Rydal Penrhos Community
Column: Headmaster Simon Smith urges pupils to take interest in current affairs

Column: Headmaster Simon Smith urges pupils to take interest in current affairs

At the time of writing, we are in the midst of momentous political events. Hot on the heels of Brexit and the US Presidential elections we see local elections here in North Wales, the French Presidential elections and of course the forthcoming General Election on 8 June.

It’s essential that my pupils and young people all across the UK understand just how fortunate they are to be in a country and a continent that values and protects free speech and democracy. Part of that process is periodic elections but it’s not, in my opinion, enough to simply be aware of them. Of course, the majority of school-age pupils are not yet of voting age and they may not be eligible to vote for residency reasons, if they are at a boarding school like Rydal Penrhos.

Obviously I could not vote in the French Presidential elections, for example, but it’s vital that, as global citizens, we understand the issues, the views and the policies such elections involve. Ignorance can lead to alarming results. Today news and information has never been more widely available by we must arm our young people with the knowledge and skills to recognise that it is not all balanced nor accurate.

Simply by widening our range we can succeed in filtering the bias or the ‘fake news’ and form a considered opinion. An opinion that may be different from the person next to you in class or Chapel or your fellow PlayStation challenger sitting on the sofa, but one that is valid nonetheless. I implore young people to find the time to discover and discuss, with parents or teachers or each other, the political issues of the day.

There can be little more important than knowing about the movements and personalities leading us into the 2020s, a world that will be theirs and for which we are preparing them.

I am looking forward to our own school Mock Elections, next month, a process I imagine will take place across many schools in the region and beyond, involving pupils representing the views of a range of political parties. Such events always have a touch of theatre about them but I anticipate healthy debate on issues relevant to young people.

The future Government’s commitment to school funding, grammar schools, university tuition fees, getting on the housing ladder, Apprenticeship schemes, environmental issues, exam reform and, as highlighted by Mental Health Awareness Week, commitments to promoting mental health.

On 23 April the chief executives of YoungMinds, a mental health charity, published a letter calling on political parties to recognise the problem of child mental health in their manifestos. The letter stated:

“Children and young people face a huge range of pressures – from exams to cyberbulling, from body image to finding a job when they finish education. An estimated three children in every class have a mental health condition, one in four experience emotional distress, and rates of self-harm are skyrocketing.

While it is not the role of schools to replace the specialist support that mental health services provide, they can and should play a crucial role in developing the skills young people need to cope and flourish in today’s world. But at the moment the education system is fundamentally unbalanced, with an over-emphasis on exams and too little focus on student wellbeing.”

As a Headmaster of an academic school I see the challenges of juggling academic performance, to fulfil a university offer, for example, with a pupil’s need and wish to have time to switch off and enjoy other pursuits (or simply do nothing). Here at Rydal Penrhos I think pupils, staff and parents work excellently together to get the balance right, but it is not easy nor must we be complacent. Encouraging pupils to take an active interest in politics and current affairs can naturally heighten anxiety in some but we must help them to realise that all the world’s problems do no lie on their shoulders.

An open dialogue between staff and pupils is crucial to grow understanding and encourage the sharing of particular concerns.

This is not just true in the classroom, Tutor periods and boarding houses but must be embodied by the people and supportive environment of a true school community. Far better to reveal a point of interest or confusion and open a conversations than to live in an ivory tower.

As one of my wife’s favourite authors, Terry Pratchett, once said “They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.”

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