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Mission for pupils to lead and make a difference

The School mission is to learn, lead and make a difference. Our Head of Boarding and Co-Curricular at City of London Freemen's School, Jemima Edney, has recently written a thoughtful article discussing the mission and specifically the importance of student leadership within school communities.

Jemima’s article is one of a number of pieces written by leading voices across the schools sector. They have been written to start conversations about important challenges, opportunities and ideas within the schools sector today for the Schools Practice at Odgers Berndtson who are launching the first series of articles for its new 'Voices in Education' series.

The School’s mission is achieved by aims of nurturing a community of learners; providing relevant opportunities for pupils to expand their horizons intellectually and socially, athletically and creatively, emotionally and spiritually; encouraging responsibility and capability, honesty and reliability, pride and passion; promoting determination and innovation, flexibility and adaptability, kindness and consideration and fostering in our pupils the confidence, curiosity, independence and wisdom to succeed in the next stages of their lives.

Below Jemima’s article discusses leadership and how it can make a difference for pupils.

We want pupils at Freemen’s to learn, to lead and to make a difference.’ This sentence from our School mission statement resonates with me on many levels. On the face of it, it is not particularly radical. Of course we want pupils to learn; that rather goes without saying in a school. Wanting pupils to lead is not a new concept either. The prefectural system dates from the 14th Century, and sports captains from the early part of the 19th. Today opportunities for class reps, school council members, e-safety forum leaders, eco- and catering committee chairs abound in our schools, and rightly so. As educators, we know that leadership skills - organisation, communication, diplomacy, problem solving - are those that employees will want, so it is quite appropriate that it is prominent in our schools.

Yet in many schools, these important life and career skills are developed through opportunity, rather than discretely taught to our young people. Good quality, ethical leadership might be developed by osmosis, by trial and error, perhaps by good role modelling, but is this a risk we want to take with pupils who may go on to be leaders on a national or even global stage? The thought that our young leaders may have their knowledge of leadership influenced by those who have dominated the news headlines over the past decade is enough to send shivers down your spine.

I think the grammar of our mission statement could be different; ‘we want pupils to learn to lead, and to make a difference’, or even ‘to learn to lead [in order] to make a difference’. The latter has scansion issues but raises the notion of leading for the purpose of making a difference, or ethical leadership, and both bring an emphasis on learning to lead.

My focus for this year is to ensure that Freemen’s pupils learn leadership that makes a difference. I share my plans for doing this here, not because I have all the answers, nor because we do it better than anyone else, but to prompt thought and give insight that may be useful to others in this, or other contexts.

Whether leadership is taught as a discrete subject in schools or taught through other means will be part of a bigger discussion over a skills versus knowledge based curriculum, and individual schools will find a path that works for them. But I believe it is our duty as teachers to prepare our young people for the leadership challenges ahead of them, to teach them how to lead ethically, to give them opportunity to fail, to pick themselves up and try again within the safe parameters of our schools.

Teach to lead

Last year Freemen’s introduced a leadership qualification, the Student Leader Accreditation (SLA). It generated great interest from Year 10 and 11, but only a few completed the award. Perhaps surprisingly, many undertook an extended leadership activity, did the hard graft, but failed to keep the portfolio that would lead to recognition. Overcome by fear of failure so common at that age, they lacked confidence that they would do it correctly, so didn’t produce the evidence for scrutiny. We hadn’t taught them how to lead and so they lacked the confidence to succeed. Their only knowledge of leadership was based on trial and error, role modelling from home and school and, worryingly, from news and social media figures.

This year we will give pupils more resources on how to approach the challenge of leadership and put on sessions to teach the areas that pupils find challenging. This belt and braces approach is what we think will work for us. Other schools may need one or the other, or both, or a completely different solution.

Anyone can learn to lead

As a fairly introverted person myself, I enjoyed Susan Cain’s book Quiet in which she discusses the misconceptions surrounding leadership traits. Although there may be a growing understanding in this area, there remains a global perception that good leaders are extroverts, who have big personalities, enjoy the limelight and are ruthlessly reprimand underperformers. But introverts make very good, if sometimes unwilling leaders. Rosa Parks was not an extrovert, nor exuded charisma, but her actions led to a movement that changed the world. Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates have similar traits, the common theme being leadership arising from a selfless desire to make a better world. Leadership is not an innate skill that only extroverts possess; we are all capable of learning skills that may not come naturally to us and adopting them when necessary, particularly if driven by a cause close to our hearts. Most of us don’t enjoy confrontation for example but accept it to be an inevitable part of leading a successful team, and building a better environment, so we learn strategies to address it. Our young people, wherever they land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum can learn to appear extroverted when required, particularly when driven by an ethical compass.

The vast majority of our first SLA cohort would describe themselves as introverts who regularly put themselves outside of their comfort zones to achieve the award. The result? Youngsters who may not choose to speak in public, but should they wish or need to, have the confidence, skill and experience to do so.

Lead to make a difference

We coincided the launch of the SLA programme with hugely increased leadership opportunities in school. We now have over a hundred leadership places available in a huge range of activities, vastly raising the profile of leadership in the school. Despite this, half the SLA cohort chose to lead in activities outside of school. As with other awards, it is marginally more taxing for pupils to chase an external group leader’s report, but it proved thoroughly worth it. Whilst those doing ‘in-house’ leadership made a difference to the school community, those who were able to make a difference to a local community outside of school walls made significantly more impact to themselves and others. Schools are relatively well resourced, with excellent staff: pupil ratios for activities. Community groups don’t necessarily have that luxury, so the impact of a young leader helping to direct a youth choir, or an additional pair of hands at the nursing home, is hugely impactful on both parties. This is where leadership makes a real difference.

It is appropriate that our school mission is to guide pupils to learn, to lead and to make a difference, but whatever the mission in our schools, we should all support pupils to learn to lead in order to make difference.