We’ve got spirit, yes, we do: we’ve got spirit, how about you?” We have all heard that refrain at school sporting events, have we not? It is loud, challenging and cheerful, with the conclusion being made that if the other school does not repeat the refrain, then they do not have spirit! It would seem that the element of competition even extends to who wins the chants in the crowd! Here is the thing, though: if they had spirit, they would not need to have to prove it.
Such pupils are, of course, speaking about school spirit. And schools as a whole are always very keen to promote the extent and quality of their school spirit. They often justify it with Exhibit A: support at a school fixture. They will point out that the whole school is out there watching; the whole school is singing loudly prearranged songs, even accompanied by many instruments: the cherry on the top is the choreographed actions on display. Oh, yes, we’ve got spirit! However, dare we suggest that in fact that is not school spirit? The pupils have been made to be there (it would be more interesting to see who turns up without being forced to do so); they are forced to sing by seniors demanding such of them; they have practised these routines endlessly (so it is not spontaneous); the noise generated has nothing to do with what is happening on the pitch — indeed they are so busy singing they do not follow the actions on the pitch.
Spirit? We can perhaps go with that. School spirit? Not so convincing! Playful spirit? Now we are talking! If they have to be there at that event, children will make the most of being with their mates and make a lot of noise, dance and jump around, have a good time, perhaps even mocking the authorities who think it is school spirit. It is the same with war cries during Assemblies or Speech Nights, shouted out loudly — the children are more likely very bored with the event and when a chance comes to let off steam, then they will take it. And we think it is school spirit!
School spirit can be positive, certainly. It is showing a sense of identity and community, a pride in the school (though it is generally based on victories rather than on values), providing a strong connection between members. When it comes down to it, however, much school spirit may in fact be very superficial — it is the froth on top of the beer as opposed to the beer itself. It is not a strong gauge of how pupils at the school feel. Indeed, it is often generated (rather than grown) by gimmicks and slogans. More noise, however, does not mean more school spirit.
While school spirit may be something positive and desirable, we are missing something very important though, as Prince EA pointed out in his well-known video on suing the school system. It is not school spirit that we should be promoting; it should be child spirit. “We need to bring the spirit out of each child… to reach the core of every heart”. We need, first of all, to help them find their own identity and individuality, not force them into conforming with what everyone else does. We need to release the energy, enthusiasm, confidence and pride in themselves first, to give them a joy and purpose in living.
The very real situation in which we find our children post-covid is many of them have lost their spirit; mental ill-health among our children is rife. For many there is little to no hope. They may put on a brave face and join in the singing but their hearts are not singing. And instead of bringing the spirit out we often squeeze the life and spirit out of our children or dress them up in fake spirit.
Much school spirit is like alcoholic spirit; the more we have it, the “higher” and giddier (and more irrational) we become — while it can leave us with a big ‘downer’ or hangover afterwards. Indeed, it is not simply a matter of singing “I’ve got spirit”. The whole scenario is perhaps best exemplified by a cartoon that shows one set of prisoners manacled to a prison wall challenging the other prisoners manacled to the opposite wall “We’ve got spirit, yes, we do: we’ve got spirit, how about you?” We need to release each and every individual from their mental “prison” and free their spirit to fly in their own way. School spirit, however, should not be the ultimate goal; child spirit must be. If the child has spirit, then school spirit will follow without being forced or engineered. It is not a competition and there should be no compromise. Do they have spirit? May we ensure they do.
- Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools [ATS]. The views expressed in this article, however, are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the ATS.
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