Today’s young people are astonishing and I feel privileged to work with them. I have been the headteacher of a state comprehensive, a state grammar, an academy and now a leading independent school, so I have seen a large number of children grow into young adults ready to take on leadership roles in the world that they are to inherit. I am delighted at what that means for the future of our world.
I believe that today’s young people are ready to make the world a better place. Recent generations have, of course, made progress in many important areas. However, I sense a wonderful change ahead.
I believe that there is a difference, a solid consensus in the moral compass of today’s young people. Today’s young people are committed as never before to equality, the celebration of diversity, the importance of family-friendly employment, the imperative of global interdependence, the principles of environmental sustainability, to name but a few.
While none of these are new ideas, I don’t believe they have ever been so passionately felt across such a wide spectrum of young people; together they form a manifesto of youth. This generation holds the type of consensus that means ‘stuff’ happens because everyone knows it should. So it does.
We are told that today’s young people will work in portfolio careers and in roles that, in many cases, do not even yet exist. The challenges and opportunities offered by artificial intelligence, for example, are little understood. We are preparing them for a world that we do not comprehend. It will be different.
And yet, and yet. The future will still be about friendships formed, decisions made and attitudes held. As we look towards young people’s future life-journeys, full of all sorts of things we cannot predict, we can, nonetheless, prepare the leaders of the future with the qualities of character that will see them through. That is our challenge and our privilege as teachers.
In classrooms and playgrounds, on the sports fields and on the stage, in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, as armed forces cadets, in artistic and cultural arenas, we can see this at work. The best schools have always known that education is about far more than exam results. We are preparing children to be leaders of the future where their success will not be defined solely in professional terms but also by their roles as parents, partners, neighbours, friends and good members of the community.
Children of this generation have embraced technology in a way that means that they have as much access to information, as much opportunity to collaborate and to communicate across great distances as previous generations might have experienced in a lifetime. The continuing technology revolution poses great dangers in terms of digital addiction. However, it also presents unprecedented opportunity and power to do good. It magnifies the potential of young people’s actions. It increases the speed of change and the impact of leadership. I have seen again and again that people live up to or down to the expectations that we have of them. I believe our young people can achieve more than any of us think possible. In fact, I know that they will.
But I feel sad that today’s children are growing up exposed to more pressure, more reasons to be stressed, more high-stakes hurdles to jump than I believe is good for them. There are down sides of today’s social media onslaught, unprecedented exam pressure and the exposure through the internet to life’s harsh realities. These were never a threat to previous generations. We need to re-double our efforts to look after our young people. But the effort will be worth it.
As a father, as a teacher and as a school leader I am so proud of today’s children, growing into young adults, leaders of the future. And I for one can’t wait till they can take the strain from us oldies.
Shaun Fenton is Headteacher of Reigate Grammar School. He will be Chair of HMC 2018-19.