Guest blog by Pete Town, Head of English
English teachers read aloud to their students all the time – not just because we love reading but because hearing adults read is incredibly important. It is just one of the things we do to try and ensure that all students develop not just the knowledge needed to read effectively, but to enjoy it and to build a reading habit. Fiction, non-fiction, short, longer, modern, classic – all reading is supportive in developing this and increasing word awareness. The educational and personal benefits are incalculable. Here are a few ways you can support this at home.
Reading is not, and should not be a chore – even if it might seem like it at first. The more your child reads, the more likely they are to improve and to find that book that hooks them in and helps them realise the joy of a good story. Talking about some books you enjoyed at school, and even sharing the reading of them is a great way to start. Similarly, books that have been made into films or TV shows can often be appealing – although I always tend to prefer the book! Don’t worry about your own reading ability too much either – we all stumble over the odd word or have to look something up occasionally and it is good for children to see this modelled.
Reading doesn’t have to be sitting silently in a quiet room with your head buried in a book. We have students read to us in the library, and reading with your child – either them to you or you to them – is a
fantastic shared experience, allowing you to talk together about the story and the characters. If there are other children in the house, they can read to each other. If you’re short for time, a quick chat about what they are reading will do! Even if you’ve not read it yourself, asking about the character or the main story will help with understanding.
If students are reluctant or struggle, building up a habit slowly is really helpful. Encourage your child to start with shorter books. Following along with a finger or a ruler is to be encouraged to help keep place. Break up unfamiliar words into their sounds. Use post-it notes or a piece of paper as bookmark to keep a note of what has happened. Audiobooks are also a fantastic way to engage those who might struggle or get distracted when reading alone. If it is quizzed, ask your child to take the Accelerated Reader quiz as soon as possible after finishing (although a book not being quizzed shouldn’t be a reason not to read it). Quiz scores are a really helpful indicator for us, you and your child: we can slowly increase the level of difficulty, support students who may not be reading carefully enough and reward those who are making progress.
Anything you can do to habituate and normalise reading and its benefits is helpful to us – even if it just a quick check-in with your child on how they are enjoying their book each day. Keep it positive and enjoyable. Have them read to you if you can. If you’d like to help us by volunteering to read with students in the library during the school day, we’d love to hear from you.
In 1991 Seamus Heaney’s play, The Cure at Troy was first performed.
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.”
These lines from that play resonate strongly with anyone who has studied the history of the conflict in Ireland, or indeed taught about it as I did in the 1990s. At that time, it seemed extraordinary that the deep-seated conflict between the Nationalist and Unionist populations of the province of Ulster, which had given rise to the 30 years of ‘The Troubles’, might find some kind of peaceful resolution. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which has been the basis of the largely peaceful politics of Northern Ireland for the last twenty years felt wholly unexpected; here was ‘hope and history’ rhyming.
I have been thinking a great deal about the state of mind which is hopefulness as we have started this academic year at Bennett, working in the face of the considerable challenges that COVID 19 has brought to us all. Indeed, I made it the theme of my opening assemblies.
My reading of Heaney’s ‘hope and history rhyme’ is of a complex interplay between human feeling and behaviour and historical determinism. It seems to me that the latter, that sense of humanity riding upon wave after wave of forces beyond control, might easily overwhelm a generation facing global warming, pandemic and international conflict. We cannot afford to surrender to this, to lose our sense of human agency and indeed of moral purpose in our lives. For us in a Christian school, this also means holding on to the belief that God has a plan for us and that our moral purpose is part of that plan.
The figure of John Hume, the Irish Nationalist who died in August seems to me to provide us with a powerful example of what an individual human can achieve for good. He was of course one of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace alongside his Unionist counterpart David Trimble.
Hume’s resolutely non-violent approach to the campaign for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland deserves our admiration. It easy to forget that he and fellow SDLP leaders were vilified by some in their own community for the approach that they took. Sinn Fein members dubbed the SDLP the ‘Stoop Down Low Party’, regarding them as traitors for failing to support direct action and the terrorist campaign of the Provisional IRA. Pictures of John Hume at the height of the Civil Rights protests show him hands outstretched in a gesture of pacifism advancing towards baton-wielding police.
