Dear Three-Dimensional Learner

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As schools in England re-opened for the final weeks of the Easter term, we returned to three-dimensional learning.  After seven weeks of screen time – delivered and shared with as much creativity and energy as we could collectively command – it was a joyful relief to be back in person. 

Three-dimensional learning is, without doubt, the best way to go.  This is particularly the case in boarding schools.  

Certainly, we have shown that a boarding school in remote is possible.  Indeed, necessity has been the mother of some extraordinary invention. We have shown that whole person education can be re-invented for the screen and much can be achieved through flipped learning; break-out rooms; online challenges; virtual collaboration.  Those still not able to be with us here in Shrewsbury have continued to access Online Supported Learning; to take part in house life; to engage in a virtual co-curriculum.  It is vital that we find the best ways to stay together when we are apart.

However, what has been evidenced strongly in our most recent return to in-person learning is that the deepest kinds of learning happen best when we a real community.  That is not to say that great learning cannot happen virtually: it can. But, personal development is a multi-aspect process. Some things can be done by remote control; some things are best down hands-on – albeit at a social distance. 

What we know, though, is that a Shrewsbury Education has one-off elements that achieve full colour and depth when it happens in three dimensions.  Our culture, our educational philosophy, our unique brand of ‘whole person education’ – these are rooted in a sense of belonging to a distinctive community in a real place.

Some of the craft of teaching and learning can be transferred to the screen: we have seen this.  Teachers and learners have undergone a paradigm shift of capability over the past year.  We have seen significant gains in two-dimensional mode.  But a virtual boarding school is, fundamentally, a contradiction in terms. 

We knew it before, and we know it even more deeply now: a boarding school community is three-dimensional.  As we pass the one-year milestone of lockdowns in England, it is clearer than ever that learning in person gives the broadest range of opportunity.  In person, we are constantly connecting, sharing, challenging, transforming, enjoying, celebrating within a real community of real individuals.

It has been profoundly affirming to have you – the three-dimensional learner – back in person.  Back, we hope, for good.    

Dear Minister for Exams

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There is something in the air. In fact, everything seems to be up in the air just at the moment.  I’m not only talking about the logistics of the Summer 2021 exam session – though some good sense and clarity on that would be good. I really hope that you listen to the experts: those who teach and support children.

It’s the whole thing, really. It feels as though it’s time you took a long hard look at yourself.

You’re probably way too busy to read letters. I’ll bet you get a lot. Such as this one; or the one I sent to the paper the other day, suggesting that we have a golden opportunity to re-think how pupils’ learning and wider skills are assessed. 

Daily Telegraph, 7th October 2020

This is a big picture discussion that would need to be held across the width and breadth of education.  When GCSEs were invented, the school leaving age was 16.  Children in England are assessed by written test more than most others on the planet.  As we all know, written tests are not the only measure of a person. Time for a re-think, surely?

Rethinking assessment – a cross-sector alliance

I should perhaps emphasise that Shrewsbury pupils do very well indeed on the current diet.  Our GCSE results are excellent. We prepare our pupils well and they succeed in these examinations. In that narrow sense, nothing’s broken from our point of view.  These assessments are a significant part of the story but our teaching extends beyond the set curriculum; we aim to explore and instil a true love of learning.  Character strengths, skills and aptitudes are developed outside the classroom: through sport, music, drama, expressive arts, leadership, enterprise and adventure, to name a few. 

Learning cross-fertilises and our pupils are recognised and developed not just in the exam hall but across a wide field of activity.  This is what we call ‘whole person education’: the intellective development, which is in part measured by examinations, is allied to active, expressive and reflective learning.  The process is about becoming fully human and developing Salopian virtues that will last a lifetime.

Shrewsbury has a long history of asking difficult questions and being willing to challenge the status quo.  Is our examination system fair?  Can we influence it to be fairer, more holistic, more responsive to the teachers’ knowledge of the children– more fully human. How can we exercise our independence to provide a broad and holistic curriculum?  Recent history shows that we are seizing opportunities here: the introduction of the Institute of Leadership and Management Young Leaders Award and the creation of Shrewsbury U, for example.

