I have just returned from eight days in Italy with a group of sixth form students, and the summer holidays have begun. The week in Italy – four days in Rome and four in Sorrento – has been the one school visit I have continued to lead since I have been headteacher. The weeks is full: all the main ancient and religious sites of Rome, Monte Cassino, Vesuvius, Pompeii, the main sites of Naples and Paestum, plus some beach time. Although it feels like a bit of a personal treat, it is also for me a really valued way to get to know at least some students much better than I would in the normal run of things. One of the things about being a head is that you inevitably get more distant from the students than you are as a classroom teacher. The trip also gives me the chance to share a little of my own enthusiasm for all things classical, Italian and historical. This year we had a couple of students in the party who had themselves done a GCSE in Classics, and it was wonderful to hear them commenting with confidence on classical literature, history and architecture. There are many aspects of the school curriculum which do need to be relevant, contemporary and technological. But if you deprive young people of understanding of the genesis of our civilisation in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, and of early Christianity, you not only make poorer their own cultural life, you also limit their perspective on the issues of the contemporary world. Wandering around the ruins of ancient temples and cities, far from being self indulgent and pointless, gives you an irreplaceable first hand contact with the founders of European civilisation.
Of course, a week with a bunch of seventeen year olds is not all high minded classicism! There are inevitably plenty of nitty-gritty 21st century occurrences to deal with – not least the combination of high energy levels and natural desire to push boundaries and experiment on the one hand, combined with the occasional manifestation of the youth and inexperience of the seventeen year old on the other. It has become clear to me that offering a sixth form trip has to be about providing a loosely structured framework within which students can be challenged, have boundaries pushed and new horizons opened intellectually and in terms of stamina, and also given significant freedom to make decisions and solve problems for themselves. Realising you can do things you didn’t think you could, and finding interest in things you had not thought interesting before. In only a year’s time, after all, many will be living away from home and travelling with their own peers without even the loose structure of a sixth form visit. A sixth form visit which ‘cotton-wools’ students by compulsorily micro-managing every minute of the day cannot, in my view, be considered age-appropriate.
As far as the staff are concerned, for those who are up to accompanying this kind of visit (and not every teacher is, because it takes experience, stamina, good judgement and a bit of flair) it is tremendously rewarding and great fun. You often feel a kind of flatness for a day or two after an intense visit like this, because the constant and intense human contact and sense of being always in demand for reassurance, explanation, suggestions and medical care suddenly disappears at the end of the visit. But make no mistake: this kind of visit is also exhausting for the staff – almost more so than a less flexibly organised visit for younger students. Managing a halfway house between freedom and control needs constant negotiation and juggling. Prolonged sleep deprivation can also take its toll!
Anyway, the result was that we delivered many exhausted but largely happy students back to their families at Gatwick airport last night, hopefully a tiny bit more self aware, able to live at close quarters with their peers, more confident at travelling abroad without their families, and with more awareness and more importantly curiosity about the ancient sites of Europe and their relevance. I hope all of them – and readers of this blog – have a good summer. There will be no further postings until late August, as I am off to Turkey this week for a fortnight indulging my own interest in ancient and Byzantine sites – and of course some self-indulgent reading, eating and drinking, slow mornings and days not rigorously divided into two hour slots!