The other abiding image of John Hume is of him shaking hands; shaking hands with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern; shaking hands with the Reverend Ian Paisley; shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. There seemed to be nobody with whom John Hume wouldn’t share that simple gesture of common humanity, nobody he wouldn’t countenance talking to as he tried to build trust and peace for Northern Ireland.
John Hume sadly died this summer on 3 August. In his later life he experienced dementia, that cruel disease which besets many as they get older. His life however remains a powerful beacon of what living hopefully must surely be about. It shows that being hopeful entails more than simply adopting an optimistic approach to life. It requires us to live out our hopefulness, to commit ourselves to changing our world for good, and for us as Christians to put our trust in a divine plan in which we are each uniquely treasured. At Bennett, we endeavour to foster that kind of hopeful approach to living in our students.
Growing up in the 1970s there was not the wide range of children’s literature which fills shelves today. Independent reading started with things like Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and moved on to books like JRR Tolkein’s ‘The Hobbit’. Now I appreciate that Tolkein’s fantasy world of Middle Earth is like Marmite for most people, (for the record I enjoy it on toast) but I avidly devoured the story of Bilbo’s quest to the Lonely Mountain.
For readers unfamiliar with the story, Bilbo, who is a respectable hobbit, a short human like creature with furry feet (surely emblematic of a certain kind of Englishness) sets out on a quest to a far-flung mountain with a group of dwarves. Their plan is to steal the treasure from dragon’s lair beneath the mountain. Along the way they are beset by a series of dangerous adventures through which Bilbo is forced to confront his fears and overcome them. Critical to his success and survival is his discovery of a magic ring which renders the wearer invisible.
Curiously, for a fantasy novel that features wizards and elves aplenty, there is very little mention of magic. Certainly, there are few spells cast by the protagonists. This is just one of a number of ways that the book differs from that contemporary example of the fantasy genre, JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’. Instead, the text appears to focus instead upon Bilbo’s personal growth and development. Slowly but surely the Hobbit Bilbo begins to take on leadership of the group of adventurers, particularly once the paternal figure of Gandalf the wizard leaves them. Eventually this gives him the courage to venture into the dragon Smaug’s lair beneath the mountain and so to see the critical vulnerability in the dragon’s armour.
As the Hobbit enters Smaug’s lair he makes use of his magic ring to render himself invisible, but Tolkein makes it clear that the dragon can still sense his presence. In the end it appears that it is Bilbo’s courage and indeed the very unexpectedness of a creature of his stature undertaking the task which renders his venture a success. There is an ‘ordinariness’ to this magic. It is in plain sight.
In thinking about how a school like Bennett can respond effectively to the impact of the coronavirus on our society and on education in particular, I have found the work of psychologist Ann Mastin particularly helpful. I am hugely grateful to Leora Cruddas, the CEO of the Confederation of School Trusts for referring to Mastin’s work in one of her COVID-19 briefings for school leaders.
Mastin’s work entitled ‘Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development’ examines how children facing adversity do develop resilience and that this resilience emerges not from extraordinary or heroic interventions, but rather from normal human adaptational systems. Mastin concludes that, “the great threats to human development are those that jeopardize the systems underlying these adaptive processes, including brain development and cognition, caregiver-child relationships, regulation of emotion and behavior, and the motivation for learning and engaging in the environment”.
This has led us as a school to focusing hard on trying to reproduce all of our normal systems and approaches to communication with students and their families in the new virtual environment that we are being asked to work in, or where that is not possible to find alternatives. Our intent has been to make our remote school mean the same things to our students as the physical one. Things like having a routine to a school day seem terribly important. We have worked hard, and with some success, to establish our virtual assemblies as a fixed point in the day for attendance.
In what are the extraordinary circumstances of the coronavirus lockdown one might wonder whether efforts to stage a virtual concert, or to get students to work on the skills section of their Duke of Edinburgh Award are really important to a school’s efforts? It seems to me that Mastin’s work suggests that they are. These are all part of the basic systems of our school, expressions of what we are all about educationally speaking.
