Umbutu - or, 'How Goes It With The Children?'


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Last week’s exceptional Cabaret performances have caused me to once again think broadly about both the purpose of education and the manner in which we prepare pupils for life after School.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to teacher, writer and passionate educationalist John Abbott speaking about the place of education in the 21st Century.

In his excellent book Overschooled But Undereducated, Abbott outlines the importance of developing education systems which support the learning of adolescents by harnessing their creativity - something which is imperative when developing young people into the employees of tomorrow.

It is this concept of harnessing creativity which is of genuine importance to me, as is the notion of honing a given girl or boy's skills to ensure they are well-prepared for their chosen future.


While growing up in South Africa, I became very familiar with a traditional greeting – ‘Umbutu’ which translated means, ‘How goes it with the children?’

This is a question not simply about ‘How are you?’ of ‘How are the kids?’ It is deeper and more profound, as it is an inquiry into how prepared the next generation is to take over from us as elders.

It goes without saying that today's children will be mankind's next leaders, and 'umbutu' is therefore a question about many things, not least resourcefulness and adaptability. In traditional tribes, the need to know that your livelihood and culture is going to be well looked-after is a matter of collective survival. As such, the idea of ‘umbutu’ is crucial.

John Abbott has explored this idea at length, having himself spent time in Africa. His experiences influenced his ideas about how to build effective education systems, and one of the points made in his address when I saw him speak was that too often those who excel in school often fail in later life.


Many peak early, do not deliver on their 'early promise' - and yet significant numbers who struggle in school pleasingly surprise us once they move into adulthood.

“It’s an uncommonly puzzling thing,” as Mr Tulliver rightly points out when speculating on how children’s thinking develops in George Eliot's classic novel Mill on the Floss.

It is important for us to consider whether the education system as a whole is driving schools to treat children like battery hens rather than free-range chickens. We must also guard against such notions in Upper Dicker and continue to promote, with pride, Bede's focus on the individual and their choices.

The well-known quote from Confucius, dating back to 2,500BC, illustrates this point: ‘Tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; let me do and I understand.’

This ancient and seminal idea neatly summarises the dilemma faced by modern schools. It is far more economical to tell somebody something than it is to show them, and it takes even more time and resource to enable them discover that thing for themselves.

It is in the best interests of the pupils within our school that they are given opportunities to discover for themselves, and I would go so far as to say that we have a duty to enable them to 'do.'


I say this as all of our budding Bedians will soon be heading into a very complex society where every adult is challenged to consider how to tackle a significant number of issues, from global warming to populations that are out of control, pressures within the world economy to shortages of fundamental necessities such as water and food.

They will have much more to think about and contend with than we did at their age, but unfortunately society has, on the whole, allowed itself to become too dependent on telling them what it thinks they should know rather than giving them a range of challenges to work out the answers for themselves.

With a risk of over-quoting, I am often drawn to the words of John Milton, writing some 400 years ago, who said that ‘a complete and generous education (should) fit a person to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously (in private as well as in public affairs).’

In summary then, long may our school prepare young people to grow up to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously - to stand up for what they believe is right and have the courage to not simply follow the herd.


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