Our current educational world is obsessed with collecting data. Inspirational teachers have the inspiration ground out of them due to their time being spent providing evidence for faceless bureaucrats to generate data they will go on to describe as ‘meaningful’. The crowning glory is then to publish that data in the form of league tables which, hey-presto, then inform parents which are the best, mediocre, and worst performing schools in the country.
Yet should your choice of school really be guided by these league tables? Will your child’s happiness for the next five or seven years really be governed by the place his or her school occupies in the league tables? Any parent who has experienced their child being unhappy at school will tell you that league table placement suddenly becomes totally inconsequential when compared with seeking contentment for their son or daughter.
In addition, in 2018, the world is waking up to the damage that social media can wreak in our children, and adults are starting to fumble around in a well-meaning damage-limitation exercise, despite this brave new world being a mysterious place to inhabit for most. At its worst, the pressures of social media, whether through bullying or the need to project perfection in oneself, have led too often to depression in our young, and too frequently even to suicide.
Is the answer really ‘happiness lessons’? Is ‘mindfulness’ really a universal panacea? Should either happiness or mindfulness lessons really be necessary? Or should our schools simply value ‘kindness to others’ more than any other quality? Should not ‘kindness to others’ simply permeate every member of a school’s community from support staff, teachers and leaders through to the very hearts of the pupils themselves?
It is well known that the most content people in life are those who naturally exercise kindness towards others. In turn, it is also well known that those who are on the receiving end of kindness are highly likely to replicate the same behaviour towards others. Children who experience kindness are extremely unlikely to put others down, and are far more likely to celebrate the success and individuality of others. Being the recipient of kindness gives children a quiet inner security (aren’t bullies always insecure?) and thus a contentment about who they are, which is so important to offset the need to project perfect images of oneself on social media.
So how does a school attempt to top a league table for’ kindness to others’? It’s certainly not rocket science. Kindness to others simply has to be the sincerely held top priority. Yes, even above exam results. I have often said to my pupils that ‘without kindness to others, we have nothing that is worth having at this school’. It starts with the employment of kind staff. In fact, this is key. Yet I wonder if this even registers as an issue on most interview panels. The most prestigious prizes must be for kindness to others. In our school, boys and staff vote on the pupil who has shown the greatest enthusiasm for life, contribution to the community and, above all, kindness to others. All members of the school must believe that unkindness is totally unacceptable and act accordingly. A wider culture of trust must allow bystanders to stand up, and victims to come forward, free from anxiety. Staff must work with parents in a three-way process with children, and all parents must buy into the culture too. With only one shot at childhood, humour and a sense of fun must also abound through children’s school lives, and kindness will follow closely behind. Finally, the message must be repeated ad infinitum from the moment a pupil enters the school (by the end of the first morning being able to answer ‘what is this school’s number one priority?’), to the day he or she leaves, hopefully armed with the school’s most prestigious prize under their arm.
For all that, I actually hope that a bureaucrat would be stumped by the task of trying to put schools into a rank order for ‘kindness to others’. The irony is though that a school high up such a table would in all likelihood be a highly successful school by any other measure too, for kind children will be content children, and content children will be successful children anyway. They will also be compassionate leaders of the future. With Donald Trump leading the Western world at the present time with his less than kindly rhetoric, and with all of society’s current concerns over social media high on our agenda, surely the need for our schools to prioritise kindness to others, above all else, is greater now than it has ever been?
By Tom Bunbury, Headmaster, Papplewick School