Mastin concludes, “if major threats to children are those adversities that undermine basic protective systems for development, it follows that efforts to promote competence and resilience in children at risk should focus on strategies that protect or restore the efficacy of these basic systems”. One strand of this ‘ordinary magic’ that we have been trying to sustain at Bennett involves avoiding the distraction of the ‘how’ of remote teaching, whether that is live Teams lessons, or a narrated powerpoint. Instead we remain focused on the ‘what’, of well planned and sequenced teaching. In doing this we have followed the EEF evidence about remote schooling, which resonated strongly https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/eef-publishes-new-review-of-evidence-on-remote-learning/.
Covid 19 means that some of the ‘magic’ of the final term of the school year will inevitably be denied to us this year. The very real human drama of exams and their outcomes, the celebration of achievements as we close the school year. In this context, it is probably right for us to focus our attention as a school on the means to those ends. By this I mean the way in which as a corporate body, and as individuals working within a school, we provide the ‘magic’ which enables achievement and forms resilience in young people, seeing this as part of our Christian mission, doing work that has been specially trusted to us as professionals.
So much has changed since the Friday before the general closure of schools that it seems like an age away already, rather than just seven days.
It was with great sadness, of course, that we had to announce that closure at Bennett and say some very premature farewells (in person at least) to our year 13 students and some of our year 11s. Once it becomes possible to do so, we have every intention of getting these students back together to say farewell properly.
It was very moving too to come together as a staff, faced by a closure of uncertain length, to worship with one another after the end of the school day. We said the traditional office of Compline, the very fitting night prayers of the Church as we prepared to face the uncertainties of the days and weeks ahead. We rounded it all off by singing our school hymn, reminding ourselves that God is always ‘holding fast’ to us.
As we did these things, what sprang to my mind were the traditional liturgies of the Church on Good Friday, the day where Christians mark Jesus’ supreme sacrifice upon the cross. In many churches the main Good Friday service concludes with the stripping of the altars. All of the linen, decorations and candles are removed and the church is left bare. Elsewhere in the run up to Easter in Catholic churches there is the service of Tenebrae, a service whose name means ‘darkness’. During this service, which consists of prayers and psalms beseeching God for help, a set of 15 candles are slowly extinguished following each of the the readings, until the church is left in utter darkness. It is a powerful metaphor for our fallen condition.
The pathway ahead of us at present does seem to be particularly dark and uncertain. Our Christian identity as a school however, must surely give us hope in these uncertain times, stressing as it does that we are all created and loved by God.
The bare churches and the darkness of Good Friday are brought to an end in many churches with the lighting of a new fire and a single lit Paschal candle being brought into the church to dispel the darkness at Easter. Light always conquers darkness. It is a central truth of God’s created cosmos. The light of Christ’s resurrection offers us the hope of salvation, a restored relationship with God.
And what of our present troubles? Well I can’t help seeing glimpses of the light peeping through, although I am very aware that there are many weeks of challenge ahead. The applause for our NHS staff on Thursday was incredibly moving; the generous and courageous response of so many fellow Britons in stepping forward to volunteer to support the NHS inspired me; the number of parents messaging in to express their support for the school at this time has been of great comfort. These all speak of our sense of community and interdependence.
Two things though have been of particular importance in giving me hope and confidence. The first of these has been the speed with which both teachers and students have found ways to continue to teach and learn. For me, education is a great beacon and the basis for hope in our world. Those scientists finding the vaccine are highly educated people who have benefitted from their teachers passing on their knowledge.
My second comfort comes from faith. It has been very hard to miss Sunday services at church, and the Eucharist at school, but prayer and worship have continued, albeit remotely. Ours is a faith which teaches that Christ took on our humanity and walked beside us. The Church of England teaches of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. That resurrection glory can still be seen, albeit through a webcam. I am reminded of medieval churches which have a squint window in the chancel, close to the altar, so that those who were sick could glimpse in from outside.
The New Year and new decade have predictably encouraged the media in the past few days to follow the Roman deity Janus in looking backwards to evaluate the year past and to look forward in order to predict what may be coming our way. This annual stock-taking has, it seems, become something of a hand-wringing exercise in pessimism, with commentators dwelling upon our national political divisions, international conflict, climate crisis and anxiety about our well-being, both physical and emotional.
