Dr Naomi Hodgson
The 2021 film, Young Plato, screened this month as part of Edge Hill’s Annual Conference on Research in Education, and it has garnered widespread praise and won multiple awards at international film festivals for its depiction of Holy Cross Boys’ School in Ardoyne, Northern Ireland. More specifically, it is a depiction of the work of the headteacher, Kevin McAravey, to introduce classical Greek philosophy into the school. McAravey uses this introduction as a way to engage the young boys in his care, whose upbringing has been shaped by the intergenerational trauma and ongoing tensions caused by conflict in Northern Ireland. We see Seneca invoked for his advice on dealing with anger, and Socratic dialogue used a means to resolve conflict. It is Philosophy for Children in action, and the passionate belief of the headteacher in the potential of such intellectual tools to break the cycle of violence, crime, and prejudice is palpable.
It is a film very much of its time and place, not only in its exceptionality but also in its recognisability. The historical and cultural factors shaping the lives of these young people, and thus the issues to which the school must respond, are unthinkable for many of us. A bomb is left at the gates of the neighbouring girls’ school. The boys are quite familiar with the language of terrorism and war used in a history lesson, but there is also much in the school’s practices that is familiar to educators today. The language and practices used to support children at Holy Cross draws as much on psychology – or positive psychology – as it does philosophy. For all that is exceptional in the pedagogy of Holy Cross, the film depicts a very well-embedded way of initiating young people into understanding themselves and others.
What ought to be more compelling about this view of education is how unexceptional it is: Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School is representative of countless schools, children, teachers, and communities across the country. This is by no means to discredit the work that McAarevey has done in the face of such trauma but today and every day, schools across the UK are seeking to address the impact of traumatic experience, poverty, disadvantage, social and emotional mental health issues, and wider family and intergenerational problems. They also seek to maintain the morale of teachers and support staff whose professionalism and emotional labour maintains attendance, engagement, and attainment.
As the film reviews state, and as we heard when we had the pleasure of hosting him at the ACRE conference, McAravey’s work is inspiring and compelling, but it is perhaps not the philosophy or the love of Elvis that ought to demand our attention, but the weight of pedagogical and social responsibility carried every day in all our schools.