We hear a lot in the media about how schools could do far more to ensure that their students are ready for future employment. Earlier this year, Anne Thompson, head of youth careers guidance at the CFBT Education Trust, commented in the Daily Telegraph that indeed “schools should do more to prepare students for work.” What we hear less of, however, is whether schools prepare young people for life. Are we doing enough in schools to prepare students for the challenges, opportunities, disappointments and excitement of life beyond school? Or is it even our job to do so? Are we taking on the job that parents should be doing themselves?
I believe strongly that we do have a responsibility to prepare every child for their future adult life. Many schools would assert at this point that they do so: they provide a holistic approach to education. However, what does the term holistic actually mean? In response, we might argue that the word relates to teaching the ‘whole’ child and not just satisfying their academic demands. I would argue that holistic education should at least attempt to go far deeper than this. Holistic education, in its most fundamental sense, helps the individual child to become the best that they can be and, therefore, to achieve their potential in the very broadest sense of the word. This approach has it basis – in part – in a branch of ancient Greek philosophy which focuses on the importance of each human reaching their potential in order to achieve true eudaimonia or happiness (in its most basic sense). From this, we can assert that the non-academic focus in a school is just as important as the academic. We must aim for each child to leave our schools with the potential to tackle everything that life can throw at them: the good and the bad. Teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do, but teaching and learning in the very broadest sense of the words. As Aristotle himself said: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
A holistic approach to education is not without its critics. Some argue that such an approach lacks academic rigour and encourages students to be collaborators rather than true leaders. I disagree. However, we really need to understand what holistic education is. In this way we can aim for the fullest possible development of every child we teach in an effort for them to become the finest that they can be. We are then indeed encouraging students to reach their telos or potential, whether this is as a future leader or a collaborator.
Education is a lifelong process and we have a huge responsibility to those we teach, not only to help facilitate academic success, but also to help students develop the skills and character needed to face their future lives. Our support of their emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, creative, aesthetic and psychological needs will help pupils on their way to achieve their fullest potential. It must be an education which provides challenge and breadth, one which provokes and encourages the ability to respond to disappointment and failure, one which promotes interrelationships with peers and self-reflection and one – ultimately – that focuses on the individual in ensuring that their needs, whatever they may be, are met. Furthermore, these skills are not just provided through PSHE or an effective form tutoring system, but one which underpins the ethos of the school. Excellence, Aristotle argues, is not only an act, after all, but a habit. Perhaps some staff will need convincing that they have a role to play in a holistic approach, but without the effort in this regard, we must question whether we can say that our school can prepare students for the world beyond the school gates.
Helen Jeys is deputy head at Manchester High School for Girls W: www.manchesterhigh.co.uk