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There are a few questions that cannot be avoided as a consequence of the current pandemic. They are concerns that would make the renaissance French polymath Michel de Montaigne smile. What will school be like when everything returns to whatever normal will be without restrictions? What role will technology play? We have come so far and so fast, it seems a shame to lose the benefits of our advances. There are immediate questions around assessment and what that will look like, will GCSEs remain? And if so, for what purpose and in what shape? It leads one to consider why we teach what we do and how the curriculum is organised.

This question came up at the recent Embley Parents’ Association meeting, the question was posed allowing two possible avenues of exploration. On the one hand it followed on from Mr Picardo’s recent presentation of Embley’s approach to student progress and the forensic analysis that attends each child so that they reach their potential. In this we look carefully at which aspects of subjects a child may need to develop, is it mathematical and data analysis skills in Geography and Economics or comprehension skills in another area? The struggles of particular children in specific subjects are akin to the unhappiness of Tolstoyian families i.e. unique to them. The response must therefore be equally unique and not an off the peg, one size fits all. So, the individualisation of care is in drilling down to the very specific nature of the need.

The other way the question could be explored is to ask why and how the curriculum is organised at all. Why does English get more teaching periods than Art? Thinking through some of this is incendiary, it is fraught with notions of importance. I sometimes ask teachers at interview if they had 30 seconds to teach a child something what would it be? Some revert to their subject while others elect broader themes that embrace the nature of what it is to be human. And no, I don’t always go with the latter!

The syllabus we have is an inherited one from Victoriana, OK some of the subjects have changed and been extended but I bet a student of the 1900s would not find themselves too out of place with schools today. Labs did develop a love of the sciences and in some institutions a love for arts and crafts, but Computer Science was a long way off. I wonder which minister will be brave enough to follow Embley’s example of entrepreneurship and have children run an asset management company for the benefit of future generations in the spirit of enlightened stewardship? The formation of character attendant on the combining all of the techniques of wealth creation without the focus on wealth acquisition that the commercial entities espouse. I wonder what element of government would back the Arts, Music and Drama as fully as Embley does? There is a national decline in the facilitation of these subjects while we have moved from doing one production every two years to seven or eight in one year and producing a whole school musical in lockdown!

The common theme in all of these endeavours is the focus we have on the intrinsic benefit of education far beyond the merely instrumental. Why would we promote and run learning outside the classroom and combine it with the commitment to sailing and the outdoors as we do, if the instrumental is at the core? Few, I hope, will ever find themselves in the position where the practical skills learned will be vital to survive, but everyone will need the same techniques and the self-knowledge acquired to thrive in life.

Everything we do here is designed to allow children to thrive by having the opportunities to ‘fail forwards’, to touch the element in us that might seek to give up when the going gets tough but perseveres. Beyond the so-called softer skills of human-to-human engagement and of self-knowledge there is a more fundamental purpose.

We teach what we do and as we do because it makes us more human. In saying this I suggest that it is not that we become more of the carbon-based compound that all flesh is heir to, but that we establish the essential truths of our shared experience. The world parades much invective and discord within which the children need to navigate a path. But this is not new under the same sun, Shylock argued that:

“if you prick us do we not bleed, if you tickle us do we not laugh, if you poison us do we not die and if you…”
Merchant of Venice Act 3 Scene 1

The heart of the matter is that in making the world a better place one begins with some sense of the task at hand and the reach of the exercise. What does it mean to be human? the answers tumble down the walls of Jericho around race, gender, orientation and nationhood. It is the single greatest challenge to the pseudo entitlement of the narrow minded and those who see difference as alien and threatening, it is “the still small voice of humanity not harsh or grating but of ample power to chasten and subdue.”

We study the arts, drama and music as well as play sports and read mathematics, sciences and humanities because we can, because they are intrinsic to what we are and though we may not divide the time equally it is only because we exist in a system from which certain expectations are placed on us by habit, tradition and the expectation of the past. I look forward to continuing to answer the call of the future and to creating enlightened minds that ask not why things change but why not?

For now, the two questions of what we learn and how have been tabled. It is for you reader to ponder further and to consider your response. The forensic detailing of subjects and cross-linking supports a child’s understanding and their progress in knowledge. Our system is highly effective and we do it without fuss or pressure on the children; being ranked in the top 1% nationally tells its own story. The approach to forming the minds of children, to challenging and stimulating them, is why we do what we do, that in so acting we act to make the world a better place. A value beyond the instrumental outcome of the financial talent factories churning out execs but one Montaigne might have smiled on.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead

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