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The realisation that the party conference season is upon is coincided with the end of the beginning, the end of the beginning of term, that is: new pupil and new staff inductions, first assemblies, welcome evenings, House singing (Kingsgate victorious), the House sport spe[x]tacular or ‘Super Saturday’ played out (Westgate – netball – and School House – football – dividing the honours), post-exams prize-giving, all done and dusted in ten busy days. Year 7s face their first homework or prep, and lists for music and drama auditions, the first society meetings and fixtures fight for space on our newly pristine walls putting up a game fight against the blu-tack onslaught. And, of course, this has been preceded by discussion, planning, talks and meetings to get us ready in mind and limb for another year.

I had been trying to conjure up the right word to communicate that quality which a little bit of well-planned and well-monitored intellectual struggle should develop, the kind of mental readiness to keep on at something until the concept falls into place or the skill is mastered. I had been doing a bit of summer holiday baulking at ‘resilience’, in part, for no better reason than that it has been hijacked by the media-savvy pedagogues and course-organisers to mean – and quite usefully and plausibly so – more than the word’s etymology should permit: resilience should mean the ability to recover from difficult situations, rather as a spring finds its uncompressed form when pressure is released. Resilience suggests to me, when it’s applied to a young person’s academic or personal journey, a pathway strewn with inevitable tripwires and nasty falls after which one, somewhat battered and bruised, has to stagger to one’s shaky feet, dust off the, well, the dust, I suppose, and plod on, possibly into a howling gale. I know that this September has fallen short of an Indian Summer, but still, I’d like to see our pupils stepping out, albeit well-shod for all weathers, confident about the academic journey ahead.

The capacity to encounter reversals or disappointments, to take them in one’s stride, is invaluable, and I’m certainly not denying the usefulness of resilience in that context, but I was looking for something else for my beginning-of-term call to arms, and I hit on intellectual sturdiness – that sense (carefully checked in my friendly Oxford Dictionary of English) of showing confidence and determination, presumably in the face of difficulty or otherwise, in matters cerebral. I have been taken to task by my acute-eared colleagues who have, albeit diplomatically, suggested that sturdiness conveys, through its association with physical attributes of well-built muscularity, something stocky and perhaps slow-moving, not fleet of foot, and thus unimaginative, rigid even.

Well, no! I am sticking (for the time being at least!) to intellectual sturdiness. I don’t want to prepare my pupils to be principally expert in and suited to only tough times, to sacrifice their childhood on the altar of adult concerns, however well judged, about difficulties ahead. I do want them to believe in themselves, not to be prisoners of their prior attainment, not to fret about conceptual glass ceilings they might yet bump their heads against; I want them to believe that the furrowed brow, the Robert-the-Bruce spider-like determination, the exasperation of not getting something quite right, or at all, despite the effort, all have a role to play in their learning. Those very same teachers who can make everything seem so effortless haven’t achieved brilliance through IQ but through self-belief and self-confidence – thanks to others who believed in them – and through determination to master and re-master each academic conundrum, but in the way of, say, taming an intriguing puzzle, the resolving of which is deeply pleasing, or climbing a vertiginous hill from which the vista is agreeable and enticing. The effort pays off; the journey wasn’t horrific; setting off didn’t induce panic!

Another thing which pleases me about intellectual sturdiness, beyond the deep-rootedness which I’ll allow it to imply, is the way it allows us to frame very different ways of succeeding. For some, it’s flashy inspiration, perhaps, needing to be fed by the most challenging of stretchy unfamiliarity; for others it’s rigorous routine and re-working; for others still, it’s wisdom emerging out of close collaboration. So I am sticking with sturdiness and hope that by adopting it we will breed precisely that almost intangible, unmeasurable but incontestably worthwhile self-confidence and determination which will put a spring in the intellectual step of our children as they stride out in this new year!

Adam Pettitt, 20 September 2017