As Secretary of the Debating Society in my final year at school, I devised motions, invited people to chair and adjudicate debates and circulated information (on paper via ‘internal mail’!) about forthcoming events.

Twelve years later, as Master-in-Charge of Debating in a similar school, I found myself doing the very same things I had done as a pupil. Meanwhile, sorting out some archive material for the cricket pavilion, I was amazed to find notes for the captain of cricket about how to organise school fixtures. What had changed?

Enabling them to lead more of their own activities might realise their potential more fully.

Running the school newspaper at that time saw me chasing pupils to finish articles and spending interminable hours editing copy and mastering desktop publishing software when it replaced literal ‘cut and paste’. Why, I sometimes found myself wondering, was I losing sleep over this, especially when the publication was an internal one primarily for the pupils?

If only I had visited Horace Mann school sooner because I would have realised there was another way. The impressive pupil who many years later showed me round her New York school explained that she was a bit jaded after a very late night, as she was ‘not going to be the first editor in living memory to be late to press’ with the school newspaper. The moral was obvious: leave the pupils to it.

Why do we sometimes find ourselves doing things our pupils could do just as well, if not better, or at the very least could learn from attempting? What are the causes of this missed opportunity and potential deskilling of our charges? Is it because we see our role as producers and directors and the pupils as performers? Is it a result of high expectations in our schools: are we wary of ‘failure’? Is it because it’s often easier and quicker to do something yourself?

Of course, if we expected pupils to direct their own plays, organise their own societies, edit their publications, arrange their fixtures and more besides, there would be downsides (albeit less chaos than we might fear). Crucially, pupils would lose opportunities to benefit from the example and inspiration of trained experts as well as some of the precious time they can devote to doing activities organised for them. We should ask, however, whether we have got the balance right in terms of preparing young people for their future. Enabling them to lead more of their own activities might realise their potential more fully.

This was the origin of the introduction of an annual ‘pupil takeover day’ at Bradfield College, where the variety of activities and the dedication of the staff were immediately apparent when I joined the school. How many of these could the pupils run, I wondered? The principle behind the day was to allow pupils to grasp opportunities not ordinarily available to them, ranging from leading lessons, coaching sports, and preaching in Chapel to chairing staff meetings, answering phones in Reception, and even speaking in my place at an alumni event that happened to fall that day (superbly, I should add). 

Many pupils have grown in independence of action and in leadership.

At first, it needed some direction for everyone to see the possibilities of the day, but we have tried hard to avoid it becoming a ‘handover day’ led by staff. Instead, senior pupils encourage members of every year group to ask staff if they can take over their lessons, activities, and responsibilities. Whilst risking accusations of being a tokenistic day of fun, the intention was that it would become totemic and promote pupil agency and leadership throughout the school and throughout the year. Along with a range of other measures to the same end, it has played its part in developing those qualities.

Other factors have, of course, come into play. Activism among young people has grown in recent years through the opportunities offered by technology, and through the example of role models like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. The environmental crisis we face, the enhanced focus on diversity and inclusion, the rise of movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, and the impact of the Everyone’s Invited website have all spoken loudly to a generation which has energetically espoused these and other causes. In the process, many pupils have grown in independence of action and in leadership.

As well as helping our pupils find their voice – and listening to it – part of our role as educators is to help them learn how to turn activism into action. Challenging young people to be the change they want to see, discussing ways they can do this, offering allyship rather than direction, giving them the platform to try, and the permission to fail. All these are in our power. They are, moreover, our responsibility if we are to help this generation deliver on the potential of their best instincts, instead of fuelling the antagonism and impatience of intensifying contemporary culture wars.

Every Saturday morning in term time, following my welcome to prospective parents, a different senior pupil talks about their journey through Bradfield. I soon learned that I was very much the ‘warm up act’ on these occasions for self-possessed young adults who are by turns reflective, self-deprecating, witty, grateful, thought-provoking and inspirational. The greatest compliment any has perhaps ever paid the College is when one stated that he had been taught ‘how to make a difference, not just how to make a living’. I firmly believe that learning of that nature is caught, not taught and comes from fellow pupils as well as members of staff. We must therefore offer the opportunities that nurture it.

I now find myself wondering why I didn’t invite pupils to write this article. I know it would have been good for them. I know it would have been good.