The right kind of confidence

Where does confidence come from?

Dashing adventurer and broadcaster Ben Fogle suggested in the Sunday Times recently that confidence is “not born of wealth and privilege. It is something earned and something learnt”. He went on to advocate on behalf of independent schools that foster this vital human quality. In the same article the Department for Education (DfE) were scorched for their unswerving “focus on exams and academic achievement,” short-changing children of broader confidence building educational experience.

So, ‘confidence classes’ it is. Sign me up.

As the new Headmaster of Bradford Grammar School (BGS) my nerves still jangle when walking down the assembly hall aisle to address the massed 1000 every Monday morning. Bleary eyes eventually focus on me as the hall’s lanterns warm up. Ears strain for entertainment and maybe a bit of Head-masterly wisdom. Lonely on stage, with only 20 or so senior prefects for support, my pulse quickens. Thoughts come: I wish I’d prepared properly, confidence don’t forsake me now - show some nerve man. HMC Professional Development (HMCPD and my induction at Cumberland Lodge) where are you now?

If only I could be more like rugged Ben Fogle. If only my Tweets were of snowy alpine summits.

To be clear, I share common ground with the affable broadcaster/adventurer. Without question our nation’s independent schools provide a balanced curriculum that delivers a great deal beyond any narrow measure of exam success, although we do that too. We support a broad spectrum of opportunities that nurture confidence and so much more. Little surprise then when we see Olympic medal tables and Bafta prize lists attesting to the resolution, character and sense of fair play that we collectively nurture in our pupils.

What role does outdoor education and wild nature play in confidence – Ben Fogle style?

I remember clearly as a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) being approached by my decent and ultimately persuasive Headmaster, Dr X, in the dining hall. It was fish and chip Friday. I was in a good spirits and Dr X encouraged me to takeup the reins of the school’s prestigious +24 hour charity relay run. This included training of the Year 10 athletes, liaising with parents, solving endless logistical issues, recruiting staff helpers, buying countless high energy bars and boiling more pasta than I could carry. My PGCE training kicked in. Keep your head down, remember to focus on your subject teaching, never volunteer for anything in the first year and ‘don’t tell ‘em your name, Pike’.

I crumbled. I said yes.

Happily, I ended up sharing the responsibility with a thoroughly capable Chemistry teacher. However, during that first NQT year I also took over the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (DofE) and organised two – the first of many - residential trips to an outdoor education centre in Snowdonia, set up a climbing club and lead a month-long expedition to climb rainforest mountains in Malaysia. I was busy. It was brilliant. Pupils, colleagues and I all learnt a lot. We embraced challenges together, stuck our necks out and inspired others to find adventure in their own way.

So what does this all mean for independent schools?

“Good private schools have much a more open-minded approach to education. They offer enough extra-curricular activities from volunteering and outdoor pursuits to sport and drama. All of these help build confidence that is crucial” – Ben Fogle

I agree. For me it was because I grew up catching geologically slow local buses to go cragging on Derbyshire gritstone edges and ventured out on shoe-string, do-it-yourself, summers in the Alps. In time, Scottish summer and winter climbing became a passion and slowed down progress at University but enriched my life beyond measure.

In more recent times my better half (also a teacher) and I have enjoyed home-grown trips to Himalayan peaks and together we’ve shared our love of the mountainous outdoors with our pupils. We’ve organised from scratch, school expeditions to places like the Picos de Europa, sticking steadfastly to the age old adventurer’s credo of self-sufficiency and independent travel. Collaborations with some excellent professional expedition companies to undertake alpine-style ascents of high Peruvian and Ecuadorian peaks, amongst others, have been equally satisfying. We’ve been incredibly lucky and it has been a privilege to share these experiences with many wonderful young people.

The immense sense of achievement and self-knowledge that builds when hard won goals and distant summits are reached is tangible and profound. Adventure fosters awareness, resilience, teamwork and confidence, and it builds character.

But a sense of adventure isn’t the sole preserve of outdoor education, it is experienced in classrooms, exam halls, theatres and auditoria, sports pitches and a myriad of other settings where insightful and expert teaching encourages students to take risks, believe in themselves and reach high.

Suddenly I feel ready for next Monday morning…

By Dr Simon Hinchliffe, Headmaster, Bradford Grammar School