The King’s School Cadet Corps is a central element of the School’s character development program. The Annual Corps Camp held at the end of Term 1 every year is the culmination of six months of hard work and planning by the dedicated staff of the Corps who work closely to mentor the Cadet Leadership Team in developing an innovative program. For over a century, cadets have attended the annual training camp where boys are provided with the opportunity to test their capabilities, build resilience, and develop their leadership skills in an environment of challenge and adventure. This year’s camp at Singleton was attended by over 800 boys who undertook a rigorous program of activities and who returned from camp with many stories of their successes and triumphs.
Unfortunately, this year’s camp has been marred by an incident resulting in the death of a goanna. The incident has received wide coverage and responses from various media outlets and the public. The outrage is both understandable and warranted. Not only are native animals protected by law, but animal cruelty is a heinous, inhumane act in all its forms. The School immediately reported the death of the goanna to the Police, who continue to investigate the incident. The School also reported it to the Army, given that the alleged conduct occurred on Defence land. The students were removed from camp, and the School awaits the findings of the Police investigation before undertaking any further investigatory and disciplinary action.
Radio 2GB was the first to contact the School last Thursday, and Channel 7 News provided a brief but comprehensive account of the incident last Friday night. Various tabloids and online media joined the fray, with a couple of public responses being made directly to the School. The sentiment of these responses can be summed up in the following statements:
“Where were the teachers on this camping trip, and why were they not supervising these cruel, horrible students? I have to ask what sort of students do you have at The King’s School who would do such a cruel horrible act re a defenceless native animal which was protected. Why were these horrible students not supervised and allowed to commit such a horrible cruel act!!!”
“I have never been so disgusted in the elitist attitude displayed and obvious lack of safety briefing and practices used amongst the school…Shame on The King’s School and their teachers.”
Again, let me say the outrage at the allegations is both understandable and warranted. As a boy, I grew up in East Africa with the delight of wildlife all around me, and that prompted a career that began with studying and teaching biology. This is the first allegation of animal cruelty that I have had to address in 20 years of leading schools. The incident saddens me as I am again reminded of the challenging but necessary responsibility we have as a School to shape the character and integrity of our students.
Rarely are these kinds of incidents simple or straightforward. On the contrary, they are often complex and complicated. As the School seeks to fairly, reasonably, and carefully understand what occurred and how to support the students and their families through the process, including any disciplinary or remedial actions required, the tabloids and virtuous trolls are quick to build a cacophony of public shaming under the clear assumption it is bad people who do bad things. If only the human condition were that simple. The real tragedy is that it is often good people who do bad things.
We can easily recall a range of incidents attributed to students in independent schools over the years that have been met with a good dose of public shaming, ridicule, and vitriol. Examples include scavenger hunts that abuse the homeless, antisemitism, and hate speech – all of which are abhorrent and outright wrong. When a story about hate speech by students at an independent school on Sydney’s North Shore last year revealed that students from other schools were involved, The King’s School received almost daily enquiries from the tabloids who were giddy with anticipation that it might be students from King’s. However, the story died very quickly when students from two government selective schools were implicated.
This begs the question, why are the tabloids and virtuous trolls so keen and excited to shame independent schools, especially those deemed “elite”? Why is it that some people want to delight in the failure of others, especially if they are seen to be elite or successful? Is it due to what some call Australia’s tall poppy syndrome? Or perhaps more cynically, is it simply what drives reader interest and, therefore, the economics of today’s tabloids – gossip, rumour and innuendo?
While these factors undoubtedly contribute in some way, a significant giveaway is the necessary inclusion of a school’s fees in such stories. It is very rare to read a story written about The King’s School that doesn’t include some reference to our level of fees. This brings to mind one of the parables in Luke’s gospel, which concludes, “to those who have been given much, much more will be expected” (Luke 12:48, paraphrased).
There is no doubt that society expects more from independent schools, and so they should. Especially given the level of school fees at schools like King’s. The higher expectations relate most to matters of character, wisdom, integrity, judgement, and moral fibre. While some may expect higher academic results, this has more to do with a student’s IQ than the school, as evidenced by the prevalence of selective schools featuring more highly in the tabloid league table rankings. While the delivery of knowledge and skills for academic achievement is relatively straightforward and easily measured, character development is much more difficult and challenging to achieve and measure, requiring greater effort and commitment.
However, while academic achievement has more to do with a child’s genetics, character formation has more to do with the community in which a child grows, develops, and matures. While the classroom environment might be suitable and effective for teaching knowledge and skills, character formation depends more on experiences outside of the classroom, especially those found in the extra and co-curricular activities of the School. These include sport, performing arts, debating, cadets, outdoor education, camps, and tours, among others. For it is in these kinds of activities that students are personally challenged physically, relationally, and morally. Indeed, as much as we all want our children always to succeed, we forget that success is more often the result of an ongoing journey of trial and error, of persistence and resilience. We all learn from our mistakes, and this is all the more important in character formation.
In my view, schools should be safe places for children to fail well, learning from their mistakes, all the while being encouraged, coached, and supported by parents, teachers, and peers. Good schools aim to create, develop and provide learning environments that encourage a healthy risk appetite for children to have a broad range of experiences conducive to character formation. In doing so, there is always a risk of harm. Most often, this harm presents in the form of physical injury, especially in sport and outdoor education. However, it also can present greater social and moral challenges. This simply goes hand in hand with decision-making in more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts.
