A league of our own

Earlier this week I tuned in to Radio 4 for the first of its three programmes on the purpose of education.  The issues discussed – value of academic v. vocational routes, knowledge v. skills, schools as engines of social change – have dominated, to a greater or lesser extent, educational debate throughout my professional career.  I enjoyed the cut and thrust of the pretty feisty discussions but, frankly, yearned for the debate to move forward.  

How naive I am.  The reason we are unable to focus on the demands of the world as it will be, is because we are protagonists in battles which wax and wane depending on the colour of the government which happens to be in power.  And these battles inevitably become ever more entrenched as those who care feel increasingly emasculated.  Why? The field of battle pays lip service to these greater issues.  The real focus for successive governments, as the huge media circus around the GCSE results illustrates this week, is ‘results, dear boy, results’.  The assessment framework is the key driver for every school in the land, both in the maintained and independent sector. 

The mill stone, sorry, milestone which charts the trajectory of results, is of course the school league tables.  Conceived as a means of driving up standards, the league tables have become nothing less than a leviathan which hold enormous powers over the schools enthralled to them.  With funding pinned to results, most recently the e-Bacc, schools in the maintained sector have to focus on this one sole measurement to demonstrate their success.   Of course, achieving the best possible result in a qualification is an important passport in life’s journey, but it should not and must not be the sole raison d’être of schools.  

As an independent school, we decided several years ago that the ritual of annual league tables was, at best, a distraction, at worst a narrow academic yardstick which distorts the real challenges facing schools in this century.  Our Governing Body agreed that we should withdraw and, frankly, the liberating impact of this decision has helped transform the learning environment throughout the Stephen Perse Foundation.  We were not alone in our decision to exit the league tables, you don’t need to look too closely to see how many good schools are missing from the list.  Our results remain exceptional year on year (you can read the Cambridge News’ reports for 2012 here: http://bit.ly/SDmR0w, http://bit.ly/Q1LT4t) not because of league table accountability, but because of our accountability as a school to provide an education which inspires our pupils to aspire to be the best they can be.  This is education in the round, an education which transcends the merry go round of educational angst surrounding the dementor-like league tables.

Next week, The Education Debates on Radio 4 (Wed at 8pm) will discuss ‘How should we teach’.  Again hosted by John Humphrys, this episode will feature Professor Guy Claxton, Co-Director of the Centre for Real-World Learning and originator of the Building Learning Power programme, designed to help young people become better real-life learners.  Professor Claxton will be a key speaker at the Stephen Perse Foundation’s conference ‘What is Learning For’ in February 2013 (more news on this in due course), so I’ll be turning in again on Wednesday to see what he has to contribute to this compelling debate.   

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