I know we’re all struggling day to day. Big thinking takes time and effort – and genuine will to address issues. At a national, system level, there is a debate to be had. This feels like the time.

I have two questions for you, the fictional Minister for Exams:

Question 1: Is there a better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?

Question 2: Read Brian Patten’s great poem, The Minister for Exams? And discuss.

Brian Patten
Brian Patten
‘How shallow is the soul of the Minister for Exams?’

Is there are better, fairer, more human way to assess our children?

Dear Earth-Creeping Mind

The turn of the month was marked by National Poetry Day in the UK.  One of our great alumni, Sir Philip Sidney, stands immortalised in statue form above the war memorial at the Moss Gates entrance to the School.  Sidney was enrolled at Shrewsbury School at the age of 9. 

In his day, lessons were conducted almost exclusively in Latin; and began at 6am.  He was an exceptionally diligent and gifted scholar.  His untimely but dignified death on the battlefield at Zutphen, at the age of 31, sealed his legend as an epitome of the Elizabethan gentleman-scholar-soldier.

Sir Philip Sidney

Centuries on, and Shrewsbury School is of course a very different place.  But Sidney’s zeal for learning and his apparently immaculate manners still provide a helpful, if historic, role model to boys and girls alike. 

Sidney’s famous work, The Defence of Poesy, argues for the power of well-crafted verse.  He disdains the reader who has “so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry”.  That’s us told!

On National Poetry Day, and indeed throughout the year, I take solace and inspiration from poetry.  In fast-moving and challenging times, a moment spent in the reflective mind of another can do us the power of good.  Or as Sidney put it: “Poetry, a speaking picture to teach and delight”.

Dear Jeremiah

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You and your kind seem to be everywhere.

If we spend any time following the news media, we know how much has been said about education.  About the process of awarding grades; about the fairness or otherwise of our education systems; about the process of re-opening schools.  So much of it negative.

More broadly, the reality of COVID-19 in the UK and across the world has utterly dominated.  Understandably. And with good reason. But, this dominance has meant that we have all got used to living with some very negative narratives.    

We have been living with a pervasive language of limitation; a language of blame; and a language of fear.  This must have had an impact on even the most upbeat of people. I think we need to work hard to reclaim a language of possibility; a language of responsibility; and a language of hope.   

The language we use – the way we frame things – will have a direct effect on the children in our care and indeed all with whom we spend our time.  We need to find a way back to more positive language.

To illustrate: let’s consider the example of a child who has climbed a tree.  And got stuck.  She is getting panicked; holding onto a branch.

There is an adult below who calls up to the child. He thinks about what to call out: “Don’t let go!” or “ Hold on tight!”

Which is more likely to encourage child to cling on until she can be reached and brought safely down to earth?

  • Don’t let go!
  • Hold on tight!

Surely it’s the latter: Hold on tight!  Because negative commands and prohibitions can become fixating – paralysing even. In this particular case, ‘Don’t let go!’ reinforces the fear of falling. ‘Hold on tight!’ reinforces the hope of staying safe.

Hold on Tight!
Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

The news media will continue to frame its language as it chooses. I suspect that the negativity, the fear and the blame will continue for a while yet. Of course, there’s a lot to think about and we need to be conscious of risk. The world needs its mixture of pessimists and optimists. We need the optimists to build the aeroplanes; and the pessimists to design the parachutes.

This is a simple but necessary point about the negative effect of negativity; and the positive effect of positivity. It’s time to lift the mood, Jeremiah.

In schools, as we welcome the children back from a long time of separation, it is important for us to assume a language that is responsible – but is framed as positively as possible. Things are getting better; we are more in control. It is vitally important for the children in our care that we are affirmative in how we present and interpret daily life. 

This doesn’t mean having our heads in the clouds.  It is a matter of affirmative presentation. In education, we should be holding on tight to the excitement and optimism that flow freely at the start of a new academic year.  Even if we are starting in a time of limitation, we should focus our talk on all the possibilities ahead and let go of the negativity.

