Senior Head's Blog: Freedom

Freedom means a great deal to us and is seen as an essential element of forward looking, liberal democracy.  Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, free thinking.  We rightly remember those who fought for our freedom, and we look with concern around the world at those who threaten freedoms with violence and tyranny.  

But when we talk about freedom, what do we really mean?  If freedom is really the power or right to act, speak or think as one wants, what does this mean for the place of rules, regulations and the law?  As an independent school, we have certain freedoms that the maintained sector does not enjoy, but we are also governed by considerable levels of legislation and regulation (which reminds me that the ISI inspection report will be published by the ISI and available for you this time next week!).  As a school, our approach could be termed to be 'liberal' in that we do encourage individual freedoms, but at the same time we have a large number of rules, codes of conduct and expectations in terms of behaviour for pupils, staff and parents.  

This apparent contradiction, between a society that seeks freedom for its citizens (or students) and one that regulates and legislates is an important one to recognise and understand.  Individual freedom, to do exactly what you want, does not necessarily provide societal freedom.  If I am free to drive wherever I want on the road, I might be taking away the freedom of my fellow road user to get safely to their destination.  If I am allowed to pick up the ball and run with it, I might ruin the game of football for everyone else on the pitch (unless I am William Webb-Ellis, of course, but that is another story).  For a society, or community, or even a family, to function effectively we want there to be a degree of liberty for self-expression so that individuals can flourish, but also sufficient structure and appropriate boundaries so that the community can flourish as well.

One of the challenges facing all of us in the post-pandemic 2020s is that the understanding of 'appropriate' is far from universal, and we witness on a daily basis the shouting of those on social media for their views to be respected, while cancelling anyone who disagrees with them.  Protest is an important part of liberal democracy, but there is little agreement as to what is an acceptable protest, leading to legislation that limits rights of protestors.  Even the Prime Minister has been quoted in the press as saying that there is a 'growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule' in a plea to the police to be more robust in their action against protestors, in order to protect politicians and democratic processes.  

At school, we have been employing a relational approach to behaviour management.  It is very important to understand that this is not about lowering expectations, but about valuing individuals (personal freedom) in order to create a more positive community (societal freedom).  If you are interested, there is plenty of research out there, such as this from Scottish Education, or this from Devon.

The key is that standards need to remain high and in fact, over time, should rise further.  Personal liberty has to be accompanied by a high level of self-responsibility.  At this stage, we are still working on getting this balance right, and we will be reviewing our approach in the summer term to make sure that the outcomes are positive across the board.  At a time when society is undergoing so many changes, learning the importance of kindness and empathy, alongside self-discipline and hard work can help to ensure a better community and ultimately a better society.

Chris Townsend,
Head, Felsted School