Rob Ford portrait

Written by Rob Ford

Rob is an educator for nearly 30 years, a history and politics teacher, a school leader in various schools in the UK and was principal of Wyedean School in the UK, before being appointed as Director of Heritage International School group.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”.  Frederick Douglass

One of the toughest challenges I have ever faced in my career is right now. How, as educators, do we present the World to our students without scaring them and conveying the impression that a grim dystopia awaits? It is not enough to simply “present the World” and its issues. The role of education is to allow the development of critical understanding and to impart our shared societal values. 

Allowing students to voice their fears, to understand the World as it is in the 2020s with complex existential issues such as climate change, pandemics, nihilistic wars, deep inequalities and injustices, all around the globe, these are issues that adults find hard enough to comprehend in this tumultuous decade. But this is a challenge we cannot be scared of or vacate the arena as educators to the populists and the extremists in our midst. Educators cannot be scared of education. 

Our role in education is to show it doesn’t have to be this way and the World could and should be a better place. Education isn’t a passive process or outcome.  We are not on the sidelines learning abstractly. We need to ensure that our students, as the next generation, have some degree of hope that there are solutions and resolutions to create a more sustainable, equally, just and peaceful way in a realistic, non Panglossian way. And don’t forget to also teach them the beautiful human stories that exist and happen globally daily. 

“At  present  the  ways  we  organize  education  across  the  world  do  not  do  enough  to  ensure  just and peaceful societies, a healthy planet, and shared progress that benefits all. In fact, some of our difficulties stem from how we educate. A new social contract for education needs to allow us to think differently about learning and the relationships between students, teachers, knowledge, and the world”. UNESCO Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education (1)

The perceived politicisation of education over the last decade in countries such as the US and UK, in an arena created with artificial and lazy constructs in terms and words such as “cancel culture” or “woke” has actually scared many educators from even attempting to explain global events, often sticking to a “teach them the facts only” without any values attached to this approach or critical thinking and understanding to unpack complex issues or historical and political events. 

In the USA, this has been associated with America’s complex and difficult history around slavery, segregation, diversity and equality.  The political issue of Black Lives Matter and high profile deaths of black people, coupled with the populism and nationalism of the Trumpian era, not only scares teachers in how they proceed but it scares students about the future full stop. There are extreme cases of states banning books and “critical race theory” has become a very thorny legal issue for many school boards and individual parents. US teachers and school leaders will end up leaving the system as these ‘culture wars’ continue (2). It seems odd that as Black History Month celebrations are an established feature of my schools in Moldova, more and more US schools are worried to even have such an important part of the school calendar.

In post Brexit Britain, the UK Prime Minister’s January 2023 announcement that students in England would study math up to 18, seemed to endorse the move away from schools “educating” students about the World and a policy approach in line with basic skills being the purpose of schools. At some point, these false binary dichotomies prevalent in education for too long be it “skills v knowledge” or “trad v prog” will disappear but it seems we have some way to go yet in the UK at least. 

I have experienced these challenges all my career as a history and politics teacher, and as a school leader responsible for the moral, social and cultural values on the development of all the students in my care into well rounded, educated, intelligent, civic minded citizens and global citizens of the future. Teaching history in the city of Bristol, with its slavery legacy, was never an issue and we had brilliant engagement from community groups, local museums, the universities, the city council, in how we presented and taught local history. Standing by the empty plinth of Edward Colston this summer with my own children, talking about their city’s history, is part of that approach of educating not scaring.

As a former Head of 6th Form, the UK government would be wiser ensuring that all 16-19 year olds not only had career and work skills but also the ability to develop critical thinking, debating, dialogue in safe spaces and media literacy.  The excuse of the ‘crowded curriculum’ often only on 3 A Levels doesn’t wash here when compared to the study programmes of 16-19 year olds around the globe. To hear good voices, informed ideas and views, through lectures and talks, different opinions, but all within the framework of accepted democratic society. This is the open mind set we want all students to develop. As the Head of Wyedean School, the highlight of my week was the 6th form critical thinking class in my room on a Thursday morning. 

A much derided but set of guidelines that is worthy of a more detailed look are the UK’s guidelines on political impartiality in schools from 2022 that are actually very useful for all schools in helping shape the way they approach contentious and difficult topics or stories in the news. I have used some of these in the way I have adapted a workable approach and policy for my schools in Moldova when it comes to approaching tough issues, events and not to scare children. (3). The guidelines are a practical approach which is more useful than educators avoiding talking about the World for fear of scaring students.  That is not the approach needed here either.  Educators need much more support and training here as well. I managed to teach Thatcherism for A Level Politics for years without once bringing my own personal views of my father being a trade union leader and striking coal miner. 

Moldova presented itself to me as a challenge as far as history and politics were concerned as a post-Soviet state, with a legacy of the Holocaust on its Jewish people, the immediate experience of many Moldovans to the Soviet deportations, as well as the troubled and complex recent history with near neighbours Russia, Ukraine and Romania. I lectured a group of trainee history teachers in Tomsk State University a few years ago and remember the booing and cat calls I got then in Siberia from future teachers who didn’t like the way UK schools taught the USSR and Stalin. I have never forgotten just how deep this shared cultural context & contested history goes for some in this part of the world. 

I am proud of the way we have developed at Heritage, our inclusion, our approach to diversity, celebrating all our humanity in our international schools of over 25 nationalities. Doing nothing in Moldova is not an option. Education banishes fear and ignorance. I am very proud of the way we have developed and taught critical thinking (4) and debating skills, approached issues in a practical, age appropriate way such as climate change (5) and sustainable development, and brought the World into all classrooms daily with speakers in our Founders’ Lecture series (6) and partnerships with many countries. Our students take part in international COBIS debating tournaments, are active members of GSA international student councils and have worked in supporting the many refugees in the country from Ukraine. In 2023 we all still fear Russia’s war.

This was particularly needed in the last year as we dealt with the war on Ukraine and the impact on many in our community who had Ukrainian and Russian families.  When we mourned the victims of Bucha in May 2022, following the national day of mourning in Moldova, our teachers and students found this much more useful & reflective than randomly having young children’s faces in blue and yellow.  Teaching students badly, in a moral relative approach or just randomly about complex issues isn’t the right approach here either. Often more damage is done this way and students either get scared or de-sensitised to complex events and issues. An example here is the way history departments in many schools don’t want the Holocaust taught as a historical event through the reading of the ‘The boy in the striped pajamas’. This is about deeper learning.

The aim of education is knowledge, not of facts, but of values”. William S Burroughs. 

The mission of the Heritage international school’s founders is to prepare students confidently for the challenges of the future, not to hide them away from it or to make them scared and despondent of the World. This is my lodestar as a school leader as I continue to navigate through the uncharted and difficult waters of the 2020s ensuring all our students face the future not fearful but educated, confident and prepared for their World and how to change it for the better.  In 2023, we need strong children more than ever and fewer broken adults.