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Impossible Things

Friday 21 Sep 2018
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Written by: Matthew King – Headmaster, Framlingham College Prep School


You will have noted that we are attempting something really tough this year with our challenge to provide sporting fixtures for all children every week. I won’t deny that a number of us at the start felt it was impossible, or that we harbour some fears that when it does unravel (and I do mean “when” not “if”) we will end up with egg on our faces. But, just as the White queen tells Alice in Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, it is entirely possible to think “six impossible things before breakfast”. We may not achieve them all but we will always be richer for the trying.

Even the staunchest critics of independent schools recognise that a private education can grow “confidence” in pupils that sets them up for success in later life and so many things contribute to this. A broad curriculum encourages all children to find the thing that makes them tick and, the more tenacious a school’s refusal is to accept that all children need to be the same, the more chance there is that they will become the most vibrant versions of themselves rather than pallid and formulaic versions of someone else.

But before we get lost in self-congratulation, let us not forget that independent schools, in trying to manufacture confidence, can just as easily erode it. We believe passionately in competition and in a determination to be the very best versions of ourselves. But we cannot encourage aspiration without also preparing our children for disappointment. The higher we aim the further we must be ready to fall. High achieving schools can too easily be drawn into measuring success solely by results, by accolades and by comparisons with others. We can be guilty of rushing to acknowledge attainment, which is easy to measure, over effort which is so much more elusive but matters a whole heap more. As IAPS Heads we were rightly shamed at Conference a year or so ago by the inspirational author and campaigner Natasha Devon. Her recent book on mental health reminds us again that our schools can quickly turn every activity our children take on into a race or a competition thereby starving them of the opportunity to play an instrument, kick a ball or simply to learn for no other reason than because they love to do so.

And this all very neatly brings us back to sports. All of us want to win and most of us want to be in the top teams and take home the silverware too. There is nothing to be ashamed about in this and it deserves our praise and admiration. I don’t doubt that this year will bring its usual share of school records, national selections and county trophies and we will celebrate them all at the appropriate time. But let’s not forget that every selection, no matter what team it is for, needs to be recognised. For some children just touching the ball, being part of the team and sharing in the match tea is a battle won. Inside we may feel disappointed that they can’t shoot hoops yet like we could as youngsters or that the distracted teacher hasn’t yet noted the natural talents that you have seen in the garden. We may struggle to understand why they don’t enjoy the thrill of a muddy ruck like we did in the old days or why the rules and tactics employed on the hockey pitch seem to have changed somewhat since 1986. All of this may well be true but whatever level they are playing at, however they respond to coaching, no matter how strongly you may feel they may be in the wrong place, their efforts have to matter. Every week on every pitch our children will be playing out their own cup finals in achieving their own impossible things and we need to let them know we are proud of them even, perhaps especially, when they don’t feel proud of themselves.

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