“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.”
The rise in child and youth mental health issues is well chronicled. Recent world events have added to anxiety and frustration for the young in our communities. President Macron commiserated with 20 year olds earlier this week, but I think we should also think about all young people.
This week the UK government announced its plans for GCSEs and A level. The Scottish Government also made its plans public. In Scotland one set of exams, the National 5s have been replaced with school assessment tasks and teacher assessed grade information. The situation in England is slightly different with exams being delayed and optionality being introduced in some subjects. I should explain, optionality is not whether or not you take the exam, it is an opportunity to take parts of an exam. Many politicians and some headteachers have welcomed the approach and believe that exams provide the best and fairest means of assessing competence in a subject. I am not so sure. Exams have a place and I do believe that we should check that once learned something can be done. It is important for skills to be embedded and competence regularly checked, I’m not sure you have to sit in a hall in the summertime to do this. As a pupil I liked exams. I had a good short-term memory (now I can’t find my glasses in the morning so I’m very pleased not to be taking exams), I could write quickly, and I enjoyed argument. They worked for me, but quite frankly my competence in exams bears little relation to my ability to teach. The coursework that existed in previous incarnations of the exam system is not the answer. Such exercises turned into another form of academic high stakes poker. More stress, more anxiety. Some cope, others do not. Of course, much of the pressure placed on young people to “do well in exams” is that grades provide universities and employers with a handy measure of something (an ability to do well in exams?). It is inescapable that school league tables mean that exams have become an area to be gamed in what is an increasingly marketized area of society – after all a school with great exam results must be a good school. Perhaps mental health statistics should be issued alongside the other league tables, measuring on one facet of school performance is a lopsided way to judge value.
Exams, tests and quizzes all have their place. Classwork is valuable but rarely formally acknowledged. We should be looking to measure progress as much as an ability to perform at an endpoint. Sometimes we have to work alone and under pressure. Collaborative working is equally as valuable. Failing constructively is perhaps the best way to prepare our pupils for the future. I’m just not so sure that trusting in the exam and the exam alone is a sensible way to understand the competencies, skills, talents and achievements of our young people.
Before the summer there will be modification to what has been proposed. I rather hope that those who pull the levers of policy change will take this once in a lifetime opportunity to change for the better. In a time of crisis and turmoil how good would it be to produce something of which we can be proud?
“It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success.”
One of the perks of my job is that I move between the Senior School and Junior School campuses. How lucky I am to experience the riverbank (albeit briefly) and the shrub lined, bird filled access road up the side of the Junior School. This morning, in the fine drizzle I saw the tiniest of snails on the large green lamp post by the back gate. If the snail was endeavouring to reach the top of the lamp, then I thought he was being just a fraction optimistic.
In educational literature there has been an awful lot written about grit and determination in recent years. Authors such as Paul Tough and Angela Duckworth have written extensively on the topics and in doing so have had bestsellers on their hands. Another subject that is also mentioned from time to time is that of optimism covered admirably by writers like Martin Seligman. The current school year has thrown up so many questions and interruptions that we could very well be forgiven for looking ahead with a real lack of cheer for the future, for chucking away any pretence at grit and giving up on determination. We could all be snowflakes… parts of the media would have us believe that our young people already are. That is not what I see.
This morning I had the great pleasure of reading one of my favourite books to Nursery. When I say I read it; I was only allowed to after I had answered two important questions. Thus, having admitted to a favourite colour and identified my favourite flavour of ice cream we made a start on The Gruffalo. If you ever want a definition of optimism and confidence that life is most definitely being lived to the full you will find it in our Nursery class and perhaps in The Gruffalo we find a useful example of how to negotiate the coming weeks and months. The central figure of the mouse shows all of the other animals of the wood that whilst caution is a very good thing, we need to be careful of how far we allow that caution to define our actions. The mouse remains optimistic despite the danger being faced. When put in a difficult situation the mouse finds a way around the threat. Ultimately the mouse remains safe because of his sensible precautions and a thoughtful approach to the peril faced.
Today’s Junior School assembly dealt with determination and endeavour, two of our school values. Mr. Potter talked about crossing bridges. We have some rickety old dangerous bridges that we have to cross and we have others that feel far safer. These two values will serve us well as this long term continues. Back in Nursery I saw the fantastic work that has been done creating butterflies from coffee filter papers by the children. Bright symbols of optimism in this world. This is a difficult time for our young people, many of them remain optimistic despite the threat of many activities they enjoy being curtailed, their resilience is inspiring.
Schools are strangely weather dependent. Whilst we have buildings that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer the weather plays a significant part in school life. Any teacher will tell you that pupils behave in a different way when it is a windy day. Rain changes things significantly if only on a practical front. Everyone knows that a snow day is something different again. We’ve been most fortunate to have a wonderful run of sunny weather during September, but the last few days have ushered in not only an autumnal chill but “proper” rain. Perhaps as a British School this is our natural meteorological state, but I have to admit it has come as something of a shock.
A rainy day should not stop the normal functioning of a school, but it does lead to differences in the school day. We have designated areas for the pupils to go to, outdoor lessons are subject to rapid adaptation and certainly on the Senior School site there are faster transitions between buildings. This year will be different as a consequence of COVID. I think that this year we will have our windows open for a little longer in the year than normal and we will be ventilating our classrooms a little more actively. This week the German Premier was reported to be an enthusiastic proponent of Lüften or house airing. The same is true for schools; good ventilation has to be one of the most important ways that we can protect ourselves against the virus. This may be the sort of activity that Mrs. Merkel described as impact ventilation or Stosslüften. Her third and final suggestion Querlüften or cross ventilation may very well mean that we need to invest in paperweights for classrooms! We can open windows and we can use ventilation systems to bring the fresh air in, the means seem immaterial, the action is everything.
Similarly, time spent outdoors has to be a good thing. I am fortunate to be able to hear the sounds of break and lunchtime from my study and in the last few weeks it has been a great joy to hear voices where during lockdown there were none. We will still be asking pupils to spend their break and lesson times out of doors believing that this is an essential element of a safer school day. As the weather gets chillier, we will have fewer outdoor classes, but our rooms may well be colder with the windows open or the ventilation systems turned on. At the risk of sounding like a throwback from the 1940s it may well be time for people to ensure that they have appropriate vests to wear under their uniform. I picked up another word over the course of this week Friluftsliv apparently coined by the Norwegian playwright Ibsen. It is the idea that time spent out of doors in fresh air is essential for well-being even if it means adopting a positive winter mindset and a pair of long-johns. I think that we could learn a thing or two from this approach. The Norwegians are also great fans of the idea that there is no such thing as bad weather simply inappropriate clothing (apparently it rhymes in Norwegian) so I’d encourage everyone to make sure that they have appropriate wet weather clothing now and warm clothing for when winter bites.
To coin a phrase from somewhere else, winter is coming. We need to be ready to make the most of it, it is an opportunity not to be missed.