It’s one of the most frustrating and liberating facets of schooling. It makes teachers unsure and uncomfortable, makes system leaders reach for levers of change and reform, makes parents confused but oddly at ease: schools are complex beasts that mean different things to different people. There is no single, unifying purpose to schooling – no, not even learning (in a purely academic sense).

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine explored some of the opportunities and challenges facing the Australian school systems that have a selective component (including government schools). The main focus was on parent fretting deeply about the choices they made and the impact on their child’s future. Whilst the school a child attends will indeed have an impact on their future lives, it’s really not as simple as choosing the ‘right’ school. Each school – even the academically selective – will be ‘right’ for some and ‘wrong’ for others. The hardest part is accepting that the reasons behind this are varied and might change over time. It might be ‘right’ for Years 7 and 8, but get towards the final years and the ground may have shifted.

I’m lucky to teach in a school community that prides itself on a holistic approach to education. We focus as much on pastoral care and social justice as we do on academic success and performance. For some students, this is essential. They will still be encouraged and supported to do their best (academically) but this factor alone will not determine their life whilst they are at the school. Many schools take this approach regardless of whether they are a public school in western Sydney, a Catholic school in outback Queensland or an elite independent school in east Melbourne. Most schools recognise that their duty is less black and white than ‘is the student achieving well?’.

The trouble is, it’s much easier to try to boil students’ experience and the school experience as a whole down to a resin of experience (to a number or a grade, for example), look at what remains and nod our heads – or shake them – make a judgement and move on. It’s much easier to put a line in front of a student and note down if and when they cross it. It’s much easier to ignore that most of what happens in school is a massive grey area that can shift and change like a summer storm. In the morning, the pressing issue for a student may be of a pastoral nature, by the end of the day, it might have shifted to be more academic, or something in between – or it might have cleared up, for now. On top of this, it might be all positive, all negative, or both, or neither. It’s grey.

This is incredibly frustrating to those who want things ordered and standardised and measured and accountable according to economic standards. For example, the fact that all students are expected to be ready to jump to another academic level every 12 months. What about those who are ready after 3 months, in one subject, and not ready for 25 months for another? Or those who need deep and ongoing pastoral care for several weeks without the pressure of ongoing curriculum expectations? Schools do an amazing job at trying to keep kids on track despite the whirling vortex of circumstances surrounding each individual human being, with system-level expectations sometimes only operating on unchanging and rigid lines.

I hope we can continue to work in the grey whilst expectations become increasingly black and white. Leadership, trust and relationships must surely play a key role in this.