As a school boy in what was then Swaziland, Conrad Hughes says he was “terrible” at French. His marks were far below his better subjects, but he went against his IB co-ordinator’s advice and went on to study it at higher level.
“I had this very magnetic French teacher, there was a bit of a cult following around him, it was like Dead Poets’ Society and I wanted to be his student,” he says.
“I pursued this because I was so drawn to him as a pedagogue, someone who was animated by French literature, there was a passion in his classes that was really quite remarkable.”
Even though Hughes’ French was his lowest score at IB, he said is has “probably been more important in my life than anything else”.
“My wife is Francophone, my children have grown up bilingual, I live in a Francophone country, I work in a bilingual school and I studied in France as well,” he says.
Hughes is now secondary principal and campus director at the International School of Geneva (Ecolint) La Grande Boissière, one of three campuses it runs. In total, there are roughly 4,500 students at Ecolint and 140 nationalities over eight schools.
“I had this very magnetic French teacher, there was a bit of a cult following around him.”
His experience at school in Africa, says Hughes, was a great early lesson for any aspiring educator. “The single most important factor in education is the teacher…if you can just get that incredible relationship going between a student and a teacher it unlocks everything,” he says.
The importance of following your interests is also key: “I find myself standing up for students when they have fairly weak profiles…I’ve always had a problem with the gatekeeper approach,” says Hughes.
“When you have students in the middle school being written off – you’ve got to give them a chance and allow them to follow their passion if you can.”
Hughes has lived this idea wholeheartedly, gaining two doctorates, working as a life coach and writing books alongside his work as an English and now philosophy teacher.
It is no surprise that he is against putting up barriers in school, but also at university level.
One of his books, Education and Elitism, looks at our obsession with the prestige of highly selective universities in the US and UK. While many play the game and are inevitably drawn into chasing kudos and impressive CVs, we should really be choosing our universities for educational reasons, he says.
“It is quite perverse to see universities described in terms of rejection rates.”
He adds: “This is typical of Anglo-Saxon liberal countries: [you should want to attend] because of the quality of instruction, the type of knowledge that’s being generated, you’re going to find passionate, extraordinary professors there, you’re going to find real engagement with learning.”
He supports a model more like in mainland Europe where universities are cheap and accessible but also of a very high standard.
“When the approach is ranking tables, let’s get into the best school, that’s when it becomes perverse all of a sudden, universities in the US are known for their rejection rates…I don’t think elitism is consistently wrong but it is quite perverse to see universities described in terms of rejection rates.
“The whole identity of the university is based on how many people they reject? That’s terrible. Whereas, you could go to Uppsala or Salamanca or Potsdam or Paris Sorbonne just passing your high school diploma, and those are excellent universities.
“This comes all the way down to schools, university guidance counsellors, educating parents to not look at it as this pyramidal elite structure.”
He says work has to be done at some level to undo the problem, although it is “difficult to build a plane while it is flying”.
At Ecolint, a key aim has been working out a way to reform curriculum and assessment to ensure that all kinds of learning – from the academic to skills, values and essential competencies – are taught and recognised.
With UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education, the school has designed its Universal Learning Programme based on seven core competencies, including lifelong learning, self-agency, using diverse tools and resources, interacting with others and the world, multi-literateness and transdisciplinarity.
“How do we reform curriculum and assessment to ensure that all kinds of learning are taught and recognised?”
Through projects and other tasks, students are encouraged to develop character, passion, mastery and collaboration.
The school is now also working to produce an “Ecolint learner Passport”, a way of providing a more broad assessment of what students have learnt and the skills and competencies they have developed.
He says: “So when students leave school, they’re carrying with them more than a regular academic transcript that they will have anyway, but it’s a more profound and systematic way of describing everything that a student can do in and out of school.
“Ultimately that will break down some of the elitist narrow pathways that have been cast in or on schools. There’s cultural elitism where if you’re good at some things but not others, you may not be socially recognised.”
The big question now, though, is how to formalise the assessment of these things.
Hughes says: “If we are going to assess it then we have to break down the examination system that we have created because it’s not the valid assessment tool for it and we move into something different and for us it’s the passport. It’s somewhere between a portfolio and a longitudinal analysis of what students have done.”
“There’s cultural elitism where if you’re good at some things but not others, you may not be socially recognised.”
The passport project is still only in its early stages but a foundation cohort of 300 students will take part from November next year. It is hoped that in time the passport could be an internationally accepted alternative school leaving certificate.
He says: “It’s important that school leaders today put pressure on parents; universities, to broaden our understanding of pathways.
“What I don’t like is this idea that employers use this power they have to recruit to mindlessly gatekeep. If we want more human flourishing, more creativity in the workplace, we need to be able to look at candidates for what they can bring and not only whether they fit into the establishment.”