“I think the only expectation…”

“I think the only expectation is that I put on myself to do everything right and to put myself in a position to perform as best that I can.”

Ashleigh Barty

Ashleigh Barty is a supremely gifted athlete and her announcement this week that she is withdrawing from the uber competitive arena that is professional tennis can only be applauded as courageous. Elsewhere this week at the World Education Summit, Professor Yong Zhao likened a child’s progress through education to that of a dead bird.

At this point I would forgive you for wondering where all this is going. Professor Zhao has a distinguished educational pedigree, and he was calling into question the idea that it is education’s job to provide young people with the skills that they require for life in the future. According to Professor Zhao this is impossible because there are simply too many variables when looking at the future. Put plainly, we don’t know what skills or knowledge will be required. He took his thinking further explaining that children are rather more like live birds than dead ones as they fly in all sorts of directions and follow their own routes. To that end the constrictions of the traditional curriculum and associated testing mean that young people follow a path defined by the present that is (supposedly) preparing them for the future. In his mind, they should be prepared to create, shape, and mould their future. In proscribing levels to be reached (marks and grades) we may well be ignoring or failing to develop other talents and skills. Therefore, rather than preparing our pupils to live in the future he urges educators to provide pupils with the knowledge and skills to create their future.

Ashleigh Barty mentioned in her announcement that she may well look to take her talents into coaching. Here is a young person who has dedicated herself in the single-minded pursuit of excellence in one endeavour. She is bowing out at the top of her game, and she appears likely to take her sublime skills and put them to the benefit of others. Having met the demands of the most exacting of measures she provides us with a clear warning as to the dangers of such a single-minded pursuit in an environment where criticism from behind a screen and with the safety of a keyboard is all too easy and oh so damaging. Her example is admirable, and I hope our young people are taking note of the dignity that this athlete has shown in coming to this momentous decision. How easy it would have been to carry on, to go through the motions. To do what is expected. When I ask parents what they want for their children from school most say that they want their children to be happy, well-adjusted, and successful. It is notable that happiness usually sits at the top of the list.

I can’t help but think that Prof Zhao has a point, and that Ashleigh Barty provides us with a lesson in knowing yourself – one of the most important lessons our pupils can learn. I’m not certain that a sudden migration from subject content, skills testing, and exams is quite what we are after, but balance is required. We will never really know What the future holds, and we will never know what skills young people will need to create it. If we are successful in providing knowledge, skills, and character then we will be moving in the right direction. I hope that Prof. Zhao would be encouraged by the way our young people are prepared to take flight.

Nicholas Hammond