Three truths about school

This is going to be controversial: school is about hard work, discipline and respect.

In the twenty years I’ve been teaching I’ve seen a transformation outside the school gates. Innovations in technology and global communications have transformed the way we work, shop, socialise and spend our leisure time. Such changes, inconceivable when I was a student, getting to grips with my ZX81, have prompted educators like me to cry for more creativity, innovation and independent thinking in schools. We must find and nurture the tech entrepreneurs of the future. We must tailor our teaching to meet every individual’s needs; we must safeguard children’s natural curiosity and develop a joy of learning, promoting a playful attitude to work; we must place happiness and well-being at the centre of our schools. We must celebrate and protect the wonder of childhood, because it is this that will spawn creative thinkers of the future.

There is nothing here that I disagree with, and most of it I’ve been calling for throughout my career.

But buried beneath the revolution in the way we live and work has been a transformation of a different kind and it’s one we don’t like to talk about much: the slow erosion of fundamental values which shaped the ethos of the schools and communities in which my generation grew up. There were malign elements, of course, that we’re all glad to see the back of – corporal punishment, for one, or prejudice of varying, cruel kinds. But what of discipline? What about hard work? Mutual respect? It is a brave headteacher who incorporates these seemingly old-fashioned values into their mission statement, the more common trend being for words like aspiration, creativity, independent thinking or self-confidence.

I continue shouting for a playful, enjoyable approach to learning, but I’m reaching the conclusion that such a mantra assumes that everything is functioning well outside school – that discipline, respect, and diligence are all instilled at home and in the wider community, thus leaving us creative teachers free to promote a spirit of enquiry and a joy of learning in our schools.

So I dare to say again, school is about hard work, get used to it. Your independence is important, but it’s not as important as the inter-dependence that comes from mutual respect. Creative endeavour is important too, but without self-discipline it is nothing. Far from shirking responsibility or self-discipline, the great thinkers, inventors and creative artists of the past only succeeded because of their hard work and self-discipline.

If increasing numbers of children lack role models in their lives outside of school, from whom they can learn a good work ethic, a sense of social responsibility and self-regulation, then surely it falls to schools to champion these values once again.

There are reasons, often tragic, why children lack such role models at home; I am not apportioning blame. As a parent of four children, I know that parenting is difficult, there is no handbook, and the scandalous cuts in funding for social care and family support – which I saw for myself as headteacher of a primary school in a poor community with large numbers of disadvantaged and vulnerable children – have meant that many children lack direction, a moral compass and often even the most basic care.

Yes, all children have a right to an inspirational education filled with creative opportunity, aspiration and teaching tailored for them, but so too do they deserve to be told – by someone – that hard work, self-discipline and mutual respect are important. If this message is not being delivered to them at home, or through the media or modern popular culture, then it’s school that can say it, no matter how unfashionable it sounds.

Discipline, hard work and mutual respect are words that seem outdated and some may even think they threaten creativity, well-being or character enrichment. I think they underpin them.

When such qualities are instilled in students, modelled by their teachers, schools can truly take off.



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