I recall being taught to fish by the quayside of a quiet coastal village when I was very young. The hook looked shiny and menacing, like a piece of barbed treasure, but my mentor baited it with indifferent efficiency and, as the well-practised always do, made the process look deceptively easy. Later, as we bobbed up and down in the North Atlantic in a very small boat, my close attention to the onshore lesson did not prevent me from pushing the hook straight through my thumb. I still have the scar.
We share with all of creation an enduring primeval instinct to protect our family and especially our children. It is right that we should do so. Only irresponsible or insane parents would knowingly send their children into harm’s way. Beyond the family, the first duty of schools, employers and governments is to protect all for whom they are responsible.
Yet my parents still allowed me to play with sharp fishing hooks – painfully sharp, as it turned out – and to sail in a tiny craft into a notoriously treacherous ocean in search of sport and supper. I suffered a sore thumb and a little seasickness, but I became skilled at tying knots and baiting hooks; moreover, I had such a memorable day that I am still writing about it fondly more than 40 years later.
We have all collectively responded to our various governments’ calls to action or inaction to limit the spread of Covid-19. It needed to be taken seriously and it still does to ensure that medical services are not overwhelmed. Now governments around the world are beginning to adjust and introduce more flexibility, so it is timely to consider our response. The more relaxed Conditional Movement Control Order in Malaysia was initially received unenthusiastically by several states and in the UK surveys indicate that, having eventually been persuaded to stay at home, most people are now afraid to venture outside again.
Viktor Frankl, one of the most remarkable and influential people of the twentieth century survived Auschwitz, unlike his family and friends. He wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”
We owe our children a duty of profound care in the face of obvious danger, but risk avoidance in every circumstance is unrealistic and even unhealthy. If we consider our daily routine in more normal times, we live with and manage risk for ourselves and our families every day without even thinking about it. Each of us calculates a series of barely recognised mental risk assessments: I am going to be outside for 2 hours so I could burn: apply sunblock and bring a hat. This may sound facetious, but we can extrapolate it to hygiene, road safety, healthy lifestyles, social etiquette in person and online and many other behaviours which are, in organisational terms, mitigating actions to manage risk of injury and illness, none of which can be entirely eliminated.
Risk awareness has special value for the young and is an important part of education. Animals quickly learn that creatures with black and yellow stripes are to be avoided. Children learn to take responsibility for their own safety and wellbeing by avoiding deep water, fire or busy roads. To survive, we all make a quick calculation of each risk: likelihood and severity, but with sophistication comes nuance and risk management, rather than total avoidance: I am unlikely to fall into the shallow fountain outside the Master’s Study and, if I do, I’ll get wet and feel silly, but I won’t drown! Managing risk promotes judgment, courage and richness of experience; it allows children to flourish: how else could we abseil, dive, climb, swim, play rugby, finish that Design Technology project or Chemistry experiment? This brand of intelligent courage, including the courage to learn through failure, is fundamental to developing what Professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset, which has become the keystone of modern pedagogy and personal growth. Courage abounds in MCM and it is to be encouraged, but Covid-19 is rather different from standing behind a lectern or stretching for a distant hold on the climbing wall.
In recent weeks parents have done what was programmed by nature and compelled by government: they have protected their children. Some children have barely been outside since March; they have not been shopping, playing or interacting with others en plein air. Collectively, we have done what was required and proven Nietzsche’s theory that “he who has a why can bear almost any how.”
The time is approaching to consider the future. Some parents and children will be ready to move on, to re-emerge while others will naturally feel nervous about letting go and placing their children in an environment which they cannot control. You will all rely on us to manage that environment and for some of you, we recognise that asking for that level of trust now is enormous. We will therefore work together to ensure that no child is placed in danger, but also that they do not become slaves to this virus. To do so, each of us will be called upon to act with courage and resolve, making informed, intelligent decisions based on fact, not the cumulative dread of hearsay.
None of us can offer a guarantee. The world will not be free of Covid-19 until a vaccine is developed and mass produced, which is likely to be many months away. In the meantime, we must consider the wisdom or otherwise of keeping our children at home indefinitely, particularly young children whose learning is so dependent on social interaction. So our first question must be: what is the risk?
Comparatively Malaysia is in a very favourable position compared with many countries: its demography and geography provide a level of protection and the dominant strain of Covid-19 here is different from those that have been identified in Europe and America. The Malaysian government’s control measures have been widely implemented and acknowledged by other nations in Asia and Europe and by the World Health Organisation for being effective as rates of infection decrease and remain low.
There is consensus that Covid-19 affects healthy people under a certain age very little at all and, mercifully, children throughout the world have remained almost untouched. The Royal College of Paediatricians in London recently confirmed this along with the fact that, contrary to colds and influenza which can be severe in young children, Covid-19 is generally asymptomatic and, importantly, there is not a single case anywhere of an infected child having passed the virus on.
Within the College, we are risk assessing every aspect of our operation and introducing a host of adjustments and mitigating factors to the very best of our abilities. We will share these and collectively we are confident that we can implement them, but to do we will ask for the support and cooperation of everyone in the College community: parents, pupils and staff.
Risk was also the subject of a recent interview with Cambridge Professor, Sir David Spiegelhalter, who suggested bluntly that most of us are more at risk from a car accident than Covid-19. “As a rough rule of thumb,” he said, “if you get the virus, your chance of dying is roughly about the same as you would have had this year anyway. And if you’re not worried about dying this year, you shouldn’t be so worried about getting the virus.”
The completely risk-averse might consider this madness. Illness, injury, cruelty, dishonesty or disappointment can happen and they naturally cause anxiety, but they don’t happen often and we cannot permit them to dominate our lives or the lives of those whom we love, because that is neither living nor learning and I am looking forward to the day when I go fishing again.
“…the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with
Punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
From Invictus by William Earnest Henley
Alan Stevens | Master
Illustration by Arif Hans Romer, Year 5