Filling buckets or lighting fires?

Posted on 21st Mar 2019 in School News, Prep Schools Guide

Mark Seymour, Headmaster of Kingshott in Hertfordshire, says independent schools should ‘embrace and exploit’ their independence...

Amongst the squabbling and contradictions surrounding the Brexit debate, what a relief it was to hear this morning Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted, declare that their inspections now will focus on the all-round quality of the education more than the scores on the mass of data we have become used to collating. She acknowledges that there is so much more to a good education than examination grades and that she wants to discourage teaching to the test.

Independent schools should embrace and exploit their independence. None of us would deny the central importance of a high quality academic education, but teaching to the test does not achieve that. It might create a generation or two of well qualified examinees, but where is their initiative, their creativity, their ability to find imaginative solutions? Although there is some debate about whether it was Plutarch or W. B. Yeats who first said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”, I do like that. Schools I enjoy and teachers I admire do not see teaching as an exercise in filling buckets – treating pupils like empty vessels that remain inanimate while someone tops them up – but as a process of lighting fires: sparking the curiosity, inventiveness and expression that fuels genuine, deep-seated learning together with the ability and the confidence to apply the skills and knowledge learnt.

It is at prep school that children are of the age to acquire a set of values and standards that can help them navigate some of the choppy waters that will inevitably come their way. I believe the right school environment can imbue children with a clear understanding of right and wrong, of how to demonstrate respect and tolerance, and how to contribute positively towards establishing and maintaining good relations with peers. We have also adopted a version of the 5Rs, promoting readiness, resourcefulness, resilience, responsibility and reflectiveness. We give children a chance to self-assess themselves in these five areas on a regular basis and we comment on and reward examples of these qualities in their work and in their attitude and behaviour around the school.

We want to enable our children to enjoy the widest possible breadth of experience; to have the chance to discover areas that engage their interest, activities at which they find they have some ability and others that are simply fun. This way children begin to define themselves – an important part of their development. A crucial part of this is to stimulate creativity and to provide a fulfilling programme of physical activities, supported by superb new facilities, from the competitive major games to individual sports involving all pupils. Music is a well-established strength, our Art is remarkable and brightens vast areas of the school, Dance is very popular and Drama is making the most of our superbly equipped theatre and its limitless ambition – a cast of 400 in “Lion King”! With well-being quite rightly so high on every school’s agenda, we should not ignore the benefits of such a broad range of active involvement.

Manners, too, are valued. They are, after all, what characterise us to others from the moment we first meet. Learning to look people in the eye when talking to them; courtesy in holding doors open for others; polite requests rather than lazy demands – all these make an indelible impression on those around us. And let’s not overlook table manners either!

Independence also allows us to devote time to important contemporary studies. Children in Years 7 and 8 should be able to look at the impact of recent events on our lives today. What was the Arab Spring? Debate, public speaking and presentations should all form part of their school experience – the ability to communicate face to face.

Most, if not all of the above are not examinable in the conventional sense – pupils do not generally receive exam grades nor do we rigorously track their data in these areas, but if we look forward to when, for example, our current Year 4s leave either school or university, who can confidently predict what the world of work will look like then? No-one. Let’s be assured, however, that the most important thing we can do is give them the very qualities discussed here: a clear set of values and standards, the awareness of how to approach problems, the imagination to find solutions, the readiness to collaborate within a team, the resilience to keep on going, the ability to communicate effectively with any audience and – above all – the confidence to be themselves.

A prep school career that goes on to the age of 13 is, I believe, the best preparation for senior school and beyond. The opportunity to enjoy being at the top of your school at an age when you can be given some meaningful responsibility and have a significant influence on school life is an experience from which pupils take away so many valuable lessons. More important, the assurance and confidence – not arrogance – that pupils demonstrate at the end of their prep school career is a testament to the quality of the school experience. But prep schools cannot rely on being able to keep their pupils to the end of Year 8 any longer. In the face of increasingly predatory senior schools looking to recruit at Year 7, many prep schools find their senior years weakened in terms of gender balance or reduced in overall numbers, so much so that their viability in the long term is questioned. A prep school, however, that is able to provide a compelling offer; that encourages enquiry, inspires curiosity and promotes independent learning; that genuinely prepares its pupils for tomorrow’s world, will continue to command a healthy position in the market.

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2019. You can view this guidebook here: