Education is far more than just classroom based learning; it is the process of making learning possible, allowing for the acquisition of knowledge, skills values, beliefs and habits. Education happens in schools, under the guidance of teachers, but the best education happens when learners also educate themselves. Any experience that has a profound effect upon the way one thinks, feels or acts should be considered educational.
A good education involves formal teaching and the acquisition of a broad range of subject material, allowing for success in formal examinations. Outstanding schools will often focus upon examination success, impressive pass rates and eventual outcomes, such as the universities and careers to which former pupils have graduated. In the United Kingdom, independent schools will also sell themselves as providing opportunities and experiences beyond the classroom; such extracurricular activities may involve team sports, leadership activities, debating and other truly worthwhile pursuits, all of which come together to create rounded young adults, prepared for a successful life in the 21st-century.
However, to be a very good school, the institution cannot rely entirely upon examination pass rates and the percentages of former pupils going on to be doctors, lawyers and politicians. A very good school will also provide a strong ethos and a set of life values that will be held central to all that happens in the school. At the heart of such an ethos must be good manners and an understanding of how to treat others.
As a former Headmaster of an Independent School in the UK, and a serving Independent Schools Inspector, I advise parents on making the right choice for their children’s education. Choosing the right school is complex, personal and, if done thoroughly, time-consuming and rewarding. It goes far beyond scrutinising league tables and examination grades. One can tell an awful lot about a school by merely observing the most basic of behaviours; standing at the side of the corridor and watching as pupils and staff move between lessons is always revealing. Do pupils treat each other with courtesy? Do they hold doors open for one another? Do they help each other to carry bags and books? Do they smile engagingly and act with genuine respect towards their teachers? When looking for a good school, the majority of British families will consider the ethos and spirit of the school as being one of the key factors in their selection for their son or daughter. These are not considered “upper class’ values – merely good values and equally relevant across all social groups. Manners maketh man.
Senior leaders in schools might hope that these core values will be shared by parents, and therefore passed to children at home, but it is their role as educators to stress the importance of getting the basics right each and very day. For very young children, great emphasis is placed on learning how to treat others with respect and courtesy; as the children progress into teenage years, the emphasis is placed upon understanding the importance of tolerant and pleasant behaviour; teenagers sometimes need to have it made very clear to them that as they approach interviews to both university and the wider world of work, they will be judged upon the first impression they have created, often to people older then themselves. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Strict codes of behaviour and sets of rules are required in schools, formalising how children should conduct themselves. Some of these are related to health, welfare and safety whilst others are seen as the building blocks for personal and community development. If a child appreciates that their behaviour and actions will always have an impact upon others, and they have empathy and understanding, they will go a long way in life. A seventeen year-old might imagine themselves standing in front of a series of closed doors, and behind each of those doors is a very different person, ranging from a member of the royal family, through to a school cleaner, or one’s best friends grandmother. One of those doors is about to open and, if the young adult can express the confidence to be able to deal charmingly and engagingly with whomsoever might greet them, then life becomes a great deal easier.
The best schools in the United Kingdom will enable children to become confident young adults, as opposed to arrogant ones. The finest schools will help facilitate such personal growth and will encourage children to behave in the right fashion; sometimes they will have to sanction pupils if they fail to meet standards, but once a culture of common expectation has been set in a school, it is remarkable to observe how all children follow the common thread. They are keen to be led.