The Christian festival of the Epiphany, which falls upon 6th January provides a welcome counterpoint to such existential gloom. It is a festival of light. A star manifests the coming of God as a human child to the Gentiles, as represented by those wise men from the East. Here at last is a Saviour for the world, and the Good News is that his promise of salvation is for all of humanity.
But then there are those three gifts that the wise men bring. Gold and frankincense are just fine, but myrrh was surely a bit of a party pooper. Used to the embalm the dead in the ancient world, it was perhaps the equivalent of giving a bunch of chrysanthemums to an Italian household. It is a type, a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrificial death at Calvary, as the hymnody goes:
“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb”.
So down descends the seasonal gloom once again. But no, this misses the point entirely. That tomb and the concomitant Resurrection are precisely what brings hope to the world. The hope of a restored relationship with our maker.
So, the Epiphany is very definitely a season for looking forward. I am looking forward very much to what the New Year will bring. Like many, I have made some resolutions; some of mine are focused upon milestones in running, not least my imminent 50th Parkrun. But a wider focus for my optimism lies not in individual goals, but rather in my hope for the world in which we live. Here I tend to think about all the young people with which I am privileged to work. I genuinely see in them and their emerging character, the basis for a positive view of our collective future.
This weekend I enjoyed listening to the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, on the Radio 4 programme ‘A Small Matter of Hope’. Nelson investigated the evidence for the contention that life is actually getting better and then returned to convince his journalist colleagues of what he had discovered. Amidst the data and expert opinion, three things shone out from Nelson’s analysis which really resonated for me. He observed that humans are capable of sympathy, self-control and reason.
These three character attributes; self-control, sympathy and the propensity to reason are virtues that we are attempting to develop and habituate in all of our Bennett students. As with all aspects of their education, character formation takes time, and there are setbacks as well as important steps forward. In this context I am reminded of the Queen’s Speech at Christmas where Her Majesty explained: “…in time, through his teaching and by his example, Jesus Christ would show the world how small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome long-held differences and deep-seated divisions to bring harmony and understanding.” It is in seeking to encourage and foster such “small steps taken in faith and hope”, that when I look forward, I see reason for great hope.
“REMONSTRANCE, calm, distinct, and persevering, in public and in private, direct and indirect, by word, look, and demeanour, is the unequivocal duty of every Christian”
On 14th July 1833 John Keble thus addressed the congregation of St Mary the Great, Oxford with his famous sermon lamenting what he described as the “National Apostasy”, what he perceived as the British state abandoning its commitment to being a Christian nation. With his sermon he sought to hold both Church and state to account for this state of affairs. It has come to be described as the Assize Sermon and was eventually highly influential in re-energising the Church of England through what came to be known as the Oxford Movement.
Keble’s vision of a Christian nation, albeit one already imperilled, probably sounds pretty alien to many ears in contemporary multicultural, multi-faith Britain. The vestiges of a Christian nation remain though, with Lords Spiritual holding seats in our legislature and our Head of State, the Queen, being at the same time the Supreme Governor of the established church. Perhaps some of the most widespread and obvious expressions of a national church which remain are the large number of schools designated as Church of England schools, or which, like Bennett, belong to academy trusts owned by the Church of England through their ‘members’.
Britain has changed hugely since Keble wrote, but his words about remonstrance remain, I believe, potentially very valuable. Remonstrance, the earnest or perhaps forceful presentation of reasons, is for me how you shape minds, by offering alternative possibilities.
How might teachers and school leaders today enact the remonstrance that Keble sees as the prime Christian duty?
Early this November, the Department for Education published some new guidance in the form of a character education framework. The Tenax Trust CEO, Ian Bauckham, chaired the advisory group on character whose recommendations are the basis for this guidance. I am delighted that Bennett is included amongst the case studies of schools used to illustrate the benchmarks proposed by the document, referring to our co-curriculum provision. However, I am also rather envious of the two schools used to illustrate the benchmark ‘What kind of School are we?’ This benchmark is all about the kind of education that schools aspire to provide and the identity we form in our young people.
I’m envious because, for me, this benchmark goes to the heart of what I believe character education should be about, Keble’s remonstrance, teaching children that there is a right way of living our lives.
