This week’s return to school has seen the predictable blowing of a single issue out of all proportion – in this case, a decision by the Head of Hartsdown Academy in Margate to send home pupils who failed to conform to the school’s uniform policy. I don’t intend to discuss this in detail – the case has been cogently argued by Behaviour Tsar Tom Bennett in his recent blog. But in the light of Team GB’s recent Olympic success, this story set me thinking. Here’s why.
Several years ago, I taught a child who, by the age of 10, was hovering on the edges of anti-social behaviour and showed every sign of becoming lost, despite the best endeavours of both school and family. He was a talented footballer, but spent more time in playground fights sparked by disputed decisions than he did actually playing. Most days, he ended up banned. He was disengaged in the classroom, sullen and often angry.
Football was the great and single passion of his life – watching it, playing it and talking about it. He regularly represented the school in league matches and generally managed to control himself, for fear of losing his place on the team. It was pretty much the only thing that kept him in school.
One day he was spotted by a talent scout. Following a trial, he was offered a place with the local First Division club junior team – but there were conditions. He had to change his diet. He was no longer allowed to join in with playground football or school league games. He had to commit to working in the classroom, showing respect to school staff and club trainers. Any infringement of the school’s behaviour code, any single incident of aggression, any suspension from school or any missed training session without good reason would mean instant dismissal from the programme. He would have to achieve 5 GCSEs at the end of Year 11 in order to progress beyond the junior team. To succeed, he had to change his life.
The conditions might seem draconian, but there was a purpose. To become a successful professional footballer, he would need to develop self-discipline in all areas of his life, and he would need to commit to a new lifestyle. He did commit, very willingly, and overnight, he turned his life around.
This has been an exciting summer of sport, as we’ve celebrated the outstanding success of our Olympians. But each and every person on Team GB understands, as my pupil did, about discipline, commitment and the need to set aside personal choices in order to succeed. Without accepting the discipline of their trainers, and the need to eat, sleep and train in accordance with their training programmes, none of them would have been there.
Why, I wonder, do we celebrate this determination and discipline in our athletes and footballers, yet cry foul when that very same attitude is enforced by a school Head? In order to get the best out of school life, pupils need to commit – to listening, working, to being determined and to keeping the rules. School is where young people learn how communities, society and the workplace operate. Staff who are lazy about enforcing rules are actually doing their students a grave injustice, allowing them to think that they can please themselves about which rules they keep and which ones they ignore. Life outside of school doesn’t work like that, so life in school shouldn’t either. Everything worth achieving costs effort, commitment and focus.
And what is true in the physical realm is also true in the spiritual realm. The writer of the Hebrews urges us to ‘run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12:1), while the apostle Paul writes: ‘Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever’ (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
As another school year gets underway, think about the example you set your students in commitment, perseverance and determination. They are values that help pupils to build solid foundations, not just during school years, but for whatever their future lives hold for them.