Start the School Year : What is our ‘why’? 

Last week we spoke with students and parents new to our school, many of whom were new to Singapore.  We started with the why – our school’s Mission:
The UWC movement makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

This may seem obvious,  but schools differ a lot in the ‘why’

For those who were understandably wondering about new classes, friends, uniform and timetables, this may have seemed a lofty, distant ideal. But with so many very good schools available in Singapore, this lofty goal remains our defining characteristic. Or more precisely – because lofty goals are easy to write – how we put this into practice remains our defining characteristic, and I hope why families have chosen us.

I am very pleased, however, that it is no longer a very special goal – at least, not if we take special to mean rare. Go back fifty years and this kind of thinking was marginal, outlier, considered naïve and well off the mainstream. Today the idea that we should not settle for less for our children is absolutely mainstream, almost banal. The notion that education should narrowly focus on academics, without recognizing that children deserve more and need a higher purpose, is clinging on here and there, but it’s on its way out. There are two reasons behind this; they may seem to be quite different, but ultimately, they are mutually supportive.

Our ‘why’, the reason we do what we do, has twin tracks but unlike a road, they both head in the same direction

Firstly, there’s the realization that academics are not enough even for the world of work. In truth they never really were, but the changing nature of work means we are increasingly focused on what skills students possess, and what they can actually do. In the past, these may have been very tightly linked to what students know – but in the disrupted, AI-influenced economy we face, knowledge alone will be far from enough.  To be ready for tomorrow, today’s students will have to be increasingly adept in human skills and qualities, and ready to use them in real-world contexts on difficult and complex human problems  It’s not just educators saying this, but governments, businesses, NGOs, the OECD and others.  So the contexts provided by our focus on the peoples, nations and cultures part of our Mission is exactly how to prepare students for an uncertain future; because these are the areas that are the pressing challenges we face and that will not be automated,

Secondly, it’s important to place schools in a much broader social context.  And that context may be startling. Because despite the horrific events going on around the world, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been, in many significant ways.  Extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.  Now let’s not be naïve here – tragedy, atrocity and grinding poverty are still real today. But the current trajectory is astonishingly positive, and where there is injustice, we are beginning to see outrage and social activism to address it – not consistently, but increasingly so. In the past where issues may have been ignored, we’re also seeing thought leaders take a lead.  That includes CEOs, and the US –  admittedly under extreme provocation from its administration – is leading the way here. CEOs have publicly come out against racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, climate change denial, and most recently, against the extreme right. At the same time, we’re seeing many high profile billionaires – including two of the most famous in Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – pledge half their wealth to philanthropic causes.  So there is a broader social move towards widening moral circles; and schools both reflect this and importantly, prepare students to continue down this path.  That’s where the peace and a sustainable future part of our Mission comes in, and why we weave the Mission so carefully throughout our Learning Programme.

There is no tension between the pragmatic necessity to prepare students for their future, and the idealistic opportunity to make whatever small contribution we can to the historic trend.   We intend, this year and forever, to do both to the best of our capacities.

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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One Response to Start the School Year : What is our ‘why’? 

  1. Thank you for sharing the great blog. Very informative!

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