At Bennett we have been thinking about the purpose of the education that we offer a great deal. One of the things that is at the heart of what we aim to offer is the formation of character in young people and in particular that we enable children to use their intellect and reason to live lives which are lived for good and consequently deeply fulfilled. These ideas about character formation come to us from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Our extensive co-curriculum, with its outstanding Duke of Edinburgh Award programme certainly contributes to this by habituating service and commitment, but in fact the heavy lifting is done elsewhere, in the curriculum itself and in day to day life at school.
Both the Church and Aristotle have taught us that commitment to living your life in a way which is governed by a reasoned commitment to virtues such as justice, courage, faith, hope and charity brings the possibility of fulfilment. At Bennett, children learn from every teacher that it is commitment to their studies and resilience in their thinking which leads to success, not some fixed quantum of intelligence; thus, for example, do our students learn about fortitude and it becomes their habit through rigorous practice.
And just in case the power of the hidden curriculum of expectation and relationships is not enough to teach students about the virtues of justice, prudence, courage, temperance, faith, hope and charity, our students in year 11 are explicitly taught an RE course which focuses upon developing their knowledge of these and seeks to habituate their practice.
So if the Department for Education guidance for character education ever comes to be re-published, I hope that Bennett will have become the benchmark for “what kind of school are we?” Certainly, feedback that we get about our students and their achievements supports the notion that they are a remonstrance to our world of self-indulgence, intemperance and hyper-individualisation. On the 1 November this year I received an email from a senior manager at Virgin Media who wrote: “I just wanted to say that given the number of children on board and the obvious excitement, they were a credit to the school. The group seated near me clearly take behaviour on public transport seriously and were concerned with hushing each other and about the group’s potential disruption to passengers on the train. They need not have worried, the carriage was inevitably noisy but very respectful and I hope that this reassurance will be passed onto the students.”
To ‘remonstrate’ these days connotes a rather negative, angry telling off. This isn’t what I mean when I say that I hope that Bennett students become a remonstrance to our world. Instead my ambition for them is that they all become a benchmark of hope.
At funerals in Ancient Rome actors would be hired to wear the death masks of deceased family members to join the procession to the tomb. In this way the Roman family stressed their sense of connection to a long unbroken chain of ancestors. It was a powerful statement of where they came from and their identity. Indeed this connection to the past could even be mobilised to win public support and clients as Julius Caesar did by displaying the death mask of the populist Gaius Marius at the funeral of his aunt Julia. Being connected to one another through time really mattered in the Ancient world; I contend that it remains important today.
At Bennett we are concerned to develop young people with a strong sense that they are part of something which is bigger than themselves. We hope to help them become less preoccupied with their own individual identity and instead predisposed to look outward. Knowing that you are part of something and committing yourself to live your life in such a way that you see beyond your own individual desires and needs is a way of forming character. It also contributes to extroversion and good mental health.
Over the last academic year and into this we have sought to revivify and re-present the school’s vertical Guild system. This is not out of a desire to ape J K Rowling’s Hogwarts but rather because we think our Guilds provide an opportunity to develop shared identity and healthy competition.
The Bennett Guilds are named after past bishops of Rochester: Audley, Chavasse, Fisher, Gundulf, Justus, Langdon, Merton and Ridley were the canon that I inherited on becoming headteacher here. The expansion of the school has given me the opportunity to add to that list, first by adding Edward Talbot, a 19th Century pioneer of women’s education, and now by adding John Warner, the Restoration Bishop of Rochester. In doing so I have been very conscious of the opportunity to make new connections and links with these additions to our corporate identity.
We are delighted that the present Bishop of Chichester, the Right Reverend Dr Martin Warner will be joining us on the 30th September to celebrate the Eucharist and to inaugurate our new Guild Warner. I hope that his interest in doing so has been piqued by the shared name!
As far as I can tell, Bishop John Warner was no relation to our present Bishop of Chichester, but he was a remarkable and in many ways admirable person. He was a strong supporter of King Charles I who had defended the king against the Puritans in Parliament by publishing a number of outspoken sermons on the matter of loyalty. He was made a personal chaplain to the King to protect him from a Puritan backlash and in 1637 he was chosen as the new Bishop of Rochester. He didn’t get to enjoy this appointment for long because as England slid towards Civil War he was first imprisoned in 1641 and then had his lands confiscated in 1643. Although he managed to be freed from prison, he had to flee to the Royalist leaning West Country and rely on the charity there of fellow supporters of the King.
