Confidence but not swagger
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

The Times recently reported on the Secretary of State for Education’s desire for schools to focus more upon the development of character and confidence. He was unveiling a plan to establish five foundations for building character across the state sector, designed to build resilience in young people.

I felt the choice of headline – ‘All pupils will have the chance of gaining public school swagger’ –  was unfortunate.

It is true that for a long time the independent sector has prided itself on the range of activities that its schools offer to develop confidence and character. Abingdon is renowned for our ‘Other Half’, a term that reflects our commitment to the importance of extra-curricular activities that extend beyond the classroom.

The phrase ‘public school swagger’ does grate though. Confidence has nothing to do with ‘swagger’ or arrogance but rather comes from encouraging young people to be at ease with themselves and simply to be the person they want to be. In preparing pupils for the future, we need to help pupils grow the resilience to ride out tough times by fostering fundamental values such as integrity, resourcefulness and kindness, rather than nurturing an unwarranted and false sense of entitlement.

The Other Half plays a key part in this as it allows pupils to challenge themselves in a huge range of activities. An advantage of the relatively large size of Abingdon is the sheer range of extra-curricular opportunities that we can make available – over 120 at the last count. This means that the Other Half can accommodate every possible taste and interest and that pupils have a great chance of meeting like-minded friends in their various activities. There’s no such thing as a typical Abingdon boy as there are many different pathways for pupils to follow, all of which are equally valid and respected.

We recognise the benefit of taking pupils out of their familiar context and of opening their eyes to the world beyond Abingdon. This is why our students gain so much from our partnership activities with local maintained schools, be it mentoring younger pupils in English, Maths or Science, helping primary school children with DT or languages or producing short films with the Abingdon Film Academy. I love seeing our boarders helping out as Science Ambassadors at the family mornings we run with Science Oxford; students from all over the world engaging in learning and discovery with our local community.

The building of confidence should not just be limited to extra-curricular activities, though. Teachers at Abingdon challenge pupils to think for themselves and create an atmosphere where they aren’t afraid to take risks. When I drop into lessons, I enjoy seeing the boys questioning received thinking or expressing their own ideas and opinions, safe in the knowledge that they will be listened to and taken seriously by their peers and their teachers.

It’s important of course that they have strong foundations of knowledge upon which to draw. Knowing a lot means that you can be more confident in forming opinions or questioning what other people think. Indeed, you can be a great deal more creative if you have lots of knowledge to draw upon. Compare the jazz pianist who sits down to improvise with hours of practice of chords and scales behind him to someone who has no structure at all. Who is going to be more confident as they approach their solo?

The last thing that we should be imparting to future generations is a veneer of arrogance or ‘public school swagger’. I hope rather that our pupils emerge from Abingdon with a sense of inner confidence that expresses itself in their ability to be comfortable in their own skins, as well as their willingness to embrace challenge.

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