Conversations on Empathy: KCS Wimbledon

ThoughtBox Director Rachel Musson has been inviting school leaders to share their thoughts on the empathy deficit in schools, to explore some of the disconnections happening and to share best practice in their own schools for supporting empathy building within the school ethos.

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King's College School

Wimbledon

London, UK

Who better to talk about empathy with than the very school who recently hosted an entire conference on ‘the empathy deficit in schools’?  King’s College School Wimbledon – one of the UK’s leading Independent Schools – is renowned across the world for its academic prowess, with one in three of its school leavers securing a place at Oxbridge. Beyond academics however, the school has featured in the national press many times over the past few years, not just through Headmaster Andrew Halls’ regular blog post for the Sunday Times but also for the school’s general attitude towards nurturing happiness and wellbeing amongst its staff and pupils.

KCS (as the school is fondly known) hit the headlines last year when they announced that pupils in Y7 would be taking empathy lessons, due in part  to “the 21st century fixation with the virtual reality of the screen which is having a devastating effect on a fundamental human quality: empathy.”. Introducing a ‘loving classrooms’ programme into the younger years’ learning is just one of a host of methods and practices that the school has invested in over the years to bring empathy to the heart of learning.

I had the pleasure of meeting with newly appointed Deputy Head Jude Lowson and colleagues to talk about some of the measures that the school has implemented over the years to establish a clear ethos of kindness, community and care.

“Kindness at Kings” was the first phrase I was greeted with when asking about empathy in the school, with all agreeing that this was a foundational ethos of the school.

“It is written into every student planner, is on the classroom walls and in many ways has become the catchphrase of the school” explained Ellie Collin, Head of Girls, who herself is a champion for empathy education, setting up a series of action-focused resources for students to allow them to feel more connected to and empowered within the world around them.  

Ellie talked about the vertical tutor-group system which houses two or three students from each year group, allowing pupils to feel part of a family throughout their time at school. Pupils remain in the same tutor group (and with the same tutor) for the whole of their school journeys, a structure that allows a supportive community ethos to quickly establish itself amongst students and staff members.

Training is also given to older students to support new pupils entering the school, with a buddy system in place and guidance given to sixth form students to help look out for those who may be struggling and in need of some friendly support from ‘older siblings’.

Jude Lowson spoke of the value of the personal relationships that are enabled to flourish within the school, with the tutor being integral to understanding their students’ lives and working closely with other staff and parents to develop a rounded and nurturing support system for each child.

“Having an awareness of the wider community is key to supporting empathy here”, explained Jude, who talked about the importance of the community partnerships that the school has established in the local area. Every Friday afternoon, students from across the upper school spend the afternoon engaged in a range of community service projects – from mentoring in local schools to skill sharing with adults in nearby libraries to hosting a weekly tea for the elderly community -allowing students to feel part of their wider Wimbledon environment and also to engage with other people and perspectives, in turn strengthening their own social-emotional development.

“We are very good at charity work, and strive to help students feel part of the bigger picture of life”, Jude explained, and went on to share some of the work that happens across the school to support local and global charitable initiatives. Each of the school houses nominates their own charity to support, and pupils are also given a wide range of opportunities to take part in self-directed initiatives, strengthening their own skills-base and establishing an understanding of their place as active citizens in society and the wider world.

Head of Middle School John Renwick spoke passionately of the importance of the House system to the school, with this ‘family structure’ lying at the heart of what makes KCS such a warm and supportive environment. Within the houses, sixth form pupils act as mentors to new fourth form pupils, providing informal support and advice during the first few weeks and months in a new school, whilst the regular house events allows students to develop a sense of solidarity and commitment to their wider ‘family unit’ through friendly rivalry and competitiveness across the skills base.

John, who was involved in the running of the ‘Mind the Gap’ conference on empathy in October, explained how it felt vital to try to embed the theoretical with the practical, taking as an example some of the ideas about adolescent disconnection that were explored by Dr Tanya Byron or Professor Sara Konrath during the empathy conference and finding good practice to help apply these directly into students’ lives.

“It feels important to give students something tangible to help them develop these core life skills, something practical that we can embed in the classroom and something tangible and meaningful that they can engage with”. It was interesting at this point to share some of the ThoughtBox curricular with John and colleagues, discussing the importance of embedding skill development into real-world scenarios to help young people to connect the dots on their learning.

King’s also offers a programme of Personal, Social and Health Education, which encompasses topics such as health and relationships through cross-curricular themes and visiting speakers. Sthen Wiseman, Head of PSHE, explained the importance of bringing together both pastoral and academic staff within students’ learning, to support young people in seeing the integrated relevance of what they learn in, for example, a science lesson to what they learn in a lesson on relationships. Her belief is in the importance of embedded learning, so that students can apply their learning in the classroom to their understanding of the wider world and their role within it.

All agreed on the importance – for any school – of helping students to understand that, at times, they are living in a bubble – and to recognise not only their place in their “school world” but also to help them to see how they are part of ‘the big society’, helping young people to feel both excited and empowered by their place in the world – an ethos which lies at the heart of ThoughtBox and our connected learning programmes.

The Kindness at Kings manifesto inscribed into every students’ planners (and hopefully hearts) states how, “It is not acceptable or humane to turn a blind eye or stand by and allow known acts of unkindness to continue without letting a teacher or parent know. This caring action is not only for your happiness or the benefit and well-being of another person, but most importantly it clearly upholds the compassionate, kind, respectful and long-standing culture of King’s. We are all very proud of our school’s welcoming atmosphere and trust that you will always recognise your vital role in sustaining it.”

Here is a school that clearly practices what it preaches, has worked hard to establish an ethos of social emotional learning at its heart and truly values the importance of empathy as being integral to students’ development. It was admirable to hear how the school doesn’t rest on its laurels when it comes to supporting young people’s wellbeing and happiness in the wider world and is constantly looking to evaluate, refresh and improve the inspiring work that is already happening.  

I would like to thank Jude Lowson, Ellie Collin, John Renwick and Sthen Wiseman for taking the time to talk and look forward to hopefully supporting the framework of empathy education at KCS with our ThoughtBox programmes in the near future.

Rachel MussonComment