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Why schools should take an international outlook

Simon Reid, headmaster of Gordonstoun, which spawned the international group of Round Square schools, explains the importance of fostering global tolerance and understanding.

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A capacity to reason well and infuse thinking with tolerance plays a decisive role in any student’s emergence from childhood, and Gordonstoun has a distinctive method for developing and supporting this across the country. A commitment to internationalism has been in its DNA since the school was founded in 1934 by Kurt Hahn, after he escaped Nazi Germany. The headmaster was determined that his students should never be able to develop the kind of thought that produced the intolerance of his homeland. In his ‘new’ school, Gordonstoun, students were drawn from as wide a social and national background as possible and, in 2016, a determination to support the widest cultural vision is still one of its cornerstones. Forty different nations are represented at the school today and a third of all students are from overseas. From day one at Gordonstoun, students are encouraged to present themselves as proud representatives of their nations within the overarching community of the whole school.

Through the International and Spiritual Citizenship (ISC) course – taught from Year 9 to Year 12 – and the daily, whole-school experience of chapel, a clear message is sent out about balancing tolerance with national pride. Added to such daily input are opportunities provided by many schools around the country: exchange programmes which give youngsters the chance to grow independently through the challenges of being away from the familiar, and service projects where an openness to difference and a spirit of acceptance are indispensable.

The school’s curriculum, while fostering GCSE and A-level success, expands well beyond all normal bounds to underpin reason and thought with vital experience. This can include mountaineering, service commitments and sail training aboard the school’s 80-foot sail training vessel. Crucially, too, the social and cultural context for academic and broader training at the school is resolutely international.

Most importantly, the experience of every Gordonstoun youngster – sharing living space and classrooms with people from around the world – swiftly dispels the artificial barriers imposed by ignorance. There can be no better way to banish fear about national ‘difference’, than to put young people from around the globe together under the careful and sensitive leadership of a boarding houseparent. This is so important – imagine the value of an educational system, genuinely committing students to international experience, when in, say, 20 years, significant commercial, political and possibly military decisions are being taken by people whose understanding of the impact of their opinion will have evolved in the nursery of an ‘international’ community.

Add to this a school’s commitment to learning a second language. British children are doubly hampered in this respect: first, a lack of effective political will to generate a culture of language learning has put us behind the likes of Germany, China, Poland or Spain. Second, no matter where we are in the world, English is likely to be the acceptable medium of communication.

An assumption that someone else will take the linguistic initiative is a bad start to equal understanding. It is very important for us to believe that as a result of our influence and teaching in an ISC lesson, chapel meeting or whole school assembly, decisions taken in the future by our ex-students might be able to limit conflict and protect hope through unity. Education needs to foster sound reasoning, humility, courage, tenacity and compassion – all qualities that come from many experiences. Few are as fruitful as one which places a child alongside another from across the globe. Careers carved out exclusively on the anvils of GCSE, A-level and university results – with a bit of drama, music and sport thrown in – will create no guarantee that the younger generation know the worth of humility, courage, tenacity and compassion. There are areas – too many to count – which scholastic experience alone leaves all but untouched. Having spent 30 years in education, I can see, as anyone can, the importance of what scholarship produces. But what our early 21st-century world desperately needs is far more opaque and subtle. International opportunity in education, in its many possible guises, nourishes those most fragile of plants – reason and tolerance.