A Miscellany of Memories – Part 7
Last week I highlighted the very high expectations ESMS staff have of our children. These high expectations were eventually formalised through the introduction of the nine Junior School Values.
I initially found the concept of shared values difficult to reconcile with the competitive instinct which is ingrained in all schools. During my first years as Junior School Headmaster I began to wonder whether there was an inherent unfairness in the way schools were run. Why was there an assumption that the ‘best’ children were those who played in the top sports teams, sang in the top choir or won prizes because they were the best mathematicians? How much of their success was due to their natural ability rather than the effort they made? Did we recognise appropriately the children who always worked as hard as they could, always tried their best in their extra-curricular activities and could always be relied upon to be friendly, kind and truthful? Even though we always told the children we valued each of them equally is that what they thought? I began to ask them and was not really surprised that most of them thought ‘the school’ had favourites who always seemed to be ‘shown off’ on public occasions.
I had always believed in competition, and I still do. I was aware that I regularly sought out opportunities for our successful children’s achievements to be recognised in the media and that I had made much of groups such as our ‘Joseph’ choirs, whose members were selected through very competitive auditions. I began to wonder whether it really was true that we were in danger of valuing children in terms of what they had achieved or could achieve rather than the effort they made. Not everyone will win awards in the fields of sport, music, drama and similar activities if they do not possess natural talent or ability – some girls and boys are fortunate to have been born with hand and eye coordination or perfect pitch and, if they work really hard to make the most of their natural abilities, they are always likely to achieve a higher level than others who work equally hard, and perhaps harder, to maximise their talents but who do not have the same level of natural ability. I gradually came to realise that it was just as important to find ways to recognise children who always tried their best and gave everything without ever winning awards or prizes.
I sometimes issued questionnaires to children as they left Primary 7 asking them to share their best moment, their worst moment, their favourite memory etc. I still remember the comment shortly after the millennium which finally made me decide that we should find a means which would enable us to recognise every child as an individual without compromising the importance of competition and the public recognition of success. One boy, when answering a question which asked him what his proudest moment in the Junior School had been, wrote:
‘The night I wore my Stew Mel rugby shirt in bed before I played my only ever game for the fourth rugby team in Primary 6’
The result of the game he played, even the game itself, did not matter much in the grand scheme of things but to this one boy it was a huge moment and would perhaps be the only time he represented his school. We needed to find a way which would ensure that he felt that his hard work and efforts were recognised and valued and I knew then with certainty that only shared values could achieve this. Children needed to be valued for the effort they made more than for what they could achieve and, if they enjoyed playing sport and worked hard at it, they should feel that their contributions were equally valued no matter what team they played in.
It was a happy coincidence that the opportunity to introduce a new whole-school ethos presented itself shortly after this particular boy’s answer had made me stop and think. It goes without saying that individual teachers had always naturally recognised children in this way, the challenge was for the children to realise that the school as an entity also reflected what they experienced in their own classrooms. I wanted them to know that ‘the school’ valued each of them and was as proud of each of them as their Class Teacher.
It so happened that the schools at the time were considering the possibility of adopting the International Baccalaureate style of education. To inform our discussions the two Deputy Heads in the Junior School, May Rycroft and Gillian Lyon, travelled south to visit Junior Schools which followed the IB system. They returned having concluded that, although we should not make any significant changes to our ways of working, there were aspects of the IB system which we should consider adopting, in particular their attitude to shared values.
If there is such a thing as a Damascus moment, that conversation with May and Gillian was my one! We had always emphasised the importance of personal values to children, and we talked about them a lot, but we had never really concentrated on a consistent, whole-school approach. This inevitably meant that children were likely to hear slightly different interpretations of values words from their teachers. They would be told about the importance of truth, of honesty and of integrity but were these the same values or were there subtle differences? May and Gillian told me that in the IB schools they had visited they were struck by the fact that the same values words seemed to be displayed in all classrooms for children of different ages. When they asked about the reasons for this approach they were told that it was to do with consistency – pupils in IB schools tend to be from families who move around a lot as parents develop their careers. The IB schools believed that consistency of values in whatever schools the children attended would help them to feel at home and to understand the culture of each of the schools they attended.
I decided there and then that we should introduce the concept of shared values for children from Nursery to Primary 7 and was delighted that my senior colleagues agreed with me. I invited teachers and members of the support staff from across the Junior School to join a working group to decide which values we should include and began a series of weekly meetings with about 20 who volunteered to take part.
To be continued ……. !