The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, laid down the gauntlet when she announced war against schools becoming exam factories rather than offering a well-rounded education. First, is her assessment justified? Is this a call to arms and if so, is it too little too late? If true, what competing forces have led our schools into this state of play?
I believe that a school is a place where our children form connections with a cross-section of their society; other children and adults. It is a setting where they can be mentored by non-family members, discover shared interests in sport, music, drama, art and, around a range of academic and vocational subjects. Without doubt schools provide a human face on knowledge and discipline
In truth, a school is not only a place where our young gain knowledge in science, economics, history etc. They should also be encouraged and guided on how to use knowledge to construct coherent arguments, to make decisions. Not too surprising therefore that literacy and numeracy continue to form the basics of all education.
We know that gaining knowledge is only one of many corner stones needed for personal development. Equally important is the ability to make informed decisions, to assess alternatives and for self-reflection of actions, of motives. These skills are not solely the domain of socialisation such as navigating classroom and playground interactions, but are equally important for understanding science experiments, geography field trips, literature.
School is a place where our children should learn individual and collective thinking, how to jointly puzzle over a problem, to make sense of discordant views, and of course, how to arrive at consensus. Schools have a direct and important responsibility to expand a students’ world through what they learn, the people they meet and their own increasing sense of where they fit in the scheme of things.
All the above compete with the growing rhetoric about exam grades, jobs and careers. We drive home to our children the importance of getting good grades, because grades mean jobs. Many, if not most of the other benefits gained from our children going to school are drown out; pushed to the back of the queue of importance.
In short, a school is and should and must be far more than an environment where our children go to learn how to pass exams. We in society bear direct responsibility for the extent to which education is morphing into a resource reservoir for employers seeking young adults with specific skills. Please do not mis-understand me, attaining academic excellence is necessary, but so is excellence in other equally important areas of self-development. It should not be a choice between an emotionally stunted academic high achiever or an emotionally stable academic light-weight. We owe it to our children not to allow it to be a binary choice.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of being invited to present an engineering paper at Oxford university. During the evening meal, as one of the principal guests, I was seated on the high table next to a college master; a charming elderly philosophy professor. As an undergraduate he was accepted to read philosophy at Oxford with a D grade in his A-level mathematics and two C grades in English and history. He was embarrassed to tell me that this would not happen today. His repeated regret was that the brightest and best minds were not necessarily getting through the labyrinth, over the hurdles called ‘selection’ because selection is primarily based on attaining grades and not the ability to think.
Dr Ambroz Neil