"Academic success and positive experiences beyond the classroom go hand in hand"
Responding to research from the UCL Institute of Education that independent school pupils can expect to be much healthier in middle age, Henry Price, headmaster of Wellington School, says this is as much down to culture as facilities.
As a privately educated, 42 year old Headmaster of an independent school, who attended a Russell Group university, the recent research from UCL Institute of Education linking an ‘elite’ education to health benefits in middle age is striking.
Dr David Bann, the study’s lead author, suggests that one possible explanation for his findings is that ‘private schools often have more resources to put into extracurricular activities than the state sector.’
Resources vary in independent and state schools, but what is vital to success is a culture and a belief that many of the most important lessons are learned outside of the classroom. This emphasis on an all-round education has long been embedded in the DNA of private schools and I believe that the educational pendulum is swinging back this way again. Extra or co-curricular activities develop the soft skills valued by employers; they allow pupils to find abilities and interests, which build confidence; they enable friendships, allow another arena for success and failure and often provide the primary motivation for some pupils to be at school.
I hope that we are seeing a shift, which does not shy away from academic testing, but recognises that grades are worth nothing without long term mental and physical wellbeing. Those few letters of the alphabet that pupils receive on results day provide an academic snapshot in time, like an ‘Emoji’, but they do not tell a full story of what has been achieved, nor will they define the narrative of someone’s life as acutely as their health.
Dr Bann’s study also points to the long-term benefits of education and is a reminder that a good education is an investment in the future that will keep paying dividends. At a time when the pace of life is ever faster and we see a focus on short-term results in politics, economics and education, we must remember that education requires patience. As teachers, we are sowing seeds that bloom at different times in different colours for different pupils. These may be intellectual, spiritual, cultural and more, but I believe that physical wellbeing is vital and is a part of the wider debate on mental health. We want our pupils active now, but also to instil the ‘healthy habits that benefit them later in life’, as Dr Bann reports.
At Wellington, we have a new Sport and Wellbeing department, which we are in the process of aligning more closely with PSHEE. Its aim is not only to provide for our keenest and ablest girls and boys, but to educate pupils to adopt a healthy lifestyle. For me, the short-term, snapshot of how the School does in fixtures on a Saturday comes a distant second to instilling physical wellbeing now and into the future. We don’t want a generation focusing on beautiful bodies and worrying about looking good, but to understand how to maintain healthy bodies and feeling good. I hope that our focus on nutrition, fitness testing, psychology and alternatives to traditional sports, such as Judo, Yoga, Pilates, Zumba and more, will enable pupils to make good decisions about their lifestyles long into their working lives. Further opportunities come from a flourishing Outdoor Education department where climbing, canoeing and recent success in the gruelling ‘Ten Tors’ all underpin the benefit and pleasure of physical activity.
Dr Bann also writes that ‘to reduce health inequalities among future generations, policymakers will likely need to address inequalities in our education system.’ Whilst we cannot solve this alone, as part of our many outreach activities, our Sport and Wellbeing department visits local schools, does fitness testing, teaches fundamental movement, coaches coaches and finishes with a superstars event. Our aim is simply to inspire young people to be active.
Since becoming a headmaster, I am very conscious that I am exercising less. I do wish that I had been taught more about core strength and how to train efficiently, but I was lucky to be in a busy school with the resources of facilities and staff, that has instilled good habits in me. My days of cricket, rugby and squash are (thankfully) long behind me, but I know that exercise is a vital antidote to the demands of work as well as my health and I do walk the dog and attempt the occasional T25 or workout.
I support Dr Bann when he suggests that ‘there might be long-term health benefits of improving recreational as well as academic opportunities for pupils’, indeed I believe that academic success and positive experiences beyond the classroom go hand in hand. As the examination season begins and stress levels rise, the need for exercise and an outlet becomes even more important and this is a lesson to be remembered throughout our lives. Amidst the demands of a changing world, Juvenal’s words seem as relevant as ever – mens sana in corpore sano.