The Reality of Risk
Our modern society, however, has been moving more and more towards a position of zero harm, whether physical, social, or emotional. The rise of a victimhood culture has put the onus on others to provide for our safety and our feeling safe, with the resultant decline in our own personal moral agency. Schools are under increasing pressure to ban contact sport, to ban running and jumping, climbing trees, riding bikes, and horse riding. Sadly, the result of this pressure is that fewer and fewer schools are willing or equipped to provide the experiences necessary for developing good character and resilience. Society places higher expectations on schools, teachers, and students to be perfect, and the most straightforward way of doing this is to keep everyone in the classroom under constant teacher supervision.
Risk can always be minimised through constant adult supervision and ensuring children don’t make wrong decisions. However, this not only removes any opportunity for the agency necessary for character development, it invariably results in students graduating from school without the moral compass and resilience required for contributing positively and actively to a just and civil society. Therein lies the tension and the need for balance; whenever we create opportunities for children to make decisions in challenging environments, we allow for an increase in risk. It is the role of the School to consider, manage and minimise any risk of harm to those involved, but in doing so, there is always some residual risk. We see this all the time in contact sports such as rugby or basketball, where there is always a risk of physical harm – sprains, broken bones, head knocks, and so on. We also see this in outdoor education programs and camps. It is important that we train and prepare students for these kinds of activities to minimise risk of significant harm, but there will always remain a residual risk of harm.
So, when things go wrong, such as scavenger hunts or online chat rooms or alleged animal cruelty, the tabloids and virtuous trolls whip up a frenzy of public shaming and virtue signalling in blaming schools and students for causing these kinds of problems. This is not to say that these things aren’t wrong – on the contrary, they are not only wrong, but they can also be criminal. What I am saying is that the wrongful act does not justify the pillorying, shaming and vilification of students and their schools by the media or anyone else. When children make mistakes, a just and civil society should not use them for its entertainment, let alone as clickbait, but step in and provide the kind of role modelling we would want these children to emulate and internalise.
Children and Character Formation
All children, including those who make terrible mistakes, need to be disciplined and coached, not ridiculed and vilified. No doubt, the media and virtuous trolls might respond that the problem is the School and not the children, that it is the School’s educational programs or culture that is to blame. We have seen this, particularly with single-sex boys schools being blamed for causing toxic masculinity. However, this view that blames schools for producing “bad” students is grounded in a very old and misleading idea from the 17th-century philosopher John Locke.
Locke believed that children are born with a mind that is like a blank slate, what he called a “tabula rasa”, and that children had no innate knowledge or tendencies towards being good or bad but relied entirely on society for their education. While this view is certainly true for much of the knowledge and skills we teach in schools, it is misleading in the assumption that a child’s behaviour is solely a consequence of their schooling. While schooling is certainly an important and significant contributor to a child’s behaviour and moral character, it was the 20th-century psychologist John Bowlby who contributed an important caveat that fundamentally changed our understanding of child development. Bowlby laid the foundation for what we now understand as “Attachment Theory”.
We now understand from Attachment Theory that a child’s relational attachment style is largely formed by the age of 2, with around one-third of children exhibiting an insecure relational style and only two-thirds a secure relational style. Pathological insecurity has subsequently been linked to bullying, self-harm, anxiety, domestic violence, and animal cruelty, along with a whole range of other psychological, social, and behavioural problems.
It is important to understand that a child’s attachment style is not their fault, nor is it impervious to change and development. It is also important to note that schools do not cause bullying, self-harm, or other maladaptive behaviours in children. As socially diverse and complex behavioural environments, schools are invariably places where issues relating to a child’s development present more publicly. Bullying, for example, is more likely to be seen at school than it is in the home. Social and moral failure is more likely to present in challenging, complex, and unfamiliar environments.
If we were to hold to Locke’s view, we might be justified in thinking that a child’s personality and behaviour is a product of their schooling. However, Bowlby’s work has corrected this error and laid the groundwork for understanding the important role that schools and significant others have in continuing to form and shape a child’s character and resilience, recognising that a third of children begin their schooling with a predisposition to insecurity and all that goes with that.
The upshot of all this is that while schools are not the cause of a child’s attachment style and personality predispositions, they certainly have an important role, along with a child’s parents and peers, in correcting, developing, and shaping a child’s character. However, this is an ongoing process throughout a child’s school life. The nature of human development is that different issues and complexities show themselves at different points in their development, especially in adolescence. This is why teachers and school counsellors are always on the lookout for changes in a child’s personality and behaviour as they get older, as children are always growing, learning, changing, and maturing. It is also why children need adults in their lives whom they trust and rely upon as good role models for counsel and advice.
The King’s School has always been, and will continue to be, committed to the development of graduates of Christian character. We do this through the unique educational experiences created by our committed and professional staff in a range of extraordinary geographic locations. Thankfully, most of the time, things go well.
Of course, sometimes they don’t. Those rare occasions remind us of our human frailty, imperfection, and the need to learn and do better. And on those occasions, some very important learning and character formation is underway for the students involved, discovered in new and challenging environments within a community that cares.
RIP Varanus varius.
Headmaster – The King’s School
24 April 2023
Bowlby, J. (1969), Attachment and loss, Vol 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Campbell, B. & Manning, J. (2018), The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Cohen, Daniel H. (2017), “The Virtuous Troll: Argumentative Virtues in the Age of (Technologically Enhanced) Argumentative Pluralism”, Philosophy & Technology 30, 179-189.
Locke, J. (1689, 1995) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, New York: Prometheus.
Wauthier, L. M., Farnfield, S., Scottish SPCA & Williams, J.M. (2022), “A Preliminary Exploration of the Psychological Risk Factors for Childhood Animal Cruelty: The Roles of Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Empathy”, Anthrozoös, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2022.2125197.