Independent Nursery, Junior and Senior School, Edinburgh

Education must be about more than achieving the right grades

Interview Published, The Scotsman, 13 January, 2010, and in ‘Independent Schools Magazine’ , July 2010

I get the feeling that we do not ask ourselves this question often enough. What is the purpose of a school? What is it actually for? If you follow our current thinking it would appear that it is fundamentally founded on the belief that schools are doing well if their pupils achieve a set of excellent examination results. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that, above all, we should ensure our pupils’ heads are filled with the required knowledge to allow them to pass a series of examinations. Oh dear, oh dear…

At the moment, our secondary education system is a protracted application process for tertiary education and we are the poorer for it. I have met many people with first class honours degrees who are, in my opinion, eminently unemployable and many people who leave school at sixteen with few qualifications who are hugely successful and eminently employable. Now we must not see these cases as the rule, but they are not merely a small number of ‘exceptions’ to that rule.

Education is being damaged by the need to jump through academic hoops that actually curtail an individual’s imagination and, in many ways, damage their originality of thought. Universities now complain that students arrive lacking fundamental skills. In my opinion, they arrive lacking these skills because of our need to assess learning in a very uncreative manner. This is the current process: teach the content of the curriculum, learn the content of the curriculum, regurgitate the content of the curriculum under examination conditions and do this well to receive an A grade. My contention is that this approach is fundamentally flawed and actually quite dangerous.

The independent sector does not get away scot-free from these criticisms. Too often we spoon-feed our students to the extent that we take away their capacity to ‘think’ and, indeed, to think outside the box. Too many of our pupils enter University without the tools to achieve success in a less structured and less formal environment. We need to do more to prepare our pupils for the realities of life in the real world. More work experience placements, more work with disadvantaged sections of society, more hands-on, practical application of knowledge, more freedom to make mistakes and a greater sense of responsibility and independence.

Our students need to start being allowed to develop their creativity and their critical thinking. We need to look at the education systems of other countries and learn from their successes. Scandinavian countries, in particular Finland, have been out-performing us for more than a decade. If you look at their systems of public education, you see one vital component which is different to our own. Examinations or tests, of any kind, do not kick in before the age of 16. This means that education from 6-15 is allowed to develop without the worry of “passing the tests”.

Universities should not be allowed to wag the dog (i.e. our schools). We should leave it up to individual Universities to work out how they attract potential students and how they assess them. Schools should concentrate on educating their pupils rather than schooling them. We need a period of ‘educational enlightenment’ in the United Kingdom, driven by ensuring our young people have skills and knowledge, not knowledge alone. It is my contention that if we worry less about league tables and more about individual development, then we can become a nation of invention and industry once again. Currently, we are not achieving those dreams and those aspirations and I, for one, am fed up with the notion that a good education equals a series of As in examinations. Why? Because it just isn’t so.

So, what is a good education? Well, it should be about developing individuals into people who are tolerant, cultured, have high self-esteem but with humility at their core, who have a set of skills that allow them to create, problem-solve, analyse, reflect and consider. This is not ‘pie in the sky’. This is absolutely achievable for all of Britain’s children, but we need to radically alter our view of what education is actually for and we need to do it now.