Headmaster’s Blog

Educationalists – and probably most parents – around the country will have held their heads in their hands earlier this week at the news that Facebook is launching a messenger service for children.  ‘Messenger Kids’ is an app aimed at 6-12 year olds to allow them to access social media and to ‘talk, send photos, videos and text messages to friends who are approved by their parents and adult relatives’, said the Telegraph.

Social media can be great: it’s useful., informative, easy to use, a good way of staying in touch, of staying up to date, of getting messages out quickly – and it’s fun.  Schools use social media to keep parents, pupils, alumni and the wider community engaged and informed about the latest happenings, and to publicise quickly any messages that need to go out (for example, a cancelled sports fixture).  Social media in and of itself is not an evil: it has lots of positives which can benefit lots of people.

But there is certainly a bad side to it. There is the obvious set of worries about privacy and about approaches from unwanted, unwarranted and unknown contacts: this is something that families and schools need to work together on to explain, educate and guide – to help young adults make good and prudent decisions on-line.  This forms part of ECS’s new Digital Wellbeing lessons (one strand of our new Wellbeing Agenda introduced in September 2017), and is a part of our curriculum which should be echoed at home through dinner-time conversations and discussions.

But there is also the less immediately obvious worry: that of the impact on a young person’s mental health.  For all its good points, social media demands a lot of you.  It expects you to be switched on, to respond, to answer, to reply, to like, and – at every turn – to make sure you present the very best side of yourself.  It doesn’t allow you to switch off, to wait, to reflect, to be inhibited, to be relaxed about who you really are or how you actually look.  The constant need to respond, to be plugged in, to be on show – this threatens to take away the most precious part of childhood: being carefree.

It’s a balancing act, of course.  The new Messenger Kids will be accessible only to those who have the app (and their contacts) approved by their parents/guardians, and there are certainly some plus points to what it will allow children and (perhaps split/long-distance) families to do together – a point made by the Editor-in-Chief of Netmums.  Similarly at School, we cannot be some sort of technological King Canute and attempt to hold back the tide (pretending devices don’t exist seems to me to be an abdication of responsibility if what we are in the business of is educating young people and preparing them for life), but it is clear that we must have very tight controls over their use.  Pupils who do bring a mobile phone or other device into School are required to hand it in (to Reception) immediately on arrival and can collect it again at the end of the day.  Boarders do similarly, signing them out at 5pm and handing them in at 8pm (there are ‘no phone zones’ – including the dining hall during boarders’ supper) to be locked away overnight.  The Boarding House often has ‘screen-free nights’ where board games and craft activities give some enforced respite from the TV and devices.  We do not allow pupils any use of social media at School: boarders who are over 13 (the minimum age for Facebook and the like) and who wish to use social media need written permission from parents/guardians and the School.

Turning our attention away from the on-line world and towards real life, I want to say well done and thank you to a number of people this week.  Firstly, to all those who sand, read and led prayers at our Advent Eucharist on Monday: how lucky we are to gather together for some stillness in the Cathedral and to reflect on Advent and on what it means to us.  Secondly, to those pupils who read and performed so well at our first ever Declamations Finals Evening on Tuesday: we have a long history of performance, of music and drama, and I think we have found a new tradition to add to that legacy.  Thirdly, well done to our sportsmen and sportswomen for their terrific efforts and excellent results this week: lots of hard-fought battles and a number of impressive victories.  Fourthly, to the Nursery children for their wonderful Nativity play which I enjoyed along with lots of other Nursery parents on Wednesday: what a feast of line-learning, costumes, sound-effects, songs and festive spirit.  Fifthly, to FECS and the team of staff who put on the Upper Years Disco in Kalendar Hall on Wednesday evening: I saw plenty of good dancing, plenty of terrible dancing, and plenty of terrible dancers who clearly consider themselves to be supremely gifted. Sixthly, very well done to the Pre-Prep for a wonderful service in the Cathedral on Thursday: it was a fun and very special re-telling of The Christmas Story.

Finally, good luck to our Choristers who have their first of the Cathedral Christmas Concerts on Saturday.  It’s a busy time, but a fun and exciting one, too.

 James Featherstone

11 December 2017
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