Events toward the end of eighteenth-century France are an odd but surprisingly appropriate comparison with some of the events of this week and every week at school. Though I would not want the comparison to be drawn too tightly and in some, perhaps many ways, it doesn’t fit at all but bear with me. The ‘ancien régime’ was under pressure from a burgeoning new move for freedom, or at least the qualifying freedom of the nouveau riche who didn’t want to relinquish their money to the King without some compensatory say in affairs of state. The reigning absolutism of a monarchy which drew close association with divinity had become outworn. Largely because it was their money that the would-be divinity was lavishing on himself, this middle-class group were getting increasingly grumpy.
Now, if we apply a little licence, we could be re-writing the story of any family home with a teenager. The evolution of the adolescent brings with it the sorts of pressures if not the same motive forces that issued in the events of the fall of the ‘ancien régime’. OK, we have worked that far enough. It is clear to me though that from conversations at Open Morning and our Sixth Form Open Evening, there are similar tensions and forces at work. I stood in a packed Atherley Hall, standing room only and considered the similarities, before dispelling the Place de la Concorde image as one comparison too many.
There are some differences though between the model of French absolutism I have outlined and the reality of parenting. I don’t know about you reader, but when my three girls were born, I don’t recall getting the instruction manual. I looked then and have looked since, but even as they grew up there was no formula, no guide, Google didn’t map it and Siri couldn’t answer it. We juggled jobs, playdates, parties and music lessons. We made choices for the girls and decisions for them based on our best instinct and what was within reason. There were bumps along the way, I don’t expect we got everything right; I’m pretty sure I didn’t but if the reader who has could let us all know, I will set up the workshop and we will gather to take notes. The funny thing is that every parent is navigating uncharted waters all the time. It doesn’t matter if you have had a child go through something, the one behind is not the same as the first. I’m tickled when asked what sort of child comes to our school. I usually say I don’t know, what sort of child comes to your home? They are all different and in profound ways because each one is themselves. So, advice from friends makes us feel comfortable, talking with teachers helps us to define some of the area of the map, but the comfort is remote because it is not directly applicable to the territory you are navigating with your children. How many of you attend a parents’ evening to hear something about your child that surprised? If I had a penny for every time I heard “S/he is not like that at home”…
Add to this heady mix the growing desire for independence, the emergence of the spirit you have worked so hard to foster, and you find that another hand is on the tiller and much as you try to see a direction ahead, the new navigator is changing course. There is a temptation in these scenarios to over-correct. We spent much of Wednesday evening talking about choices and subjects. I was encouraged to hear so many parents turning over the possibilities with their children in an open and objective way. The over-correction can come where parents feel they know best, OK they might do, but this needs some careful handling. If they are not doing something they love and enjoy, everyone suffers.
I have seen 20 years’ worth of sixth formers come through schools and there are colleagues with considerably more experience than me. I have seen many hit bumps in the road and all sorts of directions change and adapt. The myth we live in is that a choice of subjects is life defining, it isn’t. We may feel the need to get it right first time and so we should, but we should also note that choices can be undone, life is long, and minds can change. We ought to remember also those who struggle to decide. There is a genuine agony of indecision when a curriculum model restricts choosing all of the things you like. Increasing the options is not a panacea for this ill, because there is not infinite choice at school or life. So, choose what you love, pick what fits, what goes with your best instinct and what is within reason. Where is the troglodyte that has not some sense of the unhappiness caused by living a life not of your choosing, a career that might once have had a seduction but has run its course because on reflection your heart wasn’t ever in it? In school as at home, we are in it together. We are constantly charting new waters and the map is emerging from the territory: Vive la révolution
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)