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Who Cares About Henry?

When public personalities behave like infants it raises questions of emotional literacy, acceptable behaviour and morality, which affect us all. This week Oscar was bothered that a famous footballer had bitten another player during a World Cup match. Our class explored this inappropriate behaviour, along with the consequences. Role models have a powerful impact on children, and the individuals they encounter through their school experiences make a difference to the views of the world that children develop.

I believe in the power of individual stories and potential that real lives offer children in modelling  a range of virtues such as perseverance, moral standards and dedication of a worthy cause. That is why our curriculum deliberately exposes children to the interesting lives of people in the past and present, but it is vital that we carefully consider who we hold up as models for children. Not everyone will do. If we want to foster creativity and resilience in children, then it helps to introduce them to imaginative people who persevered in the face of adversity. If we want children to choose healthy dietary choices, then it makes sense to expose them to historical characters who took care of themselves. If we want to nurture morality, then it is important to expose children to morally upright individuals and explore the choices they made in their lives. If we want to inculcate equality, then we need to expose children to personalities who model respect and decency.

All of which prompts me to wonder why schools in England spend so long teaching children about Henry VIII. Of all the monarchs that children are exposed to in the English school system, Henry is the king who is given the most ‘air time’, but it ielizabeths hard to see what is so attractive about him. Henry VIII had a complex relationship to women and even more complex relationship to food. He was arguably an intolerant despot, whose reign did little to improve the lives of most people. I'm also not convinced that studying his life will encourage tolerance, something which is currently being held up as a core English value.

Set Henry's life against that of his daughter Elizabeth and we can see a dramatic contrast. Her reign saw the expansion of knowledge, culture and exploration. She sets a far more engaging personal model in both her personal and public qualities and devoted herself to the common good. Although her reign saw wide spread religious persecutions, Elizabeth herself is acknowledged as a remarkably tolerant person who saw herself as queen of both Catholics and Protestants. She is an engaging historical individual who embodies at least a few virtues. Of course Henry does have some historical significance: the dissolution of the monasteries had a profound effect on English history, but the importance of such a complicated act is probably better suited to study at secondary level, when the nuances of his character and the political changes he instigated can be more readily understood.

For my money, Elizabeth’s reign is far more interesting than Henry's both in content and values. If teaching values is now to become a foreground focus of schools (it has always been in the background), then we should be prepared to rethink the characters in different domains (historical, scientific, sporting and cultural) who exemplify those values, since we all learn more from people and their stories than we do from the bare facts we are exposed to.

We should be in no doubt that individuals make a difference, and the personalities our children are exposed to can influence them in profound but often complex ways, so let’s be careful about who we hold up as an object of interest.

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