With the execution of Charles I in 1649 Warner found himself on the losing side and deprived of his see of Rochester. Rather than ingratiate himself with the new regime, John Warner refused the oath of loyalty and so began 10 long years of exile under Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Only when John Warner was in his eighties, with the return of Charles II and the Restoration of the monarchy was the Bishop restored to his diocese where he continued in office to his death in 1666.
One happy connection that the school has been able to make in adopting John Warner as our new Guild Bishop is with the Bromley and Sheppard’s Colleges in central Bromley. Bromley College was founded as a consequence of John Warner’s will in which he made provision for housing “twenty poore widowes of orthodox and loyall clergymen.” The original building built to fulfil this commitment still exists and provides homes for retired clergy and their spouses. I took this year’s Bennett Head Girl and Head Boy to visit them and we had the privilege of joining the residents for Morning Prayer. Thereafter we had a guided tour of the colleges and the chance to see and photograph their portrait of John Warner. We hope to re-visit them soon, perhaps taking with us a school choir.
So the inauguration of our new Guild has provided us with the chance to make some new connections and to firmly stress the web of interrelationship which we find ourselves in, one which stretches both geographically and through time. I believe that an awareness of our interdependence and that we are part of a divine plan is a powerful countervailing force against the very many conflicts that we see dividing out society at present. It is perhaps fitting then to finish by quoting John Henry Newman, who is shortly to be canonised on 13th October this year. His words about our relationship with our maker and with one another as part of a created order resonate powerfully for me: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”
Last Wednesday we welcomed the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells to present certificates at our Bennett Duke of Edinburgh’s Award celebration evening. It was a splendid event, supported by both parents and indeed the fantastic volunteers who help our students achieve the awards and on whom our programme absolutely relies. As I said at the event, our volunteers are amazing models of the selfless giving which is one of the pillars of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.
As I write this morning, no less than fifteen Bennett students are at the Palace to be presented with their Gold Awards. We are very proud of them.
Although the award bears the name of the Duke of Edinburgh, its history owes its origins to the German Jewish educator Kurt Hahn. The award was modelled on the so-called Moray badge which Hahn had used as an incentive at Gordonstoun school. Hahn was imprisoned for speaking out against the brutality of the Nazis in 1933, but he was released following an appeal by Ramsay Macdonald. He subsequently moved to this country, going on to found the famous Scottish boarding school Gordonstoun.
Hahn’s then very distinctive educational philosophy was to believe that all young people have an innate decency and moral sense which can be fostered by creating a context which challenges them to accept responsibility and to show their compassion and concern for one another.
Like many people from the past whom we hold up as models or standard bearers of virtue, Hahn himself was actually all too humanly flawed. One fellow educator who visited Hahn at Gordonstoun commented: “He revealed himself as having a fierce temper, a strong hand with the cane, and a temperament which hated being crossed. Especially damaging to my very English view, was his dislike of being defeated at any game. Hahn was an avid tennis player. But was it an easily forgivable weakness that his opponents had to be chosen for being his inferiors or else, if their form was unknown, instructed not to let themselves win?”
This said, Hahn’s legacy in influencing the Duke of Edinburgh to commission John Hunt, the leader of the first successful ascent of Everest to set up and run his award scheme has been a genuinely remarkable one. The award is now run as a programme in no less than 144 different countries. Its spread and longevity as a programme speaks to its enduring significance and power in developing young people for adult life ready to make their unique contribution to the world.
Hahn’s belief in the potential of all young people for good resonates strongly for us as a school. Whilst we tend to focus when we talk about the Award scheme on the expeditions and the attendant mud and tramping through rain-soaked bogs, it is actually the way in which the programme fosters a sense of interdependence which we ought to prize most highly. Of course that is achieved on the expeditions where young people learn to rely on one another, but it also worked out powerfully through the volunteering and service which Duke of Edinburgh’s Award demands.