Dear School As We Disperse

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This is most of what I said to pupils and staff at our final whole school assembly of term due to the Government closure of all schools on 20th March 2020

Thank you all for gathering.  This is indeed a gathering and I suspect that some of you will be wondering whether we should indeed be gathering like this.  If you are asking this question, I would simply say this: we are a community and part of what holds a community together is being together.  We have been eating together; meeting together in House; we have been together in lessons and activities; we are together now as a School.  

So, this is a necessary whole school gathering.  There will be no Chapel or year group assemblies tomorrow morning: this is our last whole school gathering for a while.  There are some important messages to share with you all now, as we are moving into a different mode of activity over the coming weeks, and the remote learning programme begins on Monday 23rd March. 

We have been travelling through uncharted territory; and these are uncertain times.  I want to pay tribute, again, to you all for the way you have conducted yourselves, in particular over the past few weeks.  I also want to thank my colleagues, sitting behind me here, and all those in other places and roles in the School, for the phenomenal effort that they have been putting in to care for you and keep you learning.

Human beings don’t much like uncertainty.  We like to know what is coming next.  We may like the odd surprise – pleasant ones – but as a general rule we want to be in control of what happens to us.  We like to be in command of events.  However, we are all living in times where events are controlling us. 

Conscious that this makes us uncomfortable, I am reminded of the words of the great Maya Anglelou, who said: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them”. 

We are Shrewsbury School and we will not be reduced by these events.  The stage we are moving into now, means that we are going to disperse for a while.  This is something that we do every holiday: we disperse across the country; we disperse across the world.  And then we come back together. This time, as we return to our families and guardians, we are not sure when we will all be back here together.  This will become clear in time, but for the moment, we become a virtual community.  What I want to emphasise is that, even though we are dispersing for the Easter period, we are still a school, still a community.  The digital age gives us multiple ways to keep in touch.  You can keep in touch with one another.  We can keep in touch with you.  

There is great strength in community and we can continue to draw strength from each other.  However, the truth is that these coming weeks and months are going to challenge us as a civilised society; and they are going to challenge us as individuals.  Much will depend on the attitude we bring to our own individual circumstances. 

Ten days ago at a similar assembly I spoke about the coronavirus Covid-19.  My message aimed to raise awareness of the need for good hygiene; civilized behaviour, civic good sense, concern for others and a ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach.  I said that I didn’t know whether School would close but I thought it likely we would be going into a significant period of disruption, with ongoing pupil and staff absence.  I said that we will be delivering a remote learning programme so that each of you will be able to continue your academic progress and preparation for summer exams.

Yesterday afternoon’s announcements from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Schools told us two new things.

Firstly, that all schools in England will close their doors at the end of this week. This is country-wide.  It is part of the effort to limit the spread of the virus.  As a boarding school, we have asked your parents to arrange for you to be at home or with guardians by lunchtime on Saturday; many pupils have already headed home.  Let me clarify three things:

  • This is not a decision we have taken ourselves.  It’s a national decision.
  • The School will still be operational next week.  We have a duty to stay open for children of key workers – that includes people who work in the NHS, the police and other public services, for example. 
  • We are still open for all of you as we deliver our remote learning.

So, we are not in fact closing: rather, we are moving into a different mode, with the remote learning programme running all of next week for all pupils through to the published end of term.  In other words, we will keep you learning.  Clearly, all the other things we do together here in the co-curricular programme and house life will stop for the moment.  But learning, where practicable, will continue remotely. 

Secondly, yesterday evening we were told by the Secretary of State for education that the summer exams would not go ahead. 

I want to speak now to those of you in public examination years.  The Fifth Form and the Upper Sixth.  Yesterday was very big news.  I feel for you. You have every right to be disappointed; worried and confused.   You have taken a big shock.

I want you to be clear that this news landed with us at the same time that it landed with you.  We heard through the BBC.  I can share with you my frustration that schools were given no warning; no hint – in fact, quite the reverse – of this decision.  We were given no heads up and therefore no time to think carefully on your behalf about how we might support you for this news.  I would have liked it to be different for you.  However, these are unusual times. 

