With his new book, Adolescence: How to Survive It, now out, former Eton head Tony Little tells SN why it’s vital to keep talking to your teenager, how to choose a school and what he’s learnt in the job
The teenage years have never been easy, but with so much unchartered territory to navigate, the experience is more complex today than ever before. “The human condition is constant,” says Tony Little, former headmaster of Eton and co-author of Adolescence: How to Survive It. “What has changed is the electronic world of the screen. That’s a game changer in terms of how adolescents can behave and indeed in terms of relationships. It’s one of the difficult areas of life that we are yet fully to understand and resolve.”
Eager to put his 40 years’ practical experience in the context of the knowledge of a real expert, Little collaborated on the book with Herb Etkin, one of the UK’s leading authorities on child and adolescent psychology. Through a series of Q&A dialogues, the pair tackle the key problems facing today’s young adults and set out practical ways to combat them.
The most important thing parents can do for their adolescent children, Little says, is “to listen and to talk”. “It sounds so simple as to beggar belief… but actually in the adolescent years it often becomes very difficult. When things have a tendency to go awry is when the lines of communication aren’t clearly open, they clam up or their experience becomes secretive, part of another world.”
“It’s worth thinking about the situations when you can engineer a conversation”
As parents we simply need to keep the conversation going, about anything and everything. But it can be quite taxing, admits Little: “It’s worth thinking about the situations when you can engineer a conversation.” One of the best places, he suggests, is “when it’s just the two of you in a car”.
A chapter in the book called Screenagers looks at how to deal with young people’s online habits. The crucial point here, the pair agree, is to not allow this world to become furtive. “We both continue to be amazed about how little parents know – or choose to know – about what their children are doing online. You can never know entirely, nor would you wish to, you don’t want to run a police state, but it staggers me that I come across parents who are extraordinarily laissez-faire and have no idea at all, no idea, what their children are doing.”
Understanding nuance is, Little believes, one of the great skills in which all young people should be educated: “It’s more relevant than ever before in the era of fake news. Triangulating information, not taking at face value what you see.”
It’s so important, in fact, that if he were a parent choosing a school today, he’d want to know a school’s approach to developing pupils’ critical skills. “I don’t mean as a bolt-on module, I mean right the way through the whole curriculum. To try to make sure that my child is going to have a lively critical sense and healthy scepticism.”
What else does Little think should parents be looking out for? “You look at inspection reports and results, that’s a given, but to me far more important is being in a school, experiencing it and noticing the behaviour you see around you. Maybe it’s because I’m so long in the tooth and I’ve seen many schools, but in a matter of minutes I can get a pretty accurate sense of the ethos of the school. You can do it by walking down a corridor between lessons. How are people behaving with each other? Eye contact; how do young people relate to adults? How are young people addressed? You pick this up intuitively (in short order).
“All the evidence shows that schooling systems are at their best when they are collaborative”
As for the single sex and co-ed debate, Little isn’t a particular advocate either way. “If I go back 20 years, there was kind of a binary response to the issue, as if co-ed by definition is good and single sex is bad, and I think the world has moved on from that as both have their place; depending on the child and circumstance. The vast majority of children won’t be affected either way.”
The interaction between the state and independent sector has changed dramatically too, according to Little: “For example, when I started [as a head] in 1989, one of the first letters I received was from the headmaster of the comprehensive school down the road. His opening line was words to the effect: ‘I’d like to let you know that you will not be welcome on our school site at any time.’ That’s what it was like. Them and us.”
“If I fast forward 26 years, towards the end of my time at Eton, we had a huge number of positive, friendly contacts with state schools. We helped set up two free schools. So schools like Eton are doing a great deal in terms of collaborative relationships. To me [this] is the future as all the evidence shows that schooling systems are at their best when they are collaborative.”
Indeed, collaboration is one of three invaluable lessons that Little says he has taken away from his decades as a headmaster. “The best heads I’ve known have clearly been identified as the leader but they’ve also talked, listened, sought the common view.”
Another is to stay level-headed as a head at all times because “in the maelstrom and intensity of relationships in a school community things can appear to be one thing, but with a little delving it’s not that way at all”.
And the last is to trust people. “Almost always when I look back and things have gone wrong it’s been down to a lack of trust, manifest in different ways,” he explains. “You can only run a boarding school with 1,300 teenage males in the year 2019 if the teenagers want to be there and trust you. If they don’t, it’s not going to happen. Same in any school. You have to have trust. And be prepared to be let down. One of the functions of dealing with adolescents is being let down. Once you understand that, you understand adolescence better.”
A school he admires:
“A chain of schools in Africa, where the average annual fee is US$200. One of the best lessons I’ve seen in a long time was a young woman teaching eight-year-olds some sophisticated concepts around number entirely through song. She had a beautiful voice, the children did movements, they were singing and they were learning.”
A charity he believes in:
“Afghan Connection, set up by GP Dr Sarah Fane after touring Afghanistan offering medical help to women. It is doing some remarkable things. Firstly, helping local people build schools in villages that have never had a school. That’s a big cultural change, when men want to physically build a school for their daughters.”
A motto he could live by:
“The first school I was head at, Chigwell School, had a Latin motto that roughly translated as: either find a way or make it. I like the balance of that. I interpret that as meaning you connect with something that already exists or if it isn’t there, you make it. It’s a good kind of 21st-century entrepreneurial approach.”
Adolescence: How to Survive It, £16.99 (Hardback) is available from bloomsbury.com