, Rugby School

Hendiatris: a Greek word for a catchy phrase which captures three ideas or qualities in a way that gives emphasis. Shakespeare was a master of the hendiatris. One of my favourites is, ‘Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand’ (reputedly Confucius, 450BC). 

Education has become increasingly narrow in its purpose, driven by examinations, league tables and the demand for qualifications which naturally are all very important for the next stage. Students, now more than ever, must be challenged to learn and to acquire the sort of qualities that John Henry Newman spoke about: ‘the process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some specific trade or profession, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perceptions of its own proper object and for its own highest culture, is called liberal education.’ With the new rigour agenda there seems to be no place in our schools for eudaimonia (human flourishing).

I am reminded of a story that the late Stephen Winkley used to tell. When he was on holiday he got chatting with a gentleman who gradually worked out that he was a teacher. As the net of his conversation tightened it turned out remarkably that he was a former parent of his school. He was from Yorkshire, ‘Great school is that,’ said the man, ‘had a lad there once.’ ‘Oh,’ Stephen said, ‘did you, how old is he now?’ ‘Michael,’ he said, ‘he’d be 32.’ (phew, whatever happened was not on my watch). Time for some informal market research Stephen thought. ‘So how do you rate the education at my school?’ he asked. The man gave him a long Yorkshire look and said, ‘It’s a bit early to tell.’

Stephen also asked, what is it that we as headmasters treasure about the schools we run? ‘Yes it’s nice if we win a few matches and pass a few exams, preferably at a higher level than last year, but I remain convinced that in a school the successes we enjoy are small and personal, they are about the individual development of individual children. So often, flicking through those dreary descriptions of schools, one comes across stuff about developing the unique qualities of individual children, then one realises that the school believes these unique qualities are best expressed through a string of A* grades at GCSE and a string of top grades at A-level or IB.

‘In a good school we rejoice about the individual leaps made by individual children. We rejoice that Adam has learned the difference between a ruck and a maul; that Annabel now knows the difference between a demi semi quaver and a stick insect. It is little personal triumphs that make us rejoice.’

The hendriatris of Dr Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School 1828-42, represents a breadth of purpose that today’s target-driven educational context is in danger of forgetting: first, religious and moral principle; second, gentlemanly conduct; and third, academic ability. In this Arnold anticipated a very modern concern, that education should address the formation of character, going beyond an understanding of learning as simply acquisition of knowledge, and seeing it as concerned with wisdom, which, in Aristotelian terms, would be called practical reason: the ability to apply what is known in virtuous action.

We continue to encourage Arnold’s education of the whole child and want the boys and girls to become the best possible version of themselves that they can be, because we have, since the time of Arnold, opted for a quantum model. This is a model in which the seemingly separate parts function as a whole, which we like to say at Rugby – the whole person is the whole point. The Rugby ethos provides a reassurance of a complete education: mind, body and spirit.

Within the exam-driven paradigm, education concentrates on the three Rs, mistakenly known by some as ‘reading’, ‘riting’ and ‘rithmatic’ (perhaps this sums up the issues that we have with the UK education system). At Rugby when we speak of the three Rs we mean restlessness, reflection and rigour. We want to encourage a restlessness within our students and staff: it is an eminently desirable pursuit in a school. St Augustine once described the primal yearning in each of us, in his classic, The Confessions. He wrote, ‘thou hast made us for thyself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until we rest in thee.’ This is a theological point, but en route to the final rest we hope to fashion restlessness in the boys’ and girls’ characters for the here and now: a restlessness that extends them intellectually; a restlessness that points them to the ‘magis’ - the more and the good. Restlessness means that students are open to growth, vigilant and dynamic, never content simply to drift quietly in the currents of culture without making ripples. Rather they are seen reflecting, discerning, critiquing, discovering, redefining and reaching out. Augustinian restlessness is never satisfied with easy answers and existing ways of doing things, but is characterised by being ready to adapt and be an agent of challenge and change. Such people have a restless desire for rigour – they are always seeking the greater good, the deeper reflection, the better choice, the more influential outcome, the multiplier effect, the more virtuous act.

Essential then is the fostering of academic excellence and the nurturing of individual talents, equipping these young people with the tools to maximise their individual learning. Critical thinking, memory skills, goal setting and use of new technology must be blended with reflection, self-awareness and stillness to ensure that students develop robust methods in which to continue learning independently in a rapidly changing world.

But independent focus and learning is not enough. Arnold’s vision also includes ‘religious and moral principle’, which refers to how an individual interacts with the society surrounding them. Through service we aim to form young people who contribute intelligently and effectively to the welfare of society. As we know, love is shown in deeds not words. Students recognise the intrinsic altruism of care afforded by attending our school. We like to say that we are not a school of privilege, but a school of obligation. The ability to recognise the rights and needs of the neighbour or the wider community, and that they are as real as one’s own, is an essential characteristic of our service programmes.

What the Yorkshire father on holiday recognised, was that, as teachers and parents of our school community, in caring for the boys and girls we are not engaged in a process of the management of success. Rather it is one of the long-term nurture of individual plants, some of which come to maturity quite quickly and others much more slowly. Much of what we do we are in no position to measure, and there remains much which is rightly and profoundly unquantifiable – certainly in the short term these young people are involved in education.

Boys and girls must be allowed to immerse themselves into, not just their academic work, but music, drama, a rich and exciting co-curricular programme, their sport, and service opportunities. All of these should not be hindered by the current examination agenda. A wider curriculum enhances the experience for the boys and girls. Immersion in these activities becomes another start: a portal into a new way of seeing and understanding oneself, others and the world and perhaps even God, a kind of knowledge that T S Eliot might have been suggesting in Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

And as Kurt Hahn, one of the architects of the International Baccalaureate and founding fathers of the worldwide association of schools Round Square, put it: ‘We may not be able to change the world but we can at least produce young people who want to’.

Further reflections

  • In his blog Touching the Eternal John Barrell argues that "education is a search for meaning for all of us." Click here to access it.
  • "To  every  educator  across  the  globe  that  worries  about,  cares  for  and  supports each  ‘class  set’  of  emerging  chrysalises  of  potential:  The  work  you  do  often  goes  unrecognised,  sometimes  criticised  by  parents  and  politicians,  often  misconstrued  and  sometimes  rejected  by  the  emergent  butterflies  themselves.  But,  despite  all  this,  we  will  always  be  there  to  assist learners through  their metamorphosis  process,  and  watch  them  become  the  extraordinary  human  beings  that  their  potential  offers  to  our world. This  is our  purpose;  to  create  the  stage  and  then encourage  the  actors  to  step up. On to that stage and ‘wow’ their audience, in a myriad of different ways, shapes and forms. (Mark Treadwell, Global Competence, building learner agency,)

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