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Finding a Spark by Mark Lascelles, Head Master

Finding a Spark by Mark Lascelles, Head Master
  • Pastoral

‘Education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire.’  I came across this quote recently, from the Irish poet and author, WB Yeats, and it struck a chord.

‘Education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire.’

I came across this quote recently, from the Irish poet and author, WB Yeats, and it struck a chord.  It’s sad to say that the chaos heaped upon children’s education from Covid 19 has laid bare the limitations of an approach to education which focuses in large part on exams, and measures success in results on a piece of paper.  Of course, exams and testing matter, and it is the role of any good school to support each pupil to achieve the best results they can, in order to take them to the next step of their educational journey and, ultimately, into the world of work.  However, the limitations of exams, and the curriculae that drive them, is that it can focus too much attention on ‘the filling of the pot’ and not enough on ‘lighting the fire’.

An estimated 65% of children entering primary schools today will work in jobs and functions that don’t currently exist, according to a recent Universities UK report.*  It’s true to say that today we are teaching children who will go on to jobs which don’t yet exist.  Technological changes such as automation and artificial intelligence will transform the employment landscape.  It follows, therefore, that schools should not just be equipping children with the knowledge and ability to pass exams, but also life skills which enable them to be flexible when new opportunities emerge and resilient when their chosen path doesn’t unfold quite as they had planned.  A significant part of developing those skills is encouraging each pupil to be brave at trying new things, to find an activity, an interest or a talent where they can excel, and a good school will see this as their mission.

At the start of each academic year, we welcome a new cohort of pupils to Dauntsey’s.  At the first assembly I always think back to the Upper Sixth who have left us the previous summer and reflect on how each of them has developed and grown through their time with us.  It does not feel so long ago that they too were sitting listening to me welcome them to the School.

When they first join us, it can be easy to identify the more confident pupils, the sporty ones, the maths geniuses, the musical ones who sing as they pass along the corridors, and the ones who are always the first to put their hand up to volunteer or ask a question.  But it’s equally important to identify the quieter ones, the ones with less confidence who are perhaps more cautious and have not yet discovered their ‘spark’, the ones who don’t fit straight away into an obvious social group.  These pupils may well have the most to contribute.  Ideas and insights will certainly be running through their minds but, without the confidence to articulate these thoughts, the pupil, and the rest of the class, loses out. 

On the sports field, these pupils may not be readily selected for the top teams.  On the school stage they may not be picked for a leading role, even though there may be real talent beneath the surface.  In social situations, some may find themselves on the edge, needing only a little encouragement or advice to get involved.  

Any good school should seek to ensure that every pupil has the opportunity to develop and shine, nobody should slip through the net.  Every member of staff has an important role to play in helping each child discover what ignites their imagination and enthusiasm.  Find that spark and confidence, happiness and, ultimately, resilience will follow.

Certainly, it’s not all about achievements in the classroom, although for some a particular subject – or teacher – will provide that lightbulb moment.  But extra-curricular activities play a vital role.  Our pioneering approach to adventure education has been transformative for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pupils who have walked through our gates.  For example, the ‘Moonrakers’ programme has a far-reaching impact on all our Third Formers (Year 9).  They spend an afternoon a week on outdoor activities throughout the year. They might be kayaking, learning self-defence or orienteering, mountain biking, cooking outdoors, crossing a river, rock climbing or dinghy sailing.  Whatever activity is involved, they develop teamwork and leadership skills, whilst stretching themselves mentally as well as physically. 

The activities themselves are only part of the picture.  The pupils are deliberately put into new groups.  Everyone has to work with people who are not in their normal social circle, and thus develop new relationships, gain an understanding of how others operate and work together to form a functioning team. Group dynamics are changed and the results can be surprising to both pupils and teachers.  After a few sessions, vital life skills such as communication, co-operation, listening to others, sensitivity and tolerance of different ideas are learnt and friends with different interests have been made.

One pupil springs to mind. Bright, but lacking in confidence within her peer group, she would rarely push herself forward but, if prompted, would perform well.  Given the opportunity to have a go at rock climbing through ‘Moonrakers’, she was initially very nervous. Half-way up, something clicked, she knew what to do, and where to move for the next part of the ascent.  By the end of the day, she was helping others climb.  This new-found confidence translated immediately back into the classroom where her peers viewed her in a new light.  Her more confident attitude and readiness to contribute has been a delight to see.  

Another pupil had made up his mind that sport in particular, and outdoor activities in general, were just not his thing.  During the ‘Moonrakers’ programme it became clear that he was an excellent map reader.  By the time of the overnight expedition, he had fellow classmates queuing to be in this team. They knew he would navigate the best and fastest route to camp.  Success for him was not on a rugby pitch but he and his peers realised that, out in the open, with nothing but a map and compass to guide him, he was the best.  I believe that he grew an inch or two that week.

Further up the school, a Sixth Form pupil was offered a chance to join the crew of our tall ship, the Jolie Brise. Despite his anxieties and misgivings, he chose to challenge himself by taking part in the Fastnet Race. He told me that the experience showed him that he could do more than he had ever imagined.  He discovered that overcoming something he had feared could be hugely rewarding.  He became more sensitive to others, learnt when it’s best to put your point across and when it’s best to let things drop.  He believes that his communication skills improved significantly during that voyage and he now feels comfortable working in a random group of people  ̶  vital for his future career in medicine.

The performing arts provide another important opportunity for pupils to find their spark.  It’s not just about the performers who excel on stage, there is always a lot going on behind the scenes, in every sense.  One pupil I recall was not keen on being the centre of attention, but his imagination was captured by the back-stage equipment used for our major musical productions each December.  This student started learning the ropes as a Fourth Former.  Each year he worked his way up to a more significant role until he was masterminding the whole production back-stage.  It is hard to put into words how much he gained from this experience.  He had certainly found his spark.

We encourage an adventurous mindset across all aspects of life both inside the classroom and out.  By being encouraged to move outside their comfort zone and test personal boundaries, pupils can be amazed by what they achieve.  Working with others towards a common goal teaches them how a team operates, how to lead and how to follow.  A good school will educate their pupils.  An excellent school will develop the whole person, help each individual find somewhere or something in which they can excel.  Encouraging  pupils to be adventurous in every sense of the word helps them develop a deeper understanding of how they function, greater self-esteem and a renewed energy and confidence in their abilities. 

Much has been written about the impact of the recent pandemic on the younger generation.  Countless studies pointed to mental health issues and worries about the future.  We should not underestimate how challenging it has been for all school age children.  However, developing life skills such as resilience, flexibility and team work can make a significant difference to how well students cope.  These qualities stem, in part, from the schools’ commitment to ‘the lighting of a fire’ as well as ‘the filling of a pot’.  I am confident that this will set them in good stead for the future – no matter what it throws at them.