Thoughts from Rachel Dent
Survival expert and former SAS soldier Bear Grylls has criticised schools for failing to prepare students for the realities of life by focussing too heavily on academic achievement in what he calls a “race to the top at 18”. At first I was rather disposed to be offended at this criticism, but deeper reflection made me realise that, in recognising that determination has a significant role to play in life, Grylls has a point, even if his generalisation about schools is naïve. The challenge, of course, is how to instil that determination and “never say die” attitude in our pupils?
Grylls tells us that he was “never the sportiest or the cleverest” at school but that he realised that he could control how determined he was. It’s something I often hear from our alumnae – they tell me that they were not top of the class, but that they learned how to be resilient, how to stand up for themselves, and as they did so they developed the determination to follow their dreams despite setbacks. These women have gone on to achieve major successes in their fields as entrepreneurs, artists and businesswomen, all because they learned that persistence pays off and effort is rewarded.
Determination is a factor throughout school life. We recently heard from education expert Ian Warwick, who warned us of the pitfalls of making education a “perfectly paved” path for children. He argues that it’s vital for children to be challenged in the classroom, however bright they are, in order to develop the ability to recover from setbacks. In other words, to develop their determination. Being able to “intelligently flounder” is a skill in itself and leads to greater expertise in problem-solving and an open-minded approach. It’s one that our Year 6 girls have been busy honing in their Biz School Challenge – facing the “Bear’s Cave” and learning to take being challenged about their ideas constructively and positively.
Of course, given Grylls’ background, I suspect what he wants
to see is children going beyond their physical, not just intellectual comfort
zones, and that’s important too. We consciously run our Duke of Edinburgh’s Award
scheme in Lower & Upper V and within our Sixth Form, throughout the
rigorous examination period, as we strongly believe that the balance this
offers is vital to mental wellbeing. It takes organisation and commitment to
devote the time required to both DofE and study, but the girls do it, time and
time again, and the things they learn on expeditions and through volunteering
are those that money can’t buy. It’s not
just packing too much kit and getting lost on a mountain side, or swimming down
Symond’s Yat rapids after falling out of their canoe, it’s dealing with stomach
bugs, blisters, hail and snow and supporting your team mates as they go through
tough times. It’s also about responsibility and thinking on your feet. I was
enormously proud of last year’s Silver DofE expedition group, who came to the
aid of a member of the public who was floundering in a bog and called the
emergency services to effect a rescue. It is also no surprise that almost all
of our girls complete silver and a huge number go on to complete gold - we are
a school that encourages finishers.
I would add also that the complement to determination is motivation, and that comes from having a passion or keen interest in life. I believe that it’s vital that young people are given the opportunities to discover what it is that lights them up, whether inside or outside the classroom, and that inspiration is a crucial part of what schools should provide. So I suppose I’ve ended up agreeing with Mr Grylls and being thankful that our students have the opportunity to develop their determination both inside and beyond the classroom.
Of course there is another interpretation of the word “determination” – the process of establishing something exactly. In six weeks’ time our country will determine how it wishes to be governed in yet another history-defining moment for the nation. While the majority of our pupils are too young to vote, it is their future that will be decided. It is my hope that we can make a decision that will make for a strong future.