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Article published 18th January 2009

Richard Cairns Headmaster of Brighton College observes:

Prospectuses abound with girls dancing, boys scrumming and children generally doing everything but think.

It has become unfashionable for heads to care about the stretching of minds. Or at least to admit to caring.

Mind matters

There is a powerful misconception, in the minds of many, that caring about learning and acting upon that conviction will undermine the other, equally important, elements of an education: the extra-curricular, the social and the spiritual.

There is a bizarre and blind acceptance of the notion that a school that cares about study must necessarily be a school that does not care about the sports field or the stage.

The evidence points in the opposite direction. Some of the leading academic schools in the country are ferociously strong on the sports field. They also offer high quality drama, debating and music. And within every school, academic or not, there is evidence aplenty that the children who excel in the classroom are usually those who most excel beyond its walls.

My 1st XI cricket team, for example, always gets better A level results than the school average.

It strikes me as self-evident, therefore, that the best schools are those that understand this symbiotic relationship between the academic and the extra-curricular life of a school. Too much of one and too little of the other is unhealthy. Too little recognition of one and too much of the other is just as bad. Children need to know that you care about them but they also need to know that you care about the things you are asking them to do.

Proud to achieve 

We also need to remember that there will be children in our schools who come to us with an instinctive dislike of sport and an innate love of books and ideas.

These young people need to have their own particular talents nurtured but, more important than that, they need to feel that their peers value their ability to impress in a debate or discussion as much as they might value another child’s ability to impress on the rugby field or on the netball court. Heads who take too much notice of the successes of the 1st XV and too little of the junior classics club are heads who ultimately will fail to create that sense of real community that is the essence of every good school because communities are only cohesive, happy and purposeful when all feel valued for who they are.

Heads must speak up, therefore, for all that goes on in their schools. Heads should be proud of their sportsmen and sportswomen, their dancers and their artists.

Heads should also openly proclaim their love of learning, their respect for scholarship and their enthusiasm for greater intellectual vigour in their communities.

They must also resist the carping of those who will inevitably suggest that the head, by espousing scholarship, no longer cares about the extra-curricular life of the school. A good head will have the strength and wisdom to know that children who have been energised and enthused in one area of school life are so much more likely to carry that enthusiasm over into the other.

So let us be proud of all that we do in our schools. Let us show that we care about old fashioned concepts of scholarship and intellectual rigour just as much as engagement on the sports field or enthusiasm on the stage. Every arena of school life must be a place of learning of which we are always proud and never embarrassed.

Richard Cairns Brighton College

Richard Cairns has been head of Brighton College since 2006. His first innovation – within weeks of arriving – was to make Mandarin a compulsory subject for all new pupils. Mr Cairns believes passionately in the value of each individual and says he wants ‘no stereotypes’ in his school. Previously he was deputy head at Magdalen College School in Oxford – having taken a first class degree in history in that city’s famous university himself. He still manages to teach  - a rarity among heads these days.



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