Andy Williams is Principal of Aldenham School.
In 2016 Aldenham School launched its Aldenham Attributes. This provided an opportunity to codify what Aldenham has already been doing for years; providing an excellent all round education to generations of pupils.
The Attributes describe our vision for the personal development of our pupils. We believe they encompass the characteristics that provide the framework for a successful experience at school and to equip our pupils to meet the challenges of life when they leave us.
Having consulted with staff, governors, parents and pupils we chose the following Attributes to complement the school’s aims:
Let’s talk about grades
Having taught in a variety of secondary schools over the last 25 years I have seen how the emphasis on grades and testing has narrowed the curriculum and for some pupils made school something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Now don’t get me wrong – I am the first to analyse our annual grade statistics, to congratulate those pupils who have worked really hard to add value to their outcomes and to support those who require intervention. BUT, surely education is about more than just grades – it is the process of facilitating learning. Of course this includes at its pinnacle the acquisition of knowledge but it also incorporates the skills, values, beliefs and habits necessary to prepare our young people for the many twists and turns that life is sure to lead them, in readiness for a future that we cannot predict.
One size fits all
Those of you who have been involved with education for a number of years will recognise its cyclical nature and appreciate that I am not espousing anything new. Thinkers and philosophers throughout history have attested to the fact that we should provide a broad and balanced education if we wish to be successful in preparing children for successful adulthood and yet schools are required, for many and varied reasons, to educate children with a ‘one size fits all’ structure which judges outcomes solely by exam grades.
One consequence of a failure to develop children’s emotional traits, as well as their intellectual ones, is an adolescent sector of society which is experiencing an increasingly high level of self-doubt, self-consciousness, insecurity and fearfulness. Dr Ann Hargell, editor of the Journal of Adolescence, recognised this when she wrote “we have high expectations of independence, responsibility and academic achievement of our teenagers, without the other side of the equation: the means to achieve it.” At Aldenham we aim to focus the spotlight on ‘the means’, to inculcate the skills necessary for pupils to become independent, responsible young men and women. In our experience this allows our pupils to feel confident in their pursuit of academic excellence as well.
And now some history…
As far back at the 4th century BC Aristotle believed that education must benefit both the individual and society in pursuit of the attainment of happiness and goodness in life – whereby goodness was subdivided into goodness of intellect and goodness of character – the creation of a sound mind in a sound body. He placed a strong emphasis on all round and ‘balanced’ development, viewing education as an attempt to find the kind of unity that enables individuals to grow intellectually, ethically and socially.
In 1947 the civil right activist Dr Martin Luther King stated that the purpose of education is to develop ‘intelligence plus character’.
In 2006 the Government tried to address this issue – arguable in response to having created the problem in the first place – with its well-intentioned SEAL programme (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) which was introduced to most English primary and secondary schools as ‘a comprehensive, whole-school approach’ to promoting social and emotional skills. Unfortunately, an evaluation concluded the programme ‘does not appear to have impacted upon any of the pupil level outcome measures’ and it was discontinued in 2011.
In 2014 the all party parliamentary group on social mobility cited ‘resilience and character’ as essential requirements for the education system to provide, yet unfortunately recent research by the APPG claimed that “while teachers felt that building character should be a central aspect of their role, they did not see this as a core element of their school’s strategy.” (Character and Resilience Manifesto published by the APPG 2014).
A disappointing outcome…
The problem with league tables
At times I find myself almost as guilty as others of promoting the academic arms race; scrutinising league tables and studying annual promotions and relegations. Why? Because the softer skills are more difficult to measure, harder to target and almost impossible to quantify when it comes to demonstrating progress. Imagine trying to measure the development of character and resilience especially when it comes to determining whether or not performance related pay thresholds have been reached!
It is therefore unsurprising that the APPG report further laments that ‘All too often the development of attributes associated with character and resilience – that is, the development of the pupil as a rounded individual – are neglected or, at best, given second billing.’
And so it seems schools still hanker after top grades while neglecting personal development despite employers telling us that the ‘soft’ skills are equally important. A recent survey of employers conducted for the CBI found they prefer ‘soft’ skills rather than technical knowledge in graduates. Possessing determination, being good at communicating, a team player, confident and analytical were all more important than having technical knowledge.
Must try harder…
Where does happiness fit in?
Perhaps even more concerning is the LSE report from 2013 asking ‘What Predicts a Successful Life’, which noted, “The most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is the child’s emotional health. Next comes the child’s conduct. The least powerful predictor is the child’s intellectual development.”
At Aldenham we think that education is, above all, a preparation for the future. We have a limited idea of what our pupils’ world will be like in 30 years’ time, except that it will be different. Some academic skills learnt now may have less relevance in the future but I have no doubt that the Attributes that Aldenham seeks to instil in its pupils will still be just as relevant and important in creating happy, successful and well-rounded adults.
Aldenham has been providing an excellent all round education since 1597, preparing its pupils for a better future – surely this is the true purpose of schools.