As a Friends aficionado, like many of us I suspect, I like to think I can quote specific passages of script or answer questions on the minutiae. Joey’s debate with Phoebe over the nature of selflessness is case in point and also raises wider educational musings. Popular culture, as represented by the media, has always tried to mirror societal moods and Friends was no different; it was right at that time. Looking through the 2021 lens one can criticise the lack of diversity and some of the themes, but did Joey have a point? Did we clap outside our houses each Thursday evening because we were genuinely grateful, or because by doing so we felt better about ourselves?
Independent education prides itself on its holistic approach, with community engagement being a key cog in the machine. Whether it is termed “action” or “service” is less relevant than the process of ensuring that the young people in our schools are seeing beyond the walls, figuratively or real, and doing something to help others. This is often delivered through marquee schemes, often on a large scale, that are able to generate a lot of interaction and, let’s face it, plenty of positive press. These events are worthy and laudable but must be contextualised within a much more embedded culture of empathetic service.
For me, service sits at the very heart of education. Schools such as Christ’s Hospital (1552) were set up with the ethos of serving others; children from the streets of London given a home, an education and a future. Many have moved away from this meritocratic ethos (CH has stayed true to its founding mission) in favour of success and excellence, whatever those words really mean.
“Time spent at a primary school or care home can make a huge difference and is often the highlight of the week.”
There are many wonderful community projects that do enrich the lives of those the pupils are supporting. Time spent at a primary school or care home can make a huge difference and is often the highlight of the week. Experiences such as these can open the eyes of our pupils to see what a difference they can make and, sometimes, start a lifelong love of volunteering. Wonderful.
At Langley School we are just starting on our journey and it has been fascinating, and hugely rewarding to be there at the beginning. Although there had been a bit of community engagement in the past, it was more around the occasional tea party and allowing the local model aeroplane club to use the grounds.
We have re-structured the timetable to allow for a fortnightly community afternoon. This regular, and frequent, time will allow for relationships to build slowly. A local litter pick with the Rotary Club, reading groups in the local primary schools, conversation and tea at the local care homes, cleaning Commonwealth gravestones.
It will also allow for the older pupils to mentor, teach and coach the younger children. With all of these initiatives, there is the transference of knowledge, shared journey and importantly, the giving of time. There is no greater gift than this and my wish is for this to be as meaningful and resonant as possible. Recent fundraising events at school have focused on housing trusts, homelessness and mental health.
The community afternoon will be able to give opportunities for meaningful volunteering; what better way to end the week than supporting the work of the much hit charity sector? This is education rather than certification. The latter has an important place of course, allowing our young people choice. But it doesn’t define who they are or the positive impact they can have on those around them.
“Learning about service and kindness is never one tangible project, but the agglomeration of a myriad of experiences.”
What do we as parents ultimately want for our children? We want them to be decent people; yes, be aspirational, happy and balanced, but fundamentally kind. To humbly serve their communities and be good parents. So therefore, it is the pastoral jigsaw that independent education provides that pieces this together.
It is never one tangible project, but the agglomeration of a myriad of experiences: the giving up of a chair at a concert, the volunteering to guide guests around the school, staying behind to clear up without being asked. The activities on the community afternoon will, undoubtedly be enriching for all concerned and an important part of the educational journey, but it will be the small acts of kindness and selflessness on a day-to-day basis that will generate longevity in terms of empathy and compassion.
As our children enter the world of the future, they will be better equipped to understand what actually matters. Whether this will translate into more people working in caring professions is difficult to say, but the time that we have children in school gives us opportunities to do all we can to make future society a kinder place.