We all want and need great leaders – people who possess a vision that fills us with hope, can give us a sense of belonging and who have the ability to rally us all with their powerful speeches, evidence of trustworthiness and general clout. These days, it seems as if our nation’s leaders fall short on all counts and instead we are immersed in a narrative that reminds us how weak and needy we are and how we all need to be saved, protected from ourselves. Rather than a ‘we can do it if we work together as a team‘, we have ‘you can’t do anything, so we need to do it all for you‘ that everyone seems to love.
Compare this to war time when bombs where dropping on London: did we all just lie down and die? No. We sang songs, shared precious resources via rationing, sent our children into the countryside, turned off the lights and grew our own vegetables. Of course, it is easy to look back through tinted lenses and romanticise what was a traumatic time for so many, but I genuinely think that if we were faced with the same threat today, we wouldn’t be so communal about it all. That sense of belonging has all but been wiped out over the years and where our collective energy used to be devoted to The Team, we now expend enormous amounts of energy bickering among ourselves as we vie for the position of most put upon and discriminated against, going around accusing ‘others’ of not giving us enough special treatment or handouts to the point where people are now genuinely arguing about pronouns.
Schools, I think, are a microcosm of all this. Looking at so many school websites you will see generic taglines using one, some or all of the following words: learning, love, life, respect, achieve, together, success…..these grand statements surely can’t have much substance if the reputation of the school doesn’t back up the statement? I could bet a million pounds that if I turned up at a random school and interviewed a few parents they wouldn’t tell me that the reputation of their son or daughter’s particular school was such that all children became curious, lifelong learners. There’s only really one group of state schools with a cast-iron reputation that precedes them – the Catholic schools. Why is this?
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was very lucky to attend a Catholic secondary school. I was one of the very few non-Catholics (we were church attenders though) who was offered a chance to interview for a rare year 7 place and I glided in off the back of the fact that I genuinely loved learning, could recite huge chunks of the old King Jame Bible and also played the recorder. Sure, I had to prove that I wouldn’t wreck the academic vibes, but the majority of the school had secured a place through being Catholic and were drawn from working class or immigrant homes. However, the school’s reputation was strictly academic. We girls beholden to a higher standard and we (mostly) bought into that. So did our parents. If we didn’t, then a stern nun would remind us – we girls were better than that. It was just the way it was and nobody really questioned it; this was despite the fact that many of us had what some modern educators would view as genuine excuses to not do well academically or even ‘act out’ in the classroom and disrupt others’ learning. The culture of the school, the academic ethos and the vision unified us girls in our mission to achieve, achieve, achieve. We delivered those results and in so doing passed on the baton of the school’s reputation to future generations.
It was this very scholarly culture that caused us all to put our worries to one side, unite and work towards a higher purpose of acquiring knowledge and then going on to forge our paths in the world. Some of us wanted to be scientists, some of us wanted to be economists – whatever we want to be, we wanted to be the best. The culture of the school didn’t just cause us to invest our energies in academic pursuits, it also caused us to stop investing so much of our energy in pursuits that were, in the grand scheme of things, pretty pointless, such as treating every day like a fashion show, trying to get a boyfriend or generally feeling sorry for ourselves (and lots of us had genuine reasons to feel sorry for ourselves). Furthermore, the fact that our sights were set on achieving academically also protected us from the seductive forces of evil that were literally on our doorstep: the gang culture, the knives, the crime and the drugs.
At no point did the teachers in our school have to put on extra revision sessions or teach small groups to try and chivvy some of us girls into getting the bare minimum standard. We girls didn’t need that because the culture and reputation of the school, the fact that we were united towards a higher purpose of academic achievement, compelled us to work hard. It stopped us from bickering among ourselves and it stopped our parents from bickering with the school.
Fast forward around a quarter of a century and I’m looking around schools before deciding to apply for my first paid teaching position. One of them is a Catholic primary school and I’m being shown around by the headteacher, a small woman with a big presence such that when we enter various rooms you can sense a slight intensification of productivity as everyone collectively ups their game. As we enter the year 6 classrooms, I notice the tables are all arranged in rows so that the children are facing the front. This is quite unusual for primary schools, so I say to the headteacher that I’m surprised to see this because the children would need to focus more and work harder as a result. This was her reply (something along the lines of):
‘Well of course. We’re a Catholic school. We have higher standards and we expect more.’
And that was it really and you couldn’t argue with it. What about the need for children to chat, share ideas (and copy each other)? We’re a Catholic school. What about those children who can’t concentrate because of x, y or z reason and therefore shouldn’t be expected to listen to an adult for any length of time? We’re a Catholic school.
These two experiences lead me to think about which state schools in the UK have a reputation and a USP that precedes them such that you know what you’re getting before you step through the front door. Michaela is one such school – the vision is very clear, that academic culture galvanises everyone and I mean everyone to invest energy towards a higher purpose of academic endeavour as well as the inculcation through various ingenious means of those traditionally British dispositions – politeness as a habit, waiting your turn, thinking of others and not of yourself, thinking before you speak, deference to authority. Charter, down at Yarmouth? Even the caretaker’s on board with the vision, such is it’s power to galvanise anyone and everyone who happens to be within earshot of Barry Smith and the students (about a ten mile radius when the poetry is being chanted). What do I learn from this? Firstly, that there is untapped energy, a well-spring of enthusiasm existing with pupils and their parents that could be directed toward the higher purpose of not just academic achievement, but in being a better person and having an overall positive effect on the world (here you can see I have an interest in Confucianism). Secondly, that people, children included, need a real leader and not a manager. Finally, what is needed from this leader is not so much a narrative about how much they can do for everyone and their problems, or how sorry they feel for them and how much they want their children to be happy all the time, but a courageous narrative that is causes everyone, including the pupils themselves, to put their problems, excuses and endless bickering to one side and to start working hard towards a higher purpose.
Because, as those fearsome nuns would say, we’re better than that.
Who’s with me?