An outstanding, relevant and contextual education is not defined by academic results alone. This is a view that I believe is widely held by head teachers across the country. Whether working in the maintained or independent sector, primary or secondary, any teacher worth their salt knows that a broad and balanced school experience is intrinsic to a quality education.
The ethos of our independent sector has come a long way in the last 25 years and most schools have done away with “exam factory” reputations by quite rightly placing greater emphasis on wellbeing, pastoral care and co-curricular enrichment. However, the whole sector needs to take this further still by completely remodelling the way in which we assess pupils and judge success, if we are to prepare children effectively for life in the 21st century.
At this time of year, I often feel uncomfortable when I read the newspapers or scroll through social media on GCSE and A-level results days. Whilst it is wonderful to see the handful of students with a full house of A*s on their journey to Cambridge, Yale and the like, it is a reminder that we are stuck with an education system which neither measures success effectively nor prepares pupils properly for the path ahead.
“The whole sector needs to remodel the way in which we assess pupils and judge success.”
It also disappoints me that those who may have achieved way above and beyond their individual potential in many different areas of school life, yet have not received top academic grades, appear to be forgotten and somehow unworthy of the adulation offered to those at the apex of academic excellence.
Why do I think this is so important? First, because every child’s achievements should be celebrated. Second, GCSEs in particular provide limited scope to develop the skills required to get the most out of A-Levels. Third, we need to move away from the notion that academic success, as defined by a narrow criteria of grades, is the central determinant to life success. Yes, under the present system exam results will open doors but it is the softer skills such as creativity, resilience, collaboration, empathy and communication which are likely to determine success in the 21st century workplace and lead to happy and fulfilled personal lives, and it is the development of these skills which we should be giving most focus to.
Ask any graduate recruiter what they are looking for, and they will state that they crave applicants who can work with others, think for themselves and show strong emotional intelligence.
I hear of the success of many past Moulsford pupils, some of whom have achieved stellar grades, but of others who may have overcome great personal challenge or academic difficulty — it is these stories which give me the greatest pleasure and are the best advertisement for the supportive, pupil-centric and relevant education that our independent schools provide.
“The reputations of independent prep schools are generally not defined by results in public examinations or league tables.”
We are in a fortunate position in the independent prep sector. The reputations of our schools are generally not defined by results in public examinations or league tables. This gives our sector the freedom to design an education which focusses on the best holistic outcomes for the pupils and we are able to think long term, rather than the next set of published grades.
Of our many freedoms, prep schools can broadly choose their own curriculum and define what assessment should look like. The metrics of our success are almost entirely immeasurable by data or statistics; did that child grow in confidence with us? Did that family become an integral part of our community? Is that pupil well-equipped for life at senior school, and have we laid the foundations for life success? Do they understand the meaning of “service”? Have they developed a love of learning and are they curious?
Whilst parents and students will understandably always have expectations and hopes of academic success, it is the immeasurable qualities that give our independent schools their magic, and that ultimately will have the greatest influence on pupils’ life experiences and outcomes.
“Photoshoots of ‘top achievers’ on results day are all very well but schools also need to recognise that success comes in all shapes and sizes.”
This week, pupils will be awarded their GCSE and A-Level results through teacher assessed grades, giving the country a two year break in the standard UK annual examination cycle. Educational leaders, in both the independent and maintained sectors, should use this enforced break to have an honest and meaningful debate about how we prepare children for life and what part the national examination structure plays in this. A good place to start is identifying the skills Gen Z will need in order to live successful and fulfilled lives in the 21st century and then work back from this. Specifically, we should be questioning the long-term merit of assessing pupils through GCSEs, and what might replace this system.
As long as the national agenda continues to place GCSE grades and league tables as key measures of success, it is difficult to see our education sector developing a curriculum which will give our children the full suite of skills they need to succeed in the modern world. In the meantime, truly pupil-focussed schools which claim to inspire every student to achieve their very best should consider how they celebrate examination results. Photoshoots of “top achievers” on results day are all very well but schools also need to have a medium for recognising that success comes in all shapes and sizes.