Bringing philosophical discourse into the classroom is an inspirational move

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The Independent Online

Rugby School's ethos is the stuff of legend – sporting, imperial and literary. As recalled in stone in its School Close, this was the place in 1823 where local lad William Webb Ellis picked up an oval ball and ran, thereby inventing the game of rugby football. And to that tradition of sporting endeavour, a subsequent head teacher, Thomas Arnold (1828-42), added muscular Christianity, creating a recipe that shaped British public school education for a century and, by association, the British Empire, and which was immortalised in print in Tom Brown's Schooldays.

Rugby is therefore at first glance an unlikely place to pioneer an experiment in introducing philosophical discourse into the classroom as an opportunity to take a step back from the demands of the curriculum, yet this co-educational boarding school today has not only a philosopher-in-residence but also a director of critical skills.

Dr John Taylor, who took up the post two years ago, having been head of physics for almost a decade, is amused by the contrast between what really goes on at Rugby and its enduring stereotype. "Just last week, I had two of my students speaking from the lectern in the school chapel on philosophical questions. One was delivering a paper on whether biology undermined morality. I think Dr Arnold [who is buried in the chapel] would have approved." The event, Taylor stresses, was organised at the request of the school's chaplain, an example, he suggests, of how his work with the pupils integrates seamlessly with more traditional areas of school life and the traditions of Rugby.

Key to the injection of a philosophical element into the curriculum has been the challenge, as Taylor puts it, "of promoting debate and discussion" in a system too often dominated by examinations. Some pupils in the sixth form will take philosophy as an A-level, but many more have been drawn in to the Perspectives on Science programme that was launched in 2004. Designed by Taylor, working in partnership with local state schools which also offer it, this project aims, he says, "to provide the scaffolding to support philosophical thought and inquiry into particular problems". It does this by providing a forum for 16- to 18 year-olds, mainly studying science subjects at A-level, to examine in depth some of the ethical questions that tend otherwise only to exist on the edges of the science curriculum.

The model for the Perspectives on Science approach is arguably provided by Plato in The Republic when he suggests that no one can teach another person anything – all they can do is turn them "in the direction of the light". That emphasis on getting at the big questions of life rather than ticking narrow boxes for examiners has proved so successful that in 2008 Perspectives on Science was integrated as one element of the wider extended project AS-level qualification, now offered in many schools (including Rugby) as a way of encouraging sixth-formers to undertake research and write dissertations as a preparation for university.

Perspectives itself continues to flourish at Rugby, spawning an interactive website and, in the lower school, both a junior philosophy club and some basic philosophy sessions as part of citizenship courses. Taylor is in no doubt of philosophy's appeal to pupils who don't necessarily always thrive under conventional academic teaching. "Questioning authority and being subversive definitely appeals to the teenage mindset," he acknowledges.

As part of the new emphasis, there have been visits to Rugby by celebrity philosophers Julian Baggini and AC Grayling, and a conference for 200 pupils from six schools including Rugby addressed by Dr Angie Hobbs, senior fellow in the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Warwick. She was impressed both by the inquiring spirit of the pupils she met and by Rugby's inclusive approach. "This is a school using its considerable resources very intelligently to encourage not only its own pupils to be confident in critical thinking but also pupils from other schools that don't have a fraction of the same resources."

Rugby has also funded the appointment of a philosopher-in-residence, Emma Williams, a recent postgraduate philosophy student from the University of Warwick. Again working with a cluster of schools including Rugby, she has a brief to introduce pupils to philosophy's key frameworks and ideas through debate, and across all areas of the curriculum.

What does Rugby's current head teacher, Patrick Derham, think his predecessors Thomas Arnold and Frederick Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, would have made of a militant atheist such as Grayling promoting philosophical inquiry in the school? "I don't see any tension at all," he says. "A key part of Rugby has always been challenging pupils to look at the spiritual side of life, and the work we are doing around philosophy fits perfectly. It is asking important questions about our purpose, and trying to open eyes without indoctrination and dogma."

Derham has just published, with Michael Worton, a collection of essays on education entitled Liberating Learning: Widening Participation, which broadly urges moving beyond the narrow remit of the current examination-obsessed curriculum. The inclusion of philosophical debate in the school's life is a practical example, he says, of how that can be done – and the benefits to be reaped. "There is a danger with the current curriculum that we are stifling young people and their ability to think. We have found that, when you give them the chance, they really do want to engage with the big questions. During the heavy snow last winter, there was one girl from one of the local schools who, despite her own school being closed, battled her way through the snow to get here for a philosophy meeting. That is how much it had inspired her."

So what does he say to those who question whether philosophy is really something for a school with a history such as Rugby's? "The way I like to look at it," replies Derham, "is that Rugby has always prided itself as a place of educational innovation, from Thomas Arnold through to our more recent work on the development of the teaching of science. What we are doing now with philosophy is simply continuing with that tradition."