It looks pretty clear that exams will not happen as scheduled this summer. As it stands today, schools have been given no details on how GCSE and A Level qualifications may be awarded.  We don’t know yet how university and higher education establishments will make decisions on offers.  We will get this clear in the coming days. As soon as we know, you will know.

We also need to recognise that the Government is dealing with an unparalleled challenge and we need to accept that we have to be flexible, adaptable, calm and responsible.  We also need to ask the right questions and get sensible answers for you.

In the meantime, there is only one prudent message to those of you in exam years: please don’t let up.  The only sensible assumption at this point, even with yesterday’s announcement, is that you may well need to show your knowledge and skills in some kind of formal way.  It is hard to remain clear-headed and motivated when the finish line seems to have been moved or even erased.   But our strong advice is to keep your game head on and keep preparing.  Especially until more details are known in the coming days. 

There is a more profound reason for this. 

In the case of Fifth Form, whether or not you sit in an exam hall, your GCSE learning is fundamental to the next stage of your academic journey. You have been building a foundation, layer by layer, brick by brick, for the studies that follow.  No learning is ever wasted.  Nothing you have done has been lost. All your GCSE subjects develop skills that will then flow into your A Level studies. 

Some of you may even have been punching the air, celebrating, feeling that the pressure is suddenly off.  Please, think again.  Think bigger.  Most of you will be disappointed at the sense that you have done all the training but don’t get to run the race.  I get that.  We will continue to support and monitor your progress.   We need to see you continue to engage and to learn. 

So, my message is don’t write anything off; don’t underestimate the value of the knowledge and skills you have built up.  Don’t lose momentum.  Don’t switch off. 

Turning to pupils in the Upper Sixth:  I have been trying to put myself in your shoes.  I really feel for you.  What is the good news?  Is there any?  Well, we have been told that pupils should not lose the chance to go to university.  We wait to see what this looks like but there is a promise there that we expect to be delivered. 

Again, just as with those a couple of clicks behind you in Fifth Form, you need to keep on top of your learning.  You need to maintain momentum and be prepared.  We don’t yet know how university places will be confirmed and how assessments may be made.  It is hard to keep training for an event that has been changed, deferred, apparently cancelled.  But you need to keep in training. 

So, my academic message is this.  Keep to your academic programme.  Be prepared to showcase your knowledge.  And remember that this is also about momentum; maintaining the pace, focus and agility of mind that you will need to carry into your studies after Shrewsbury.

There is a broader social and personal development element too.  The final year of school is one of culmination; a rite of passage into the next stage; a series of markers to be enjoyed in the doing and savoured in the remembering.  It also a year of leadership; and mastery – that sense that you are on top of your game and yet with everything ahead of you. The bonds of friendship run deep after several years of co-travelling.  You deserve the right to earn the next stage in your journey; in most cases, that means a university place.   Perhaps more deeply, you only get one opportunity to leave School.  You also deserve to finish school well. 

I talked earlier about that fact that we are now dispersing.  And we don’t exactly know when we will be back in full session with everyone here on site.  I make this commitment now to the Upper Sixth:

We will get you together again; and we will celebrate you.  We will find ways for you to be together, to mark your time here.  We will see you off well and ensure that you end your Salopian career on a high.  Please, don’t feel that you need to create events and moments in the next 48 hours.  Now is too early.  We will work hard to make sure you have the rites of passage that you deserve.

It is my firm belief that the Upper Sixth help set the tone of the school.  You are leaders.  We look to you to see what a Salopian is.  You are absorbing a range of uncertainties.  And I don’t undervalue that.  But, there is also opportunity in all this.   

We all of us need to close this section of the term in an orderly and considerate way.  Staff have been working flat out on our behalf; we all want to say our farewells – our ‘see you soons’ – in the best possible way.

Turning to non-exam years – the Third Form, the Fourth Form and the Lower Sixth.  You too are facing disruption and a new normal.  Remote learning is now our key mode of delivery.  Inevitably, for a while, elements of our diverse programme and all that this means for us, are on hold.   You do need to keep learning and we will keep you on it.  This is a massive opportunity to get ahead and make incredibly valuable intellectual and academic progress.  Please, seize it. 