In an age where national data tell us that young people are becoming less likely to socialise, to get out of their homes and to take risks, the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme provides a powerful counter-cultural antidote, which we definitely ought to celebrate. That’s why this school prioritises the Award so strongly. We look forward to even more Bennett students going to the Palace to collect their Gold Awards. The prospects for this look good, with over 200 of our current year 10 (the largest cohort ever) having just completed their practice expeditions.
The 1960s Broadway musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ opens with the dairyman Tevye singing ‘Tradition’, lamenting the threats to his domestic patriarchal control and the cultural values that he holds dear. The musical charts the disintegration of Tevye’s world with his daughters defying his attempts to control them and Tevye himself forced to leave his village under threat of tsarist pogroms. So much for the value of tradition, swept away by the tide of events and individual freedom. Tevye’s song reminds us though of both positive and negative connotations of ‘tradition’. On the one hand repressive patriarchy, on the other the rich cultural heritage of belonging to a community.
The current debate in this country’s education system between those teachers who espouse the importance of the transmission of knowledge, amongst whom I count myself, and those who favour the socio-constructivist approach to education where children are encouraged to discover and learn through deduction, has often been characterised as a debate between traditionalists and progressives, for example in this recent piece by Jonathan Simons, which celebrates the fact that there is such debate.
That label ‘traditional’, used in the context of education, deserves some careful consideration lest in accepting the category we miss important nuances both about what it denotes and connotes. Often those commenting critically about teaching which focuses upon the transmission of knowledge will use the shorthand descriptor ‘traditional’ alongside phrases such as ‘chalk and talk’ and of course references to Dickens’ character Gradgrind. These associations clearly have negative power in a community whose concern for being child-centred has long been normative.
Yet when I speak to parents and prospective parents about our Bennett curriculum, the virtue of talking about a ‘traditional’ curriculum is rapidly apparent. They readily identify with the term and can articulate that this is precisely the high value public knowledge that they know will open doors for their child. For them Matthew Arnold’s defence of an education in the ‘best of what has been thought and said’ rings true. So we probably should not be surprised then that Ofsted directly quote Arnold in their new inspection handbook when framing accountability about the ‘intent’ of any curriculum and its capacity to give children cultural capital. Indeed, I am increasingly persuaded that it is the curriculum offered by schools that is the key factor in whether or not they enable social mobility, as this research seems to indicate.
The word tradition itself comes to us from Latin. It is a so-called noun of action, referring to the process of handing something on. The word was used in Roman law to denote the handing over of an object, for example a set of keys or a clod of land as part of a transaction. On Sunday I was reminded of the significance of such handing on in the passage from the Gospel according to St Luke that I heard. Luke, opening his account of the Gospel, writes to Theophilus: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Two things in what Luke writes resonated with me in particular in reflecting about my understanding of tradition and our role in passing on knowledge in schools; his concern to ensure an ‘orderly’ account and for his account to result in ‘certainty’. These seem to me to be important tests and processes to apply to any knowledge that we teach.
The first speaks of the importance of the sequence in which we build knowledge in the mind. Order is needed so that knowledge coheres. This seems to fit with what cognitive science is telling us about the formation of schemata, where presenting to-be-learned information in an orderly way which does not overload working memory results in better learning. Of course humans through time have built such sequences and order into the discipline of subjects; teachers’ pedagogy ought surely to capitalise on that?
Luke is also concerned with certainty. Here he is clearly thinking about matters of faith which may seem alien to a discussion about teaching and school curriculum, but I would contend that this is directly relevant to the work of teachers in passing on knowledge. The knowledge that we pass on to students needs to have explanatory power. It cannot just be declarative knowledge learned for its own sake, isolated and disconnected. It must enable the development of understanding both of the world and of my part in it. Luke is also concerned to take responsibility for that which he passes on to Theophilus, “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” The transmitter must be concerned to give the best account possible as witness to that knowledge.
