PSHE? SMSC? The acronyms of a priceless education
– Delyth Lynch, former Deputy Head (Pastoral and Wellbeing) of Wellington College
When I was 17, I spent three weeks of my summer holiday planning and delivering a holiday to a group of children who had severe learning difficulties from a school in Cheshire. They travelled annually to my boarding school in North Wales where they experienced their first ever holiday without their parents. It is one of the strongest memories I have of my school career; in today’s terms this is SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) education ‘in action’ – the idea that school is far more than learning the curriculum. SMSC is, quite simply, the term used to embrace this broader dimension – not just through Religious Education (RE), PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) education, wellbeing lessons or even through planned projects like the experience I mention above. No, these vitally important elements of life and growth infuse themselves across everyday life in boarding schools and, for many years, our schools have been promoting themselves on the basis of providing a holistic education for their pupils; a philosophy of education based on the premise that each individual will find identity, meaning and purpose in life as they develop their intellectual, emotional, social, physical, creative and spiritual potentials.
Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspection reports always include detail of the schools’ commitment to SMSC, but what does SMSC actually mean? As there is no requirement for independent schools to have a separate SMSC policy, what should you be looking for when searching for a school that genuinely provides a holistic education?
Boarding schools devote a lot of time and resources to activities outside of the classroom in order to develop character, resilience and skills which will equip pupils for their adult world. You will not find a prescribed checklist of what a school will be providing under the SMSC or holistic education umbrella. It is about how a school:
Analysing each component in more detail, the spiritual element of SMSC requires that schools allow pupils to be reflective about their own beliefs – religious or otherwise – and allow this to inform their perspective on life and their respect for others people’s faiths and values. Spirituality is one of the eight aptitudes that Wellington College promotes among the pupil body; yes, we have weekly chapel services and assembly where faith is explored, but for some it is equally important to recognise that their spiritual moment might come on the hockey pitch when they score that winning goal in a cup game or in the orchestra when performing a piece of beautiful music. At Wellington we encourage pupils to stand still sometimes and appreciate the awe and beauty around them and we find that this encourages them to be imaginative and creative in their learning.
I believe a level of a pupils’ spiritual development is reflected by their curiosity, so look for schools where the pupils are inquisitive about the world around them and where they are nurtured to demonstrate a captivation about knowledge – not just for the sake of examinations, but because it is interesting and inspiring.
There is no better environment than a boarding school to develop a young person’s moral compass. Living in close proximity with others where they have to share their space (often with others who they might not ordinarily choose to be friends with) means that they develop their social intelligence through understanding the consequences of their behaviour and action. Schools which encourage approaches such as restorative justice and mediation when dealing with matters of discipline enable the understanding of others to flourish and, in turn, levels of respect to grow. Young people in boarding schools quickly learn to appreciate the viewpoint of others, to listen and to value them. Schools that get it just right don’t have a long list of rules; the pupils get it right because they simply want to.
Service to others
Service to others is a long tradition in boarding schools. We are no longer talking Tom Browns School Days where this ideology might have, at best, meant polishing a prefect’s shoes. A boarding school which excels at service allows ample opportunity for the young people to participate in the local community, volunteering across a wide range of projects from working with children in primary schools, charity shops or raising money for local or distant projects such as an allotment schemes or sponsoring a school in Africa. Teamwork and cooperation are developed, as well as a heightened sense of well-being from knowing that you are helping others. Well-being lessons at Wellington focus on the idea that helping others improves an individuals’ positive emotions and we hope to engender a sense of intrinsic motivation to do this naturally and not because it ‘might look good on their CV’. Likewise, if a school allows its pupils to interact and socialise with individuals from different backgrounds – religious, ethnic or socio-economic – they are giving them the opportunity to understand that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and all should be listened to; a vital skill if those young people are to go forward and contribute positively to their own communities in later life.
Finally, the cultural aspect. This is not just about providing opportunities for pupils to paint a picture or learn a musical instrument, it is much more how a school develops a pupil’s understanding and appreciation of their own heritage and the heritage of others. Society as a whole is a diverse place and our young people are helped to recognise this through opportunities to participate in cultural experiences, for example, celebrating Chinese New Year, Yom Kippur or Thanksgiving, or contributing to a mock general election so that they develop an understanding of a democratic parliamentary system.
Schools where pupils develop their cultural side provide ample opportunities for their young people not only to participate in artistic, music and sporting activities but also to watch and appreciate others taking part. Drama productions, concerts, live debates, opportunities to go on the school history of art trip all provide occasions for individuals to enrich their lives and develop interests which may remain with them for the rest of their lives.
SMSC is done well when you cannot tell it is even happening. There is a synergy between the ethos of the school and the opportunities it provides; personal development is imbued within every lesson, every activity and within the boarding house. It is a school where:
As Jean Piaget wrote: ‘The principal goal of education is to create people who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.’ Our boarding schools aim to bring out all the capabilities and sensitivities of pupils, allowing them to live purposefully, creatively and morally in today’s complex world. This is indeed a priceless education.
Delyth Lynch was Deputy Head (Pastoral and Wellbeing) at Wellington College, Berkshire. On her return from maternity leave she took up the post of Biology teacher. Passionate about the holistic education of the child, Delyth has been jointly responsible for introducing mindfulness into Wellington College and is a trained .B (a mindfulness in schools programme) teacher. She has also successfully set up pastoral parental masterclasses (winning the Times Educational Supplement Boarding Initiative of the Year in 2015) and has been responsible for advising the Government on mental health and counselling structures within UK schools. Delyth is also a course tutor for the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) and a Governor at Holme Grange Prep School in Berkshire. She speaks regularly on the topic of mental health provision in education and particularly the interface between the school and the health centre. Delyth has previously worked at Kingswood School, Bath and Bromsgrove School, Worcestershire.