What is courage? (Head’s blog May 2017)

Posted on 9 May 2017

So asked an Oxford University entrance general paper many years ago. The candidate left a blank side of unfilled space and simply wrote at the bottom of the page:

This is.

I was reminded of that magnificently gutsy response during our Breathe Week at St Albans High School. Our curriculum conference challenged schools to create space for pupils. Sir Anthony Seldon, posing Eliot’s questions: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in mere information?’ argued that today’s overloaded curriculum needs urgent attention. The national curriculum is designed to chase qualifications rather than build qualities of mind and character. Every pupil has unprecedented information at their i-phoned fingertips, but how well does our packed curriculum translate that into knowledge? Never mind understanding or wisdom.

Sir Anthony’s message was simple and devastating. Too many independent schools are failing to show the courage they are free to exercise. And at a time when educational leadership from the political world is missing in electoral and Brexit action, now more than ever, schools that have the freedom and resources to lead should do so. But first we have to face some hard truths.

Take GCSEs, do 15 and 16 year olds really need to sit 25 papers over 8 weeks to prove that they are capable of the next stage of academic study? Or that they will make worthy and effective university undergraduates in two years-time?

GCSES and the O levels/CSEs they grew out of, were created to be school-leaving qualifications. Their purpose as the sole (for most) qualification on entry into the workplace was important. But that purpose has long gone. Young people today are obliged to stay in education until they are 18 (to sit A levels, or achieve equivalent vocational training and qualifications) and the relevance of a raft of reductive and content-heavy subject tests is highly questionable.

And what about the wellbeing of our adolescents? The GCSE exam season typically lasts for two months. To be in full exam mode for that long is a feat of endurance. And that’s just for the parents. Professor Tanya Bryon, who also spoke in our Breathe week, bemoaned the way that students and their parents simply lose their bearings in the face of this kind of remorseless and redundant exam pressure. GCSE grades do not define lives.

And yet we’re told that universities, employers and CVs need them. Our schools, our government and our society have inhaled the conviction that tests and only tests measure success, success of the individual and success of the school. This closes educational doors, rather than letting in the fresh air of true and imaginative learning.

All those years ago, Oxford enjoyed that spacious definition of courage – the applicant, so the story goes, was offered a place. I hope that today’s universities and all of us recognise the power and potential in unfilled creative space in a similar way.

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