What’s the point of school?

These were some thoughts at the start of the new school year at St Peter’s in 2018.

This is a strange question for a Head Master to ask, perhaps – but: what is the point of school?

For the grown-ups in a school like mine, for the teaching and support staff, the school provides us with our jobs, our livelihoods, our vocations and a very significant part of our life’s purpose. Every teacher will have an answer to the question: what is the point of school?  But, what of the pupils? For the 571 pupils starting this new academic year at St Peter’s, what is the point of school?   I hope that the most immediate thoughts are things like these: to learn, to have fun, to make friends, to play, to get involved in all manner of activities.

Yet, the most obvious answer is that they’re in school because they have to be. All children have to be educated as a matter of law.  And it’s a matter of law because education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It is worth reminding ourselves of this blindingly obvious truth. Education empowers and liberates human beings.  This is a fact that we sometimes lose sight of in the Western world.  We can become rather blasé.  In emerging nations, there is an insatiable hunger for education as the route to a happy, independent life.

Parents in this country have a choice as to how they would like their children educated. They can choose for their children to be educated at home.   The vast majority of parents, however, choose to send their children to some version of the institution known as ‘school’.  In this country, most children attend a school that provides education free of charge – state education.  The remaining minority of parents make the choice to send their child to a fee-paying independent school.  Like St Peter’s.

Interestingly, the word ‘school’ derives from the Greek word ‘schole’, with the paradoxical meaning “leisure” or “free time”. When school was invented, it was about putting people into groups so that they could learn in their free time.  So, right at the start, we have the idea that school is about learning and about freedom.

The Revd. Dr Martin Luther King once gave a lecture entitled ‘The Purpose of Education’. Dr King summarised what he believed was the true goal of education in three words: “intelligence plus character“.  By that, I wonder if he meant that education is not only about filling young minds with knowledge and equipping them with a range of skills and aptitudes; but that it is also about developing the whole person; shaping and nurturing the values, the beliefs, the individual character of every child. “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” (WB Yeats).

It is, of course, hard to identify a single purpose to school. Everything is important.   Our academic learning is vital to grow our own individual intelligence to its full and varied potential, to experience the delight that comes from learning new things and acquiring new skills and, of course, to strive for the best possible outcomes in formal exams.  The certificates matter: they form the passports to the next stage.  But, just as my passport is not me – which is good news if your passport photo is anything like mine – the grades we achieve are not the full story; but they do provide the keys that open doors. With this in mind, it is terrific that this summer’s exam results at both A Level and GCSE have been very strong indeed.  This school can provide its pupils with the conditions for its pupils to achieve their own personal best in exams – with the right effort – to secure the passport.  But, this is not the true purpose of education.

As the new school year begins, perhaps more than any other day, we will all of us be feeling a heady mix of hopes and fears. We human beings are made up of a shifting flux of feelings, reactions, emotions, opinions, judgements.  We carry in us a finely tuned emotional dashboard – we all have to learn to manage that dashboard.  This self-management is the most important learning there is.  Through a good education, we learn how to manage our inner emotions; how to direct our attention purposefully; to look after our minds; to control and look after our bodies.

We need to learn how to behave. We have to develop the inter-personal skill-set, the habits and manners, of a fully rounded person.  Education is about becoming the best possible version of ourselves.  It is about becoming fully human.

Thus understood, our education never ends. It goes way beyond our school years.  The point of our school years is to set the pattern and lay the foundations of our lives.

A school is a community of individuals. Every individual matters.  We want each individual pupil to develop his or her own intelligence – to grow the mind – to develop wisdom and insight. We want you to enjoy physical activity, culture, the arts. We want each pupil to find ways to explore their spiritual self.  We want you to thrive on the friendship and shared enjoyment that comes from a vibrant communal life: in house, in teams, in group activities of all kinds.   We want each individual pupil to feel valued and respected for who they are; and to grow in confidence so that, when you come to the end of your school days, you can look backwards with gladness and look forwards with confidence.

School should be ‘serious fun’. School should be about enjoying our learning; facing the hurdles we have to jump; keeping a sense of perspective; being active; trying new things; playing a part in something bigger than your own individual self; growing and staying healthy in mind and body.  A great education should instil a balance of confidence blended with humility; independence tempered by a sense of social responsibility; individuality anchored in a deep sense of communal identity.

What’s the point of school? I think that the point of school is to begin the lifelong project of educating the mind, the body and the soul.  This is the all-round education I want to offer all the pupils in my school this year.

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