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Education Matters: Geoff Barton exams v school trips

14:44 22 August 2014

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

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Geoff Barton talks about his school trip to Kurdistan

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In my 51 years on the planet, I can’t recall a summer when the weather has been so uplifting and the news so wretched.

From July’s shooting down of flight MH17 to the ongoing war of devastating attrition between Israel and Gaza; from the appalling atrocities in Iraq to the growing pandemic of the Ebola virus across parts of Africa – wherever we look, the world at the moment feels a bleak and heartless place.

If ever we should reflect upon just how much we take for granted about our own beautiful, calm and largely untroubled part of the world, then it’s now. Millions in the world aren’t so lucky.

But the problem with writing about ‘millions’ is that the sheer scale of so much human suffering can be overwhelming, unfathomable. That’s why this summer has been dominated for me by a very personal response to the events in Iraq and in particular in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.

And my response is all because of a school trip.

When you think back to your own school days, what do you remember most? A larger-than-life teacher who inspired or infuriated you? Winning an award, a race, a prize? Being put into a thoroughly justified detention or feeling the rage of injustice at being punished for something you didn’t do?

Is it the lessons you remember? If so, you’re unusual. The education researcher Michael Rutter wrote a book about school life called ’15,000 Hours’. That, he calculated, was the amount of time the average child spends in school.

In my experience it’s rare that we remember much about the actual lessons. It’s the other stuff – the activities and experiences surrounding the lessons - that often lodge in our memories, evoke good and bad recollections from our time at school.

That includes the school trips we go on. These can often be memorable. Just occasionally, they can be life-changing.

In 2012 ours was the first school in the UK to take students to Kurdistan as part of an ambitious international programme funded by the European Union, coordinated by the British Council, and organized by the Youth Sport Trust. It was a programme rooted in principles of friendship, cooperation, and the optimism of young people from different parts of Iraq and the UK working together.

The six students and three staff visited the beautiful historic city of Erbil, participated in a ground-breaking sports event with young people from all across Iraq, and felt we were contributing in a tiny way to the nation-building that was the goal of the government.

We met new colleagues and made new friends. We have stayed in touch with dozens of them since, welcomed them to our school, attended events at the House of Lords, used our visit to inform all 1400 students at our school about the proud traditions of Kurdish culture and its wonderful people.

And now, this summer, those friends and colleagues are under threat. The Christian church that two young students from school in Erbil showed us round is now packed with refugees. The city itself is having to cope with a huge influx of ordinary people who had been living ordinary lives now fleeing from murderous persecutors.

And a city that was so proudly rebuilding itself, embracing a new future, now has Islamic State militants just half an hour away, being fought off by Peshmerga fighters and US airplanes.

Never has a school trip brought home to us the individual fear and uncertainty. Never has an international crisis felt so real, so palpable.

So, as a new term begins, we are determined to keep in our minds those friends of ours in Kurdistan, and to do all we can to show support.

Because if education is about anything, it’s about values. These matter more than exam results, league tables and political grandstanding.

This summer, like no other, has reminded me once again of what’s at the heart of education. People. We forget that, and them, at our peril.

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1 comment

  • Mr Barton makes some very good points, young people are often enriched by visiting other countries and learning about that country, the culture, the food, the language, it's a shame that due the the cost of foreign holidays during the school breaks many people cannot give their children this experience.

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