"It’s a belief in educating the whole person and equipping them with the tools they need for the rest of their life"

Posted on: 18 Jan 2017
Posted by: Mark Mortimer

Commenting on new ISC research into mental toughness, Mark Mortimer, head of Warminster School which took part in the study, says what happens outside the classroom as important as what happens inside it.

Mental toughness is a state of mind - how a person approaches any given situation. It’s not about physical strength, size, gender or a Clint Eastwood-like inscrutability. Instead, it’s about attitude, self-control, tenacity and confidence. It's seizing opportunities, refusing to give up and thriving under pressure or in adversity.

The results of the Independent Schools Council's research into the development of so-called 'soft skills' at independent schools are important but they are as expected. Reading comments from other participating schools, I am struck by the similarity of what we have all said. Struck, but not surprised, because for many years independent schools the length and breadth of the country have attached great importance to the development of character and soft skills.

It’s a belief in educating the whole person and equipping them with the tools they need for the rest of their life - emotionally and socially as much as academically and professionally. I strongly believe, like most of my colleagues, that what happens outside the classroom is as important as what happens inside. Of course, exam results matter, but not as much as the qualities that allow pupils to leave school able to thrive in the fluid, ever-changing and let-go world of the 21st century. Emotional intelligence, reaction to failure, optimism, perseverance, resilience and the ability to improvise and adapt on one’s feet are increasingly important. My favourite word at school is 'bouncebackability'.

For my part, the results of the research are reassuring and encourage me to believe we're on the right track as a school. They back up what we say and do. We will continue to focus on the wider curriculum, such as music, sport, drama, the cadet force, our forest school, clubs and the opportunities for older pupils to lead and inspire younger ones.

At the same time, there is growing concern about the increasing pressures on young people and the rise of mental health issues: this is something schools take very seriously. A clear understanding of the ways in which mental toughness is developed and of the advantages it provides allows us to try and alleviate some of those pressures; not take them away, necessarily, but equip children to cope with them.

However, there is a much wider aspect to all this. Smugly saying 'I told you so' or complacently patting ourselves on the back is unhelpful and the wrong response. Far more important is the question of what this research contributes to the vital question of what comprises a fit and proper education in the 21st century? I believe that those of us in the independent sector have a key role and responsibility to play in this debate by raising our heads above the parapet to promote our vision of education and to build relationships with other schools in the state sector on this basis.

Is there anyone who doesn't agree with the importance of developing soft skills or the relationship between extra-curricular activities and that development, at least to some extent? I suspect not, and yet endless articles, reports and commentaries on education focus almost entirely on the classroom and exam results. There's constant, often unfair and unhelpful, criticism of the independent sector rather than honest analysis or recognition of what makes its educational philosophy successful.

By contrast, as my colleague Tim Hands, headmaster of Winchester College, said in 2013, "The political commitment of the state to extra-curricular activity disappeared once the state had lost a commitment to the child and its full holistic development."

And yet, in the introduction to its 2014 Character and Resilience Manifesto, the all-party parliamentary group on Social Mobility wrote that, "There is a growing body of research linking social mobility to social and emotional skills, which range from empathy and the ability to make and maintain relationships to application, mental toughness, delayed gratification and self-control. These research findings all point to the same conclusion: character counts."

If that's right, and that there is indeed a link between social mobility and the development of 'soft skills', does it not then follow that an educational philosophy that emphasises the importance of these attributes and affords them the attention and resources they need to develop would be the most effective approach in every school, not just independent ones? And if that is true, then this aspect of education - what happens outside the classroom - should have proper recognition and importance attached to it by government, by Ofsted and by the media.

However, these attributes are hard to measure, take time to acquire and are often intangible. As a result, they don’t often get the recognition, time and resources they need in the state sector. One of the frustrations of many state school heads is the obsession with measurement and data. I experienced this frustration first-hand in 2015 when I spent a week at Bemrose School in Derby, while filming the ITV documentary 'School Swap'. This new research shows that these soft skills are, in fact, measurable.

In the late 1990s I rowed across the Atlantic with a fellow army officer. When we returned to the UK I lost count of the number of people who told me how much they'd love to undertake such an adventure; then they listed all the reasons why they couldn't. What was it Samuel Johnson wrote - 'nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome'? Quite so.

Although it might seem odd, coming from the head of an independent school, I look forward to the day when there is no need for private schools because all schools offer similar opportunities and have a similar educational philosophy. It may be a long way off but if we don’t start, we’ll never get there.

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About Mark Mortimer

Mark Mortimer is head of Warminster School, a coeducational day and boarding school in Wiltshire.