Learning silence and meditation in the classroom should be the right of all children in all schools, writes Anthony Seldon.
Learning how to be still should be at the heart of every child’s education. It teaches them how to correct themselves and to know who they truly are. It’s also vital if they are to learn how to control their impulses. It is known that the brains of adolescents develop in such a way that young people find it hard to make long-term judgements about their actions. They see immediate gains, but not the long-term consequences of their choices. Learning how to be still – and to think before acting – is thus not only a desirable but also a key responsibility of schools.
It is much easier however for a school to include stillness as a regular feature for its students if it is a school set up with a special mission or a spiritual purpose. Britain’s Quaker schools, for instance, have a long tradition of regular periods when the whole school comes to complete silence. Leighton Park in Reading, nearby my own school, Wellington College, has long included regular periods of stillness each week, and the experience is reported as being widely appreciated by the students. St James School in Twickenham and Krishnamurti’s Brockwood Park School in Hampshire both also excel in offering periods for stillness and meditation.
But all these are independent schools. It is much rarer to find opportunities for silence in state schools, though some with an expressed religious affiliation (such as the Catholic schools) may well offer periods for silent prayer. Even where there is a head who believes deeply in the values of silence and stillness, the pressures on the timetable are fierce: the curriculum is ever more crowded, and schools must squeeze every last drop out of the time available to secure top exam passes for the sake of league tables. Then there are all the demands of the extracurricular timetable – sport, music and drama – and the heads of these activities jealously guard their time.
Philosophical heads or others in schools who want to introduce stillness are beset by a whole range of other problems too. Those who come from backgrounds where stillness is alien can have real difficulties with the idea of children being quiet. Often the teachers are fearful of silence in their own lives and so resist it being offered to others. Some teachers dislike the idea of silence, believing it is a way of introducing religion by the back door. At other times it is the religious teachers who object, especially the fundamentalists. Some evangelical Christians find the idea of meditation very challenging: they see potential Christian converts being captured by Indian mysticism – and I remember being told by a member of the Christian Union at the first school at which I taught that meditation was an opportunity to ‘let in’ the devil.
Surprisingly, it is not the students themselves who create the difficulties. They will typically muck around a bit at first, trying to make others giggle, digging people in the back, calling each other’s mobile phones, but once we reach week five or six in the programme, and especially if they can see there is a serious intent to make it work, they will usually abandon their efforts at disruption.
We must remember that some will remain very uncomfortable with silence, and for others it may bring painful memories. Many will find it initially embarrassing; others will find it boring, or say it makes them very sleepy. Some indeed will fall asleep (that never happens to any adult trying to meditate, does it?).
At Wellington College, led by our brilliant Head of Wellbeing, Ian Morris, we started introducing weekly 15-minute slots of stillness for our 13- to 15-year-olds. In our Wellbeing classes, students are introduced in smaller groups to stillness, and learn from different techniques of meditation. Most respond very positively to it, and it’s common for them to say that it helps them at times of stress such as during exams. They also say that it helps them to become more reflective and thoughtful and to get in touch better with what they really do think.
Work of real importance is taking place at a series of schools including Tonbridge in Kent, which is pioneering the use of meditation in the classroom. We must accept, however, that meditation in mainstream schools is failing to reach the vast majority of young people. So let me describe how mainstream schools could use stillness to enhance the educational value and spiritual development of the communities they serve.
It has to begin at the top. Sympathetic heads should follow their instincts and accept the encouragement of other teachers who are also sympathetic to the idea of teaching silence and stillness and who will support the introduction of these classes. They should then begin their own meetings with staff with a period of stillness, which will give a powerful message to the whole teaching staff about the importance being placed on meditation as a key tool in school. Every meeting that the head has should be opened with a moment – it need only be 10 seconds or so – when the head demonstrates stillness. The tone that the head sets permeates the whole school, so if there is a genuine commitment to try to be still and present – however imperfectly it may be realised – the benefits will extend throughout the school.
Teachers should begin every lesson with a minute of silence. We make impossible demands on our young people, and fondly imagine that they will turn up for every lesson focused and clear-headed. But their minds will still be full of their last lesson, or something that happened at home the night before, or an upsetting event in the playground. They need the opportunity to come to themselves and give that mental activity and their emotions a chance to subside. The effect will be transformative.
Young people should also be encouraged to be still before they perform music or drama. Students who follow rugby may have noticed Jonny Wilkinson pausing for a moment to collect himself before trying to convert the ball through the rugby posts. Drawing attention to this can help students understand that even international sportspeople can use silence positively.
Meals are another opportunity for silence. The staggered times of many schools’ lunches make it hard for there to be a collective sense of beginning, but it is not difficult nevertheless to have two minutes of total silence at mealtimes, to allow the opportunity for a silent grace or to let go of the activity of the morning. The silence before meals can be profound.
Young people are crying out for peace and more time in their lives and this is often the powerful motive behind the decision to start taking drugs. The greatest possible benefit of learning about stillness while at school is that it gives adolescents a skill that will endure for the rest of their lives. Stillness and meditation must no longer be a privilege for the very few: they should be the right of each and every child at school.