All of us need to seize this opportunity to deepen our skills; read more widely.  We don’t want to fritter away our time in an orgy of Netflix and gaming binges.  We can sue this time to become better thinkers; cleverer problem-solvers; more creative collaborators.  The Salopian spirit is one of enterprise and adaptation: we need to be true to this spirit as we enter a full, demanding and meaningful programme of remote learning.  

I have always said, and firmly believe, that school is not about the gathering of certificates.  It is about deep learning.  Now is the time to show this truth this more than ever.

Widening our focus back to the whole school, and hopefully without being patronising, or devaluing all the feelings, worries and frustrations you may be experiencing, I do want to ask that we all keep a big perspective.  And think of others as well as ourselves.    

We need to:

  • look after our physical health: staying active; getting exercise.  We may need to be inventive – loads of good creative ideas on the web
  • look after our mental health
    • try to avoid obsessive following of the news – I am going to limit myself to a couple of downloads a day; keep informed but deal in fact
    • Try not to obsess on a spiral of ‘what if’s’ – there are too many of them – we need to deal in the immediate; control what we can control; look after others health is good for our own wellbeing; we need to be grateful.
    • It’s important to connect with the natural world; get fresh air; sense the gradual arrival of spring; notice and appreciate things of beauty – this may sound a bit soft, but this is really important and good for all of us
    • We should use this time to try new things; read new books; do practical tasks that mean we produce things of value and give us a sense of positive control and growth
    • We need to help each other keep perspective and stay positive
  • Continue to observe the good hygiene guidance that we have all been given – especially on handwashing
  • You need to support your parents: they are dealing with incredibly heavy and diverse burdens themselves – they have all kinds of challenges to face.  You can play your part in so many ways.  Each of us needs to support our family.
  • We are Salopians and we are also citizens of a nation and citizens of the world.  We need to play our part.  I ask you to think about how you can actively help your local communities when you are home.
  • Finally, we have an overriding civic duty to follow Government directions on social distancing; protecting the elderly and the vulnerable; behaving responsibly; taking only what we need; thinking of others; and helping to slow and limit the spread of COVID-19.

So, to close.  

We are social animals and we will miss being together.  These times will test us all.  Stay in touch with each other – and with the School.

This place has been around a long while and it is not going anywhere.  I live on site and so do 70 of my colleagues.  Many of us will be in and around School throughout the Easter period.  Next week we will be delivering the remote learning programme and planning for delivery next term.  This term’s formal learning concludes at the end of Friday 27th March.  A core team will keep the school open and running as necessary and appropriate over the Easter period.  Our commitment is that the summer term will start on 21 April and that we will all re-start then, most likely with our remote learning programme.

This is a time for each of us to show what we are made of.  Our school motto tells us: “Intus si recte, ne labora”.  If right within, worry not.  It seems right to ask – what does this actually mean, now, here, in these unprecedented times?  I think that it means that we need to show character.  We need to live out our Salopian virtues: to show wisdom, kindness, courage, integrity, self-mastery, and spirit.    We are a community of learning.  And we will continue to be a community of learning in the weeks and months ahead.

I’m deeply proud of the people you are; and the people you are becoming.  Try to find opportunity in these unsettled times.  Keep learning.

I wish you and your families well.

We’ll stay in touch.

Floreat Salopia!

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.

Connecting for Happiness. Thoughts on International Happiness Day, the Eclipse and Comic Relief

Connecting for Happiness

Yesterday the sun was obscured by the moon, the temperature dropped noticeably and the daylight turned to twilight at 9.34 in the morning of what was International Day of Happiness.  As a school, we were all out, with the help of York Astronomical Society, safely viewing and enjoying the passage of the moon in front of the sun.  It was a great communal event, and a wonderful thing to happen on a day of happiness that focused this year on connecting with others.

International Happiness Day came exactly a week on from Red Nose Day 2015, which we celebrated heartily at my school, St Peter’s 3-18, with our biennial fancy dress day.  Comic Relief is a wonderful cause: it fuels – as well as exemplifies – the sense of community that exists in a thriving school.  It is also a moment when the sense of internal community is completely in step with the community at large, indeed the national community.