So what of those voices who suggest that a concern for traditional definitions of curriculum and teaching risks blunting creativity or enforcing an illiberal world view on children’s minds? My response is to point to the role of knowledge in both enabling creativity and challenging the powerful. Some of the most creative and experimental minds of the past were those who had mastered the traditional knowledge of their discipline and used this to leap forward, whether that be Pablo Picasso, who began to receive formal academic training as an artist from his father from the age of seven, or Isaac Newton who identified his debt to fellow scientists and mathematicians with the acknowledgement, “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Those icons of 20th Century liberation struggles Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi both studied formally as lawyers, using that knowledge to empower their struggle. One of the foremost champions of feminism in our public eye at present is Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her 2017 publication ‘Women and Power’, is a manifesto for the re-definition of power which uses her extensive knowledge of the Classical past to shed light on and call out the way women have been silenced.
So tradition enables us to develop knowledge and orient ourselves in our world. While it may provide us with a necessary fixed point for the departure that is our own exploration of meaning and identity, surely the greatest significance of tradition lies in the other direction in offering us a shared narrative of our common existence. This serves to show us that we are bound together in community and that without one another we are nothing. This shared language is surely vital in drawing society together? At the epicentre of this for me as a Christian, to borrow the words of the theologian Yves Congar, is a view of tradition as “the very principle of the whole economy of salvation”; such is a tradition that we should accept through reason.
I imagine that I am probably not alone in finding the recent traffic works in Tonbridge High Street infuriating. Sitting waiting in traffic, despite my best efforts to travel at a time when few others are on the road makes me feel fed up. I am sure that I can actually feel my blood pressure rising. I can see the number of unanswered emails in my mind’s eye as my mobile pings to tell me of another one arriving in my inbox, fresh delivered. The red light of the pedestrian crossing glares at me with its lambent eye in the darkness. Why do I have to wait? And yet, I have no choice, I’m part of society after all.
Learning to wait well matters. Patience really is a virtue, albeit not a fashionable one. I think that it is something that we should and indeed do teach in schools.
In teaching children patient self-control, schools are cutting across a number of forces that are currently very powerful in our culture. You don’t have to look far to find messages that instant gratification of our appetites is both possible and deeply desirable. We have designed food to be not simply fast, but even instant. Each birthday or Christmas, parents are encouraged to consider the purchase of a new gaming device whose main advantage over its soon-to-be-redundant forebear is that is much faster. 4G has replaced 3G in speeding us along the internet.
In the past, if I wanted to justify or explain the importance of teaching children patience, I would make rather uncritical reference to the research undertaken by Stanford Psychology Professor Walter Mischel in the 1970s. Mischel used marshmallows to explore the self-control of 4 year olds. He tracked the impact of this index of self-control on their lives in a longitudinal study, finding that children with high levels of self-control aged 4 went on to experience a range of socio-economic and educational advantages later in their lives. So it came as quite a blow to discover that more recent studies in the same field, for example the research by Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan and Hoanen Quen published in 2018 found that the correlation between self-control aged 4 and achievement and behaviour aged 15 was statistically insignificant. It now seems as though self-control is not the all important determinant of life success that I had considered it to be on the basis of my understanding of Mischel.
Hold on a minute though! Just because the correlation between 4 year old self-control and adolescent behaviour is not statistically significant, doesn’t mean we should right off the importance of self-control and patience to learning to operate successfully and well in the adult world. Rather the fact that some children between the ages of 4 and adolescence learn to control their impulses better indicates the importance schooling may play in this field. Indeed I’d argue it is one of a number of critical elements of character education that schools should contribute to.
Schools like Bennett, with a clear and strong disciplinary culture, teach children the importance of taking turns, listening and respecting the contributions of others. We also teach children explicitly about the significance and importance of learning to wait patiently and well, in joyful expectation.
As a Christian school we have begun to mark the season of Advent. The four Sundays and weeks of Advent are an opportunity to consider and reflect as we wait in joyful expectation for the coming of Christ. Of course, like many in the world beyond school, we understand them as part of a countdown to the celebrations of the Nativity at Christmas, but we also point to their significance as a period of Christian preparation of the soul in readiness for the moment of meeting our Redeemer. Reverend Dr Rob Marshall, speaking on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day on Saturday quoted the Benedictine nun Maria Boulding who described Advent as, “the sacrament of everyone’s longing”. This really resonated with me. Sharing in a Christian life where we talk together about the virtue of waiting well seems an important counterbalance to the forces which drive us towards instant gratification. I’ll certainly try to have this in mind as I next sit in the traffic.