This week I am doing my termly walk into the lions’ den, otherwise known as year-group assemblies, where I take pupils’ questions and do my best to answer them. Unlike Daniel, I have kindly senior colleagues who weed out any very pointed questions which would shred my feelings and reputation but, nonetheless, Highgate’s pupils are limbering up well for careers in news night interviewing.
I’m glad. This is a time when young people need their wits about them to make sense of what any adult, all adults, tell them. There’s a particular challenge to young people who are going to be making up their minds about which school to go to, once they have navigated the assessments at 7+, 11+ and 16+ which take place over the next few months. Their parents and carers will be seeking out advice from those paid to know the answers, reading up on what makes for a good school for girls and a good school for boys, and asking friends what their children have made of school X and school Y. Inevitably, the complex issues at stake will be boiled down into bite-size morsels of Gospel truth, and served up to would-be pupils, so where’s the room for the young people to follow their own recipes for happy, fulfilling school days where they can flourish as who they really want to be?
Well, how about this: I think parents and teachers should take the North London admissions round as an exercise in modelling excellent mental health and wellbeing. No, I have not lost my marbles – I just think that if we know that we want our young people to be happy, resilient and full of confidence, we should focus on what will reduce anxiety and what will promote cheerfulness, and that starts with the honest recognition that as adults we can’t actually offer any certainty in this world beyond the fact that we love our children unconditionally and forever, even when they ‘forget’ to hang up their wet towels and when they appear to eat all the phone chargers in the entire house. Thereafter, it’s a matter of balancing facts when it comes to navigating our way to certainty. So, rather than viewing school type (say, single-sex or co-education) as alternative, mutually exclusive belief systems, let’s look at the pluses and minuses and interrogate them.
To state the blindingly obvious, a mixed school will have both girls and boys in it; girls and boys won’t be spending their lives separated as they grow up and learn, and nor are they likely to be working isolated one from the other in adult lives. Separating pupils by gender is a noble historical practice which reflected the mores of a vanished world where women and men had their places in a rigid hierarchy. Today’s world, for all its complexities, mirrors a vigorous attempt to create a fairer, more just community where gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religious belief are not good or bad luck cards one is dealt with at birth. Ensuring youngsters grow up in diverse and variegated communities, where compassion towards and curiosity about one’s neighbour are instilled and flourish, is a super recipe for growing up. Of course, gendered views to this and that will walk through the school gates on the shoulders of the unsuspecting young, but these can be hosed down with care and thoughtfulness so that no young woman, no young man, growing up thinks that any subject or career is off limits (here’s to the numbers of girl mathematicians and physicists, to the number of boys training to be primary school teachers or entering the caring professions, taking off in coed schools like Highgate).
To liberate young people and their loving parents from gendered thinking which can hold the object of their parental love back, you have to be on the case, all the time, but it’s all do-able, and is the day job for all of us in the business of unleashing creativity and opportunity of every youthful generation.
There’ll be brilliant replies from different schools. No one has a monopoly of truth. But let’s just be sure that, in our desire to make up our adult minds, we don’t wish an untruthful certainty on our children. Let them scrutinise the arguments and the facts, and nestle in the certainty that, whatever we decide, we’ll still be there, loving them all the way through a wonderful, happy and fulfilling journey.