Comic Relief is a great fund raiser and a great connector.  Whilst it is a day of laughter and legitimised silliness, its mission addresses squarely the fact that we live in a world where not everyone enjoys the same life chances; not everyone has the same opportunities to live happy lives.  Red Nose Day is also, founded on the simple and profound truth that laughter is part of our common humanity.  Laughter is a great connector.  And happiness is something that can be grown.  Sure, it doesn’t and can’t solve all the world’s problems.  But growing happiness actively and concertedly can help.

I spoke to the pupils about international Day of Happiness, suggesting that an awareness day doesn’t imply that everyone has to be happy that day; neither does it imply that happiness can be manufactured.  It doesn’t imply that every other day of the year is for unhappiness.  Rather, it’s a day to raise awareness that as individuals, with our good will and proper attention, can make a difference to the happiness of those around us, and therefore to our own.

The more cynically-minded may suspect such positivist occasions as being naïve and feeble – mere candles held out in the stormy night.  I would say simply that happiness is about action.  And action is what brings change.

As the Action For Happiness movement argues: “After years of happiness research, one thing has proved fundamental – the importance of our connections with other people.  Yet modern societies are built as if the opposite was true. We are surrounded by people, yet we feel genuinely connected to almost none of them. The effects are devastating.  Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking; and the epidemic of loneliness is twice as deadly as obesity. We could change this in a day if we all reached out and made at least one positive connection. The best place to start is with our own daily actions. Here are five simple but proven things that, according to Action For Happiness, we can all do to help create a happier and more connected world:

  1. Do something kind for others

What goes around comes around – and with kindness it really does. Research shows that being kind to others increases our  own levels of happiness as well as theirs. What’s more it has a knock-on effect – kindness is contagious, so it makes our communities nicer places to be.

  1. Volunteer your time, energy and skills

Whether it’s a one-off or something you do on a regular basis, volunteering is good all round. As well as making a positive contribution to the happiness of others, it’s a great way to meet people, get the most out of your local area and to increase your own happiness and wellbeing.

  1. Get to know your neighbours better

Getting to know the people who live nearby helps create a sense of belonging and shared identity in our local area. It also helps to strengthen connections and trust in our wider communities and contributes to a happier neighbourhood for everyone.

  1. Understand each other’s needs

Good communication is at the heart of happy relationships of all kinds. It’s about understanding others’ needs and having our needs heard. And it’s a skill that can be learned that will help deepen our connections with the people around us.

  1. Look for the good in those around you

It’s easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted. Constant criticism can be highly destructive, but we often fall into this trap, especially in established relationships. But if we take time to bring to mind what we value and appreciate about others, we can both get more enjoyment from our time together

Schools are in the lucky position of being close, day-to-day communities where you can see the immediate effect of actions, and where the words we use can change the way we behave.  Every day gives us a chance to grow happiness around us and inside ourselves.

@actionforhappiness @yorkastro

Play Attention: playfulness and absorption in learning and living.

We must remember how to play.  So our Chaplain reminded us recently.  Total absorption in something fun – in play – is not only a good thing in itself, but play is also necessary for our well-being; play is refreshing and regenerative.

You sometimes hear people talking about ‘work-life balance’.  I have always felt this to be a rather negative & unhelpful polarisation: an unnecessary one.  The reason why I refer to school as “serious fun” is because, at best, our learning lives cater for the whole of our being.  We are not always serious, we are not always at play.  Each activity has the potentiality for the full richness of human emotions.

‘Work-life balance’ implies that the two are mutually exclusive.  Similarly, the saying that you should ‘work to live’ rather than ‘live to work’, makes the same category mistake.  Life, fun, work – surely, they should all be the same thing.  In other words, if you view life and work as part of the same whole thing, and you value play as part of work and life, there is now balance.  You are not creating a tension of opposites, but rather a forward-moving dynamic.  You are absorbed in the enjoyment of living and learning.  Forget work-life balance: live life to the full and aim to enjoy something about everything.

As children, we grow up playing and yet, gradually, the time given over to play slips away; bit by bit, the imaginative play gives way to increasingly formalised and regularised modes of play, for example, through individual and team sport.  Interesting that in many independent schools we talk about our sporting programme as ‘Games’.

I certainly don’t see a contradiction in the phrase ‘serious fun’.  At heart, all learning, all activity, should have a sense of play about it.  Certainly, some occasions and situations demand a sombre formality: Remembrance Sunday is not a moment for play.  But, most settings, even the serious, can benefit from the perspective and relief that comes from moments of playfulness.

Is there a difference between good play and bad play?  If so, what is it about good play that makes it good.  I’d like to suggest that good play is refreshing in some way.  Although it takes energy, it should also be generative.  If you play properly, it is enriching for all involved.  Play properly, I remember saying to a cousin who had stopped trying in a tennis match.  In order to give play true meaning and value, we have to take it seriously.

The Chaplain ruled activities such as computer-gaming as lower or lesser forms of play.  My instant response was to nod inwardly.  Hours of mindless semi-comatose button-pressing does not seem energising or enriching.  But when I see my son on Minecraft creative, I can see that it is a valuable mode of play.  Like most things, there is a law of diminishing returns – the longer you play on the same activity, without variation, the less playful it gets.  At the heart of play, then, is invention, imagination, creativity. And that is why play can, and indeed should, be part of learning.  Play isn’t something that can only happen in our free time; it can happen in more structured time, through our co-curricular activities, of course – this is want we might call formalised play; and it needs to happen in our learning.

Now, let’s be clear.  I’m not saying that the classroom or the lab are the same as the playground or our back gardens.  We all need to adopt a formal persona in the classroom.  We are working in a group, and group behaviour, led by an expert – ie a teacher – needs to follow formal patterns.  But, good teaching and learning allows space for the spirit of creativity and intellectual play.  All academic subjects have room for invention, for the absorption of play.

Over the holidays I read a book by Paul Dolan, a professor at LSE and government wellbeing advisor, called “Happiness By Design”.  Dolan’s central idea is that we are happy if and when we have a good mix of two key ingredients in life: pleasure and purpose.  Pleasure linked to purpose is the optimal source of happiness.  And much of our happiness and joy, or misery and anxiety, depends on what we choose to pay attention to.

“The “science of happiness” […]  is full of bizarre and contradictory findings. Parents report that parenting makes life much more meaningful, yet seem to experience no more pleasure than non-parents; more money doesn’t lead [automatically] to more happiness […]. One problem, he [Dolan] argues, is that psychologists simply try to find out which “inputs” – income, work, marital status, age, religiosity and so on – are correlated with the “output” of happiness. But in fact happiness also depends on how we allocate attention to those things. Imagine two biscuit factories, one run well, the other incompetently: they might have identical inputs (sugar, flour, labour, electricity) yet produce very different quantities of biscuits, depending on their production processes. The same goes for manufacturing happiness. Attention, Dolan writes, “acts as a production process that converts stimuli into happiness”. Attention is a scarce resource: give it to one thing, and by definition you can’t give it to something else. If you’re not as happy as you could be, “you must be misallocating your attention“.

“Even if it isn’t easy, Dolan makes a persuasive case that happiness might really be simple. His book is a powerful reminder not to get caught up in overthinking things, but to focus instead on maximising what actually delivers joy. [Dolan’s conclusion is that we should] “Listen more to your real feelings of happiness than to your reflections on how happy you think you are or ought to be.” Oliver Burkemann, Guardian.

This, to me at least, suggests that part of the key to deep happiness is in applying our attention actively and positive.  The Buddhists would call this ‘right mindfulness’, which is part of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.  Whatever our activity, whether ‘work’ or ‘play’, it is full commitment and absorption that gives the activity real value.  It is the things to which we choose to give our full attention, are the things that will give us the truest rewards of happiness and purpose.  By this reckoning, we should pay attention to the things that give us purpose and pleasure; we should focus our attention on the pleasurable aspects inherent in all the tasks we are obliged to do.  And we must learn playfully and play seriously.  And, whatever we are doing, we should pay attention.