It’s a tough ask, but a cross country run (just short of a mile) for 7 to 11 year olds is a part of our school’s year of sport. And this year’s house cross country came at the end of a very busy week of sport at our school which has included winning a local U10 prep school netball tournament and having all of our Junior year groups involved in hockey, netball and football.
One of the more bitter-sweet aspects of our lives as educators and as parents is seeking to encourage children to push themselves up to and beyond their limits – physical, intellectual and emotional. It is not easy to watch a child get angry, frustrated, exhausted, disappointed, upset or otherwise have to wrestle with their physical and emotional state. And it is a challenge for us to allow it to occur yet support them in the safest and most appropriate way that will allow them to learn and understand how to cope with that physiological and psychological pain.
Elsewhere it has been called “grit” or resilience – the ability to cope, learn and remain positive in the face of challenge and adversity. Whether it is learning to sing a new song in the choir, learn your first 100 hundred high-frequency words or face the competition in examination hall for entrance to senior school, possessing the skills to be able to recognise how you need to behave at times of high stress is essential in overcoming these obstacles.
And there is no other way to learn these skills than to experience those moments hand-in-hand with the support that is aware of the learning that is taking place. So back to our cross country for a moment: There are lots of staff and vocal parents on hand to support every child, to give encouragement and to will everyone to do their utmost. Each child is competing for their house and every effort counts towards the final total and end result. Everyone belongs, everyone is congratulated yet everyone has to try, many get exhausted, most get muddy and wet and only one girl and one boy get to be victorious as individuals.
As one parent commented to me after the race, of all sports in which her children compete, cross country is by far the most emotional. I feel that this is precisely because we have to witness our children pushing themselves to those limits that, as parents, we often feel that we have to protect them from. But by using the vocabulary of effort (try, have a go, attempt, courage, dig deep, etc…) and praising the process rather than the outcome, the aim is that our children will recognise that they are able to get up to and even over the limits that they perceive. Next time, therefore, those limits will be that much more challenging and overcoming them more eagerly sought.
From time to time, something happens, in planning an event, that is greater and more successful than anticipated. More than the sum of its parts. On the face of it, bringing together disparate groups of schools, from different locations (one who journeyed for 2 hours around the M25) of different ages (Years 5, 6, 7, 11 & 13) would appear to contradict any sense of structure and cohesion.
The first Hertford Youth Conference brought together seven schools with representative groups from each, the purpose to share their experiences of developing Social Responsibility through collaboration. Jane Sartin, Hertford Town Councillor and former Mayor, was present to speak about the journey that led to a life in public service. Several of the schools work with Jodie Collins and the charity Beyond Ourselves to raise money to support 3 community schools in northern Zambia, making visits or participating in the sponsorship programme. Other schools spoke about the action taken, collaborative projects that they set up or the impact that it has had on them and their schools.
The conference was arranged around the “Teachmeet” style of gathering, moving quickly with no-one speaking for more than about 10 minutes (young people or adults). There were questions for each group from the floor and a chance to “network” over tea and cake. It was designated a “conference” and we wanted to make it feel as though the “delegates” were there to both share and learn.
And this is where the inspiration started to become clear: the line between child and adult became blurred. We were interested in hearing from each delegate. They all had something interesting to say. They didn’t have to speak for too long. There were a variety of experiences to be shared. They learned how to present effectively. There were differing perspectives and interesting and novel ideas to “take away”. But there was one shared goal: to do something in your life to make a change.
And this caught the imagination of everyone present. The Year 5’s wanted to hear about the older students’ adventures. The 6th formers loved being with much younger children and even gathered some valuable ideas. The audience listened to the presenters and willed each group to be confident and do their best. The presenters, perhaps buoyed up by seeing others go before them or recognising that they didn’t have to speak for too long, showed no nerves and were as confident and articulate as they could possibly be.
As I told them at the start, this first conference was going to be very experimental; we were stepping into unknown territory. However the outcome was quite exceptional. Having one shared purpose, with adults and young people all speaking to the idea about service, smudged the traditional dividing lines between the age groups. There was no “command and control”; we were all there to develop our understanding, to be inspired by others and share our own inspirations. It was magical.
And we will do it again next year!
My thanks go to: Jane Sartin, Jodie Collins, Jane Elson, Sandie Ash and the staff and pupils from Roding Valley High School, Cranleigh, Simon Balle, Stormont, Abel Smith and St Joseph’s In The Park. And in particular to Liz Beaumont and Helen Boyd-Carpenter, without whose administrative skills this would never have taken place in the first place!
Recently, I’ve been asked how can you reconcile a non-selective intake (which we have) with selection, or preparation for selection, as an output? By and large, all of our children take, or are prepared to take, entrance assessment into selective independent senior schools. I am curious about the decision-making process that encourages parents to recognise that, despite no assessment at 3 years old, they are willing for their children to be assessed at 10 or 11. It is, as always, best to go straight to the parents and I asked this question, this morning at our regular Head’s briefing. The responses were incredibly valuable as we seek to reinforce the strength of St Joseph’s In The Park in providing the best possible education for all children. I’ve summarised the parent responses here.
- The school nurtures the children and supports them as they mature into well-rounded students, provided challenge at a range of ability levels.
- We don’t know who they are at 3 or 4. We learn about them through their time at school.
- The children are not categorised, set or limited in their mindset about who they are or what they can be. We find strengths and celebrate them.
- Learning is enjoyable and from this position children are more willing to persevere despite greater challenges.
- Nurturing the children drives a philosophy of learning and teaching that permeates the whole school community.
- Awareness of the children enables a bespoke and individually crafted learning journey to be developed through the course of their time at school.
- There is less pressure on any child, regardless of ability.