Once every term, Heads in the United Learning group come together and take a day to reflect on the education landscape, on our priorities and on how we are getting there. The independent schools assembled are a tight knit arrangement of like-minded colleagues, but the context of those schools and the individuals leading them are not surprisingly all very different. It was in this context that my thinking began to drift to some of the conversations we have been having this week and last in school.

Amongst other events, we have just concluded the last week of scholarship interviews and we have had a Year 9 parents evening where much of the conversation was about academic progress but also about choices for the future, for GCSE options and so forth. The conversations involved led to discussions on what students wanted to do with their lives. We touched on the careers they looked forward to and sometimes, more personally, on how they wanted to live those lives. I was struck by some of the characteristics they mentioned.

Now remember, we are not talking historically about what we might call ‘great lives’, the catalogue of luminaries who have enlightened human experience and made the world a better place. There may be some discussion about whether or not that phrase ‘great lives’ is meaningful. Can a life be great if the liver of that life was morally flawed? Yes is the answer, because a great life is not necessarily a perfect one, one might even question if in fact a great life has to be a ‘good’ one. By that I mean a virtuous one, this question is much less straightforward.

There are those who were difficult characters, quarrelsome and vain but who affected change in the world and made the world a better place. Are lives of questionable moral contents capable of being great? I will leave the reader to conjure the answer and in so doing to muse on the qualities of what might make a good life.

The scholars’ interviews provided a few suggestions. In one instance a student suggested that the essential quality of the good life is to have a set of ideals or goals you want to achieve. I can understand this; a personal vision allows you to have a ‘why’, a personal reason to be that gets you out of bed in the morning. But is the quality of the reason of the why significant? If my ‘why’ comes at the expense of others, how do I reconcile the two? If my ‘why’ or my reason to be is myopically focused on my own self-aggrandisement, is this an essential condition for the living of a good life?

Antiquity suggests that a good life must be one of self-reflection, the unexamined life is not worth living. Now before we dissolve this notion into self-absorbed narcissist navel gazing, they propose a life of thoughtful inquiry. One where you are not drifting with the tide of opinion but actively questioning and thinking about what you do and the ‘why’ of doing it. Doesn’t sound like a bad thing does it? Having some reason for what you do and being thoughtful is a virtuous thing as long as it moves into action and does not leave the thoughtful isolated in their own ruminations.

So, having a vision or reason to exist makes for a good life, having a thoughtful approach guides this good life, but one final observation came from a potential scholar and is worth leaving you with. They commented that the attitude you bring to life will determine the quality of that life and be more impactful than any other disposition you might choose. Echoes here of Henry Ford’s “if you think you can or think you can’t you’re right”. The point being made to me was as much about the sport we were discussing as every facet of our daily interactions. As you roll out of bed in the morning, you make a decision, you choose. Perhaps imperceptibly, because habit and routine have disposed you to a particular choice or perhaps one is unthinking and allows the choice to form without challenge, but one way or another you choose the way you approach the day.

I will develop this in greater detail in future scribblings but suffice to say for now that our attitude can be dimmed or coloured by previous experience, we can shrink away from challenges because an inner voice bubbles up and whispers discouragement. But we have a choice: to listen to the voice of doubt; to the disparaging remark or to choose another voice.

I think myself the luckiest of individuals in working each day with children and young people, and colleagues who have the vision to lead those children in the direction of a good life. It is a quality shared by the rich diversity of Heads in the United Learning group. My own attitude to this is really simple. It costs not less than everything, is fuelled equally by ambition and delight and may be best described as unreasonable optimism. If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)


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