Amongst the noise and excitement surrounding Brexit, the news that OFSTED is looking