Simon Smith arrived at Rydal Penrhos in January 2017 following six years at Haileybury as deputy head (Academic), where he taught History and was also a senior boarding house tutor, Year 7 tutor and refereed many football and rugby matches. Prior to Haileybury, Simon was at Worth School in Sussex for 11 years where he was head of history and the IB Diploma co-ordinator before joining the senior leadership team as director of academic administration.
Simon gained a BA (Hons) in History and Economics from the University of York and studied for his PGCE at the same university while working at Bootham School. His first teaching post was at Hurstpierpoint College in Sussex. Simon has been a Governor at two prep schools as well as at Haileybury Turnford, an academy school supported by Haileybury. Simon is also a Director of the Welsh independent Schools Council (WISC).
The 4th R’ in education – relationships
Since the early 19th century, the three ‘Rs’ in education have been known as: reading, [w]’riting, and [a]’rithmetic.
Ten years ago I recall a headmaster I worked for saying that teaching was essentially two things – communication and relationships. Personally, I would have added ‘subject knowledge’ but I liked the simplicity of focussing on the importance of communication – the ability to impart knowledge, enthuse, feedback on work, explain how to progress etc. – and relationships.
When we think back on our own school experience we will, I imagine, remember not the subject lessons we had but our friends, our shared experiences and probably too those teachers we particularly appreciated.
One of my strongest memories is opening the batting with my favourite history teacher against a club side and in one match we scored a century partnership; though it was his love of history and personality that I most appreciated.
I remember in my first three years of teaching, coaching rugby to the school’s youngest pupils – year-9s – and therefore getting to know every boy as they moved through the school.
Schools, particularly boarding schools, are communities and therefore healthy relationships are essential for them to function.
It is important we understand what we mean by healthy relationships. I was fortunate to listen recently to Mandy Saligari, MSc MBACP (Reg), at a conference in London on “How To Support Success In Today’s Teenager”.
Saligari noted that today’s teens face a multitude of challenges and pressures: time, pace, exams and work prospects to name but a few. They are connected globally via the internet, gaming, YouTube, social media and have access, also via the internet, to material beyond their years, yet these pressures, connections and mobile devices enable a teenager not just to be distracted but to disassociate themselves from their immediate community.
In times of stress and concern our pupils now have the capacity to withdraw from the people best placed to help them and in doing so face a different plethora of pressures and modelled behaviour.
Children want to ‘fit in’ – fit in at school, work, home and so on. If they feel they don’t, they now have the opportunity to escape in a way that wasn’t possible even ten years ago; Instagram, for example, was only released in 2010. Ironically they believe they are better connected than ever before – I disagree.
What can schools do?
We can, of course, educate our pupils and parents through the media of PHSE classes, limit phone use and host events such as the regular Parents’ Pastoral Forums we hold at Rydal Penrhos, but there are additional strategies we employ in developing healthy relationships and to combat the stresses and strains of adolescence. It goes without saying that these also have a positive impact on pupil performance.
1) Push participation. The more team sports (including competitive fixtures versus other schools), music concerts, drama productions, whole school or boarding house socials and inter-house competitions schools can offer then the greater the sense of belonging and comradeship. Opportunities for individual and small team performance have their place but mass participation e.g. inter-house singing (as we had last month) or a Saturday morning block sports fixture generates a real sense of loyalty to a common cause, as well as being great fun.
2) Find ways to promote diagonal relationships. Horizontal relationships across a year group and vertical relationships in a House system, for example, are all well and good but facilitating opportunities where any pupil in Year 7 has the opportunity to interact with a Sixth Former is even better. Once a month I host boarders for a Headmaster’s Sunday Lunch and it’s terrific to see how comfortable all our guests are in each other’s company.
3) Think beyond the normal working day working day. For parents I host breakfasts with the Headmaster to discuss a range of issues over a coffee and a croissant. For pupils lessons, breaks and lunch-times are all well and good but the strongest relationships are those forged, in my opinion, in evening activities and weekend enrichment. The opportunities to learn a skill, develop an existing one or spend time together socialising on an evening or planning a school event outside of the “normal” School hours – without mobile phones etc. – seems to have an even greater impact. Boarding schools are particularly well placed to offer these opportunities for interaction – a home from home – where interactions are real, not digital, and create memorable experiences but later finishes for day schools can have a similar effect.
4) Think long-term. Relationships formed at school do not stop once pupils leave. An alumni network continues and reinvigorates that sense of community, offering mentor and career advisors for pupils as well as encouraging pupils to stay in touch with each other long after they’ve left school. Schools such as Rydal Penrhos have a “history” a long-established alumni body active internationally, nationally and locally. Just last month an Old Rydalian brought his daughter to look around the school for a Year 9 place and coincidentally met an old friend – now a parent at the school himself – whom he hadn’t seen for 32 years. The affection each still held for the other was genuine and showed that age and distance are no barrier to strong relationships.
5) Think outside the box. Rydal Penrhos has a Business Club with nearly 100 members and regular networking events. Some members are alumni, some are current parents and some are simply progressive local businesses interested in the opportunities that come with forming mutually beneficial relationships.
In these uncertain times, pupils (and their parents) need a fixed point; something to rely upon and relate to, a sanctuary if you like. The new technologies and league table positions of schools are attractive to families considering their options, but they are no guarantee of happiness, confidence and security. Today’s young people need to be able to build and experience relationships at school too, to learn tolerance, empathy, resilience (more on this in my next article) and resourcefulness.
These are the ‘Rs’ for which there is no exam nor league table but which may just be the silver bullet for the trials and tribulations of the 21st Century.