The shrine to George Michael in that elegant Highgate street, The Grove, remains and, seeing it again on one of our family rambles through the Village, I was taken back to the words I had smithed about him and his struggle to align his singing voice with his identity as a gay man back in January of this year when we were tackling what it means in a school to have pupil voice. I was keen that nothing we say should keep or send anyone into any kind of closet. One of the questions I was asked, by Year 12 students, I think, was about gender identity and gender neutrality, and what the school could do to make such a quest more navigable.
Six months later and we've joined forces with the youth health charity, Place2Be, to host a conference on 'The Developing Teenager' which has navigation at its heart: how to equip teachers from independent and state partner schools to help young people and parents navigate the necessarily obscure undertow of adolescence with confidence. So we have a line-up of leading experts on adolescent development to talk to us about eating disorders, legal highs, tech addiction and gender identity. The issues are no more pertinent to Highgate than any other school in the UK, so why not share this enabling expertise?
Getting ready for the conference has led me to ponder what the difference is between pastoral care and wellbeing, both now standard entries in our educational lexicon. It struck me that the former is stretchy and elastic: you get as much as you need, and your needs can change without you or anyone else always being able to predict it. And while teachers and tutors, counsellors and chaplains, are always watchful and responsive, always on the alert, pastoral care is something which kicks in and reacts. But I think wellbeing, in this context, has come to mean the strategic, pre-emptive work a school does to make the community one in which health - physical, mental and emotional - flourishes: it's where clinical expertise is brought to bear; where understanding about the brain and its neurology influences how we respond to teenagers differently from pre-pubertals or greying adults; where evolving or sudden shifts in adolescent socialising and sexualising play out in information, guidance, trainings and exhortings to young people; where psychiatry and psychology change and re-point a school's direction.
Ten years ago I used to get pretty nervous about questions from parents and journalists on drugs: both would ask if we (the school, they meant) 'had a problem with drugs'. A decade on and all of us realise that over-reacting to concerns about reputation induces a kind of querulous paralysis in schools: schools are at the heart of finding solutions and providing guidance and guidelines. As a parent, I realise how heavily I rely on my own school, irony of ironies, to reinforce the messages I need and want to give my own children so that they are safe and happy in the choices they make. When I 'the parent' ask me 'the head' if my school has a problem with [fill blank], I really want to know how well equipped they are in dealing with realities: what do I do if a child of mine becomes obsessed with body image? Or won't get up because they have not really left a screen to go to bed? Or starts to quiz the gender I have known them through and in?
It's great that the press homes in on issues which prevail and uses journalistic ruse, often with sensitivity, to find authentic voices which might not otherwise have been heard. And there's no doubt that such issues divide well-informed and well-meaning opinion. What we need, both as parents and teachers, is two-fold: to touch base with the young people whose world we otherwise can't be sure of knowing from the inside; and words from those who work at the sharpest end to give us information and perspective, reassurance that we can make these young beings truly well. I'm looking forward to the conference and am sure we'll learn a lot, not only from the experts, but from each other, and we'll be sure to pass on that knowledge to parents and young people here.