​‘Beautifully busy BUT who am I?’

Posted on 25th Mar 2020 in Prep Schools Guide, School News

Richard Whymark, Head of King’s Ely Junior (Years 3-8) and Deputy Chief Executive of King’s Ely (ages 2-18), considers the importance of emotional intelligence...

Leading schools tell us how they will inspire every child in their care to reach for the stars by developing new skills and knowledge through a plethora of activities, crammed into every waking minute of the day. Similarly, some parents, aspiring to give their child the edge over classmates during the ultra-competitive school years, will lay on all sorts of clubs, tutors and enrichment for their children in the few remaining waking moments – all in an attempt to help their child shine that little more brightly and become all that the parent aspires for them to be.

However, personal development rarely happens in a linear way, with achievement markers (grades, results, certificates or levels) to celebrate the steps taken towards an imaginary endpoint. Important though it is to experience a diverse range of activities, helping children to reflect, consider and appreciate their innate interests and fascinations in their own time is at least as important as collecting all the badges and rosettes along the way.

How then can schools provide an appropriate balance between immersive and appropriately challenging extension and enrichment opportunities, whilst also respecting childhood and nurturing a healthy joy in self-discovery? Like most dilemmas, it is a question of balance and stewardship. Creating an atmosphere where reflection, inclusiveness and positivity combine to enable each child is the goal.

Being fortunate enough to share more than seventy acres of open space with our pupils at King’s Ely, where stunningly beautiful medieval buildings, modern additions, extensive sports facilities, assault courses, a river to row on, spaces to play in and quiet areas to ponder quietly within, all allow that “space to be”. To be whoever you are becoming, to experience new things, to challenge assumptions, to have a go... but equally, to be still, to be in awe, to learn about yourself and to construct a personal perspective. The crucial ingredient is of course time and that means it is vital to take the adult foot off the gas from time to time.

Mindfulness courses, wellbeing awards, schemes of work in PHSE and assemblies all contribute to the balance, but they are all contrived. The real secret is in the minute to minute, day by day, culture of the school. Encouraging children to ask the big questions, to consider why? and how? and to make each day a step towards a deeper understanding of themselves should be considered as being just as important as mastery in maths or gaining the next academic target. Developing their sense of self, having time to internalise their thoughts, learning to reflect on successes and absorb the healthy failures along the way, all need to be factored into the timetable children enjoy.

The best schools have woken up to the need to develop emotional intelligence as a complimentary and transformational area of work. The most impressive schools place the development of emotional intelligence at the core of what they do and build opportunities to develop it into each part of the day. My favourite question to our pupils is “what sort of person are you becoming and why?” The joy of my job is to see how each child answers and to celebrate the diverse answers I’m given.

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2020, which you can read here: