Out and About Friday, 1 march 2024

Our final, and arguably the most important, Round Square theme this term is leadership. I have spoken twice to the school this week on this subject, firstly looking back and secondly looking forwards. In chapel this morning, we observed that lessons from history can help us to create a pathway for the future, and in assembly on Monday, I quoted King Constantine II, the founder of Round Square and whose service of thanksgiving took place on Tuesday in the chapel. As he was exiled from Greece to the UK in the 1960s, he said: “Forget the past, let’s get on with the future”. Leaders look both to the past for inspiration and guidance, but are firmly rooted in the future.

As with my thoughts on the other five Round Square ideals, I have sought out the true meaning of leadership through the lens of a child. Indeed, the very essence of student leadership in this age group has intrigued me throughout my own leadership journey in schools. I always felt uncomfortable putting particular students in positions of leadership, feeling it put an unnecessary and unfair spotlight on them, whilst leaving their peers in their wake, essentially telling them that they weren’t good enough to be leaders. Instead, we made the decision here in 2020 to move away from head boy, head girl, house captains and head chorister, instead taking the route of inviting all our students to have agency and a voice. I’m not certain we have the ambassadorial roles absolutely right, but I do believe we are on the right path in enabling them all to take a share in understanding what leadership is.

Student agency and voice was at the heart of a conference I attended yesterday at the British Museum. I had the very great privilege (and for me, this is akin to meeting a rock star or international sports player) of hearing the Director General of the IB, Dr. Oli-Pekka Heinonen, address an audience of UK state and independent IB school heads. Alongside other panels and speakers, I picked out some key themes that have helped me find a contemporary answer for what empowering students in terms of leadership means.

The first theme came from Oli Heinonen. He addressed a misconception that so many educators (and, I am sure, I) have fallen for. We all too easily refer to the new world we are heading towards as a place and time of complexity. With this, we link complexity with times of crisis and problems, and then expect our young people to feel positive about their role in making this world a better place. He suggested reframing the word "complex" back to its Latin roots - “connecting the dots” - and with this ensuring the education sector, individual schools and teachers prioritise empowering students to grow their own capabilities to act - with hope - to make the world a better place. The Director General spoke of the need for our students to develop these capabilities and skills - especially in how they relate to others - as we move from the information society to a new, interaction society.

The second theme emerged as I sat through a presentation about the changing economy and the future of work. Several statistics emerged from this that will back up the crux of the session:

  • 33% of UK vacancies have not been filled due to a skills shortage.
  • Employees are now spending £5b less on training than they did five years ago.
  • When recruiting, 65% of firms look for relevant work experience above academic qualifications
  • 92% of employers felt the “soft skills” were much more important than hard skills. Almost all want transferable skills. The top soft skills needed were agility, compassion and creativity.

This is in direct conflict with the education system that prioritises knowledge recall and exams. If these are the dispositions needed to both live a good life and contribute to a complex future, then why are they not at the heart of formal education?

But they are. Right at the heart of the Early Years Foundation Stage is a set of competencies that our very youngest students develop and demonstrate in a really advanced manner. This then dissipates as the student moves into Key Stage 1 and beyond. Except it doesn’t with the IB. The Learner Profile and approaches to learning continue to develop, very deeply, these core competencies within our students.

The third theme came across strongly in a panel discussion on teaching about the climate crisis, chaired by Nicola Woolcock, columnist for The Times and chair of the Times Education Commission. It was during this session that the true opportunity in developing leadership in students came to me. If we are to empower our young people to develop genuine leadership traits, then their agency and voice need to be at the very heart of their educational journey. Shifting from direct instruction from one generation to the next (whilst aspects of this are important to develop the building blocks of knowledge acquisition, it isn’t relevant in its entirety now), if we promote the confidence that our students should have to debate matters and let their voices be heard, we are then instilling in all of them leadership in confronting a complex world.

Round Square describes the ideal leadership as:

For Round Square a Spirit of Leadership recognises that successful leaders are driven by a desire to be of service to others and to nurture, guide, develop and help them to improve and succeed.

In recognising the role that every single human being can play to be of service to others, it is the moral imperative of adults to raise our children with the following key messages:

  • We aren’t leaving them a world plagued by problems and crises; instead the complexity of the future is an exciting opportunity for our young people to sow hope and see the capabilities they developed at school enable them to flourish.
  • Yes, the job market will continue to change beyond all recognition, but by prioritising transferable skills and mindsets, alongside knowledge, we are preparing the next generation to seize the opportunities.
  • Student voice and agency is key - from the very start to the very end of a young person’s education. If we allow them to use their voices responsibly in the knowledge that they are being listened to, then we are developing the leaders of the future.

Leadership is so much more than a handful of children being picked to represent their school as a captain; it is about allowing our children to use their voice and act. How can this be enabled? I think joining Round Square and the IB is a good place to start.

William Goldsmith