Preparation for Life
Julie Robinson, Headmistress of Vinehall School, looks at the role a prep school plays in the teaching of social values and considers the strength of these skills and how they can engender a positive role in society for pupils.
Parents will read in prospectuses that independent schools educate 'the whole child', providing a full and rounded preparation for life not only academically but, importantly, in terms of personal and social skills.
In a world where information is freely and widely available and children need discernment to find their way through the opportunities presented by the world and the virtual world, emotional intelligence is at least as important as knowledge. Anyone might 'google' information but there is no substitute for the social experiences that traditional schooling offers. Independent schools shape attitudes and build a broad base of skills in our children, encouraging them to spend time in productive ways rather than losing their childhood in hours of indiscriminate screen-watching.
The Primary Review highlighted a UK-wide 'deep anxiety about the condition of childhood today and the society and world in which children are growing up'. We can counter that by establishing during the school years healthy routines and a positive lifestyle that will prepare our youngsters for a fulfilling future.
There is a sense that we live in an increasingly disparate society with fragmented family units and a diluted sense of community. Yet we are social animals and we rely on effective communication and harmonious co-existence for true happiness and meaningful success in the world.
Andrew Adonis, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools and Learners, says of the new plans for increased creativity in the maintained sector, 'We want to see how much we can embed creativity much more systematically'. It is already true of independent schools that culture is woven into the curriculum. All that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, espouses of citizenship, sport, social and emotional development, collective worship and focus on the basics already exists in abundance in independent schools.
A broad curriculum with a well-taught range of subjects providing time for open discussion promotes moral and social development. Alongside the taught curriculum sits the 'hidden' curriculum, those things that children are really learning at school rather than the content of the syllabus: usually, how to behave.
Analysis by a Government think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, noted the importance of personal and social skills in creating economic success in later life and findings suggested that the skills required for success are learned through structured activities where children mix with others and are mentored by adults. The report recommended extra-curricular activities and a school house system. It justifies the long days and broad variety within the timetables and activities' programmes of busy independent schools.
Nottingham MP Graham Allen was quoted in May 2006, stating that educational failure was linked with 'poor social, emotional and communication skills'. Good prep schooling includes LAMDA and English Speaking Board exams as well as dramatic productions and participation in arts festivals, poetry competitions and debating to support developing communication skills and confidence. Prep school children are typically confident communicators, who feel valued and cared for.
The social and emotional needs of our pupils are met by dedicated and caring staff, including medical staff, who work extremely long hours, supporting children and their parents.
A sense of self-directed happiness can be nurtured through taking responsibility for one's own emotional state. This is not to suggest that everyone should expect to be happy all of the time and it is important that our children experience difficulties and the value of perseverance as they develop a sense of self.
Social skills, self-expression and self-esteem are nurtured within a prep school education where children live in a 'can do' culture. The pupils are encouraged to experiment and to work independently. They have space to grow and there is an expectation of increasingly taking control of one's own life.
The opportunity for a period of quiet reflection that daily worship offers and moral and spiritual teaching based on specifically Christian values provide important foundations for other activities at school.
The moral development of the prep school child is supported through positions of responsibility such as school council, charity committees, dormitory captaincy and team captaincy. Psychologist Jean Piaget's early writing focuses specifically on the moral lives of children and the way individuals construct and reconstruct their knowledge of the world as a result of their interactions with the environment. According to Piaget, this is how moral thinking develops. Prep schools support this by offering first structured play and then a developing focus on reasoning behind the application of rules. Positive role models play a part and children have the opportunity to observe and emulate those whom they admire. In the end there is no substitute for an inspiring teacher and good teachers promote critical and creative thinking.
Independent schools enjoy a certain amount of ideological freedom. They have distinct character and clear moral and social values. Prep schools may be tied to CE and public exams yet there is time and freedom to develop as communities. Independent schools provide culture, ethos, tradition, history and general knowledge in spades. They make time and have resources to promote experiential learning through the arts (especially poetry, music, theatre and literature); they value personal development and enjoy a teacher pupil ratio which provides plenty of support and guidance towards pupils' personal development.
Old-fashioned games and activities abound in our schools, giving children opportunities to practise following rules and establishing fairness at the same time as providing purpose and identity.
The wide range of opportunities to experience the creative arts and to learn about our cultural background engenders in our pupils a sense of their own role within society.
A typical prep school approach is traditionally built on mutual respect, kindness and care for each other. Loyalty to the immediate community might smack of 'old school tie' but what of it? Pride in the school supports high standards. Mutual understanding and developing confidence to be oneself supports a developing sense of self alongside community spirit. The social benefits of boarding are clear and very much appreciated by youngsters.
Schools have a duty to provide a caring and mutually respectful environment. Children deserve to feel that they are part of a wonderful world in which every individual counts and every one can make a difference. Our children need to find their place and purpose in the world. Not only can this lead to personal fulfilment but it might help safeguard against the anxieties and neuroses that destroy the inner lives of so many.
Prep schools take on the challenge to inspire young people, igniting an interest in the arts and how things work, building dreams, which can lead towards fulfilment in later careers. At the same time, and thanks to the rich fabric of the prep school community, school can prepare youngsters for a happy and successful life, secure in self knowledge, communication skills and a sense of social duty.
If this sounds idealistic, then all to the good. Our children deserve the luxury of idealism, their own dreams and ambitions, a sense of natural justice, so that they can follow Theodore Roosevelt's advice: 'keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground'.