The dates of my blog-posting speak for themselves: I haven’t made the time for a blog, and it’s not for want of good things to talk about. No, it’s the grown-up equivalent of an essay crisis, or just having a bit more to do than usual. Than usual? No, it’s always like this in the second half of the Lent Term – throw together admissions and teacher recruitment, layered on top of the normal routines, and the diary doesn’t leave much discretion about what to do. There must be tens of pupils here who’ve had to make similar decisions about what to cut back on in the face of competition readiness, first nights or competition deadlines, to say nothing of intensifying revision routines. One’s worry, of course, is that it’s time to read, time with family, healthy eating or good quality sleep which have seen the cuts.
Because a school spends much of its time thinking about how its pupils are getting along, I’ve often thought of time pressure and school-life balance being, rather like handling social media or agonising about self-image, something which is a youth issue. From what I’ve just said it’s obvious, even though these are important issues for young people, that they’re not problems which are youth specific: adults wrestle with time management, work-related stress and social media addiction – you only have to turn to the pages of any weekend supplement to see we do. But seeing my teenage children and their peers do pretty much what I have to do has prompted me to share the fact that these are human issues rather than age-specific ones or, rather, to consciously (perhaps a bit self-consciously) avoid talking about them as though they are the preserve of the young.
Highgate has developed its specialist pastoral care to complement what teachers as tutors and Heads of House can do: we now have an Attendance and Wellbeing Officer (AWO), a title which doesn’t give credit for the informal as well as expert advice which is offered to pupils in search of support; our AWO works alongside a now bigger team of counsellors, and we’re aiming to appoint a colleague with specialist mental health training and experience to direct what we do to develop and promote pupils’ good mental and emotional health. We’re also feeling our way to doing the same for our staff so that they can be supported in parallel ways. Small behavioural changes have been significant too: we’ve agreed that we shouldn’t send emails to each other before 7 am or after 7 pm on weekdays, and we shouldn’t make contact other than in an emergency at weekends. All these decisions have been made as the result of dialogue and discussion, of creating opportunity for both, and of responding to them; sometimes small changes make a difference and at others, bigger shifts, deeper actions, are needed.
And so it was that I started this term’s experiment with Q&A assemblies for all year groups in the Senior School: I’ve been doing these for the sixth form for a few years now, and it struck me that younger pupils’ questions are no less interesting or revealing, and that experience of asking good questions is experience a pupil is more likely to develop if it’s practised over time. Year 7 today, and eight cracking questions – sports options not being gender specific; the thinking behind French as a starter language; desirability or otherwise of year 7s and 8s going to Chapel or following their older peers to faith-specific religious assemblies, why we ‘force’ pupils to do lunch-time activities on Thursdays, and then questions about testing and homework: are there plans to increase or decrease frequency of the former or quantity of the latter?
I was competing with the beginning of break and the rumbling of twelve-year-old tummies so I’m not quite sure how well I performed, but I found myself explaining, on homework, that our problem lies more often in perfectionism than in absenteeism (Rider question: is that because pupils over-work or because teachers set too much? Answer: if you have spent thirty minutes and aren’t finished, hand it in unfinished, but don’t be surprised if your teacher is sceptical because all your homework is late and / or unfinished); and that pupils look sideways to see how well they’ve done in comparison with their peers rather than forwards to measure their own progress, such is the power of peer approval and influence.
As I was saying this, I realised how much that’s just as true of adults: we conform to what we think others expect of us, of what our superiors seem to say they admire and value, and I wished I had remembered in my off-the-cuff answers to generalise these all-too human issues, and to reassure those eagerly young interrogators that their questions were absolutely on the money. We will always struggle with time and the pressure of time, and there’s no very easy or short answer other than to acknowledge it as a very human problem, almost a part of being human – knowing what matters, and how to make what matters find its space and place in our lives. So, those of you out there staring down a monster schedule which can only be tamed by cutting back on sleep, reach for your pencil and paper, and make a list: audit the tasks and the time available to do them; work out urgency versus importance, and allocate time accordingly. The busier we are, the less time we have to stop and plan, the more important it is, the more reassuring it is, to ration the time we spend on work, and to avoid those cuts!