So, who was your Valentine this year?

Posted on: 16 Feb 2016
Posted by: James Priory

James Priory, headmaster at Portsmouth Grammar School, writes about the importance of young people learning to love themselves.

As the High Street turns crimson and St Valentine’s Day comes into view, florists and chocolatiers will certainly be hoping we are asking ourselves this question.

A survey by the U.S. Greeting Card Association in 2010 estimated that teachers receive more Valentine’s Day cards than anyone else. Whether this is because teachers by their nature create an overwhelming sense of affection or, more prosaically, because they are the ones collecting in the spare red card and scissors at the end of a lesson in card-making is unclear. Most teachers I know will probably just be relieved to remind themselves what their loved ones look like when the February half term break arrives.

Given the universal celebration of romance associated with 14 February, it is interesting to consider what it is that we actually teach about love in school today.We recently held a Sex and Relationships Day for pupils in Year 9- an event we run once a year with self-conscious irony. Feedback from pupils showed that it had been a valuable opportunity outside of the usual timetable pressures for them to reflect on how they see themselves, to consider what makes a relationship meaningful, and to ensure they feel equipped to make informed and safe choices for themselves and each other.

It’s a sign of changing levels of maturity that this used to be a day offered to pupils in Year 10, and of course there are aspects of sex education which come considerably earlier in a child’s learning. It’s all a far cry from my own educational experience which seemed to be a haphazard combination of Carry On films and Biology lessons on amphibian anatomy, which is probably why I never became a doctor and find my children regularly offended by my sense of humour.

But what exactly is the place of ‘love’ in our otherwise sensitive and practical PSHE programmes?

Is ‘love’ as a notion slowly being squeezed out of the curriculum along with creative arts: too touch-feely to survive in the crystalline world of STEM?

Has it become a four letter word- to quote Joan Baez- which schools would prefer to avoid given its dangerous connotation of inappropriate relationships?

Or is there still room for the kind of nostalgic sentimentality which Tony Little, former Head Master of Eton College, expressed so beautifully in his book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (the word ‘emotionally’ presumably left on the cutting floor with all those slivers of red paper) when he concluded that, “Great teachers use their heads but teach from the heart”?

A couple of years ago I was contacted by a former pupil who asked mysteriously if he could come into school in the holiday and light some candles on a staircase. He explained that he was bringing his partner- herself, a former pupil- on a surprise return trip to their alma mater. His plan was to propose to her in the place where they had first caught each other’s eyes. There were candelabras being installed and violinists stationed in the stairwell before our conversation had even finished, old romantic that I am. Happily engaged, they sent a generous gift of books for the school library, which thoughtfully included at least a few literary romances amongst the titles.

Love, it seems, is alive and kicking, but managing relationships in the digital age can be doubly fraught for young people today. There is the pressure to make declarations in the public arena of the internet, and an expectation of sometimes sending more than a Valentine’s Day text, sacrificing personal privacy with an image destined for Snapchat. Simply understanding what is meant by an online ‘friend’ can be enough of a pitfall for the unwary.

One of the biggest challenges facing young people, I feel, and which can lie at the root of so many issues relating to issues of mental health, is whether or not they accept and love themselves.

Young people can be their toughest own critics and can need much more help in coming to terms with themselves than we might think. Realising that everyone goes through periods of doubt and uncertainty can be wonderfully liberating.

I have been genuinely surprised, for example, to see just how positive an impact there has been in my school by the introduction of PGS Pride, a forum which engages with issues relating to equality and identity. We have had some inspirational speakers- some of them from within our own community- and even took part in Portsmouth’s first Gay Pride Parade last summer.

There has been a marked reduction in issues relating to the use of homophobic language, a change which has been all the more powerful because the message about tolerance has come from the pupils themselves. There is no doubt we have become an even more compassionate school.

Throughout this week we are selling roses to raise funds for our link school in Cambodia- a kind of distance relationship for the school as a whole. Pupils have been invited to nominate someone within the community to whom their Valentine gift will be delivered as an expression of appreciation and, yes, love.

If anyone is in any doubt, however, about who should be their Valentine this year, I have a simple suggestion: send it to yourself.

For many young people today, learning to love themselves, and being able to say this to the world might just be the most important declaration they make.

This blog post was also sent to The Telegraph by ISC who felt it deserved more widespread coverage.

About James Priory

James Priory is headmaster at Portsmouth Grammar School, a coeducational day school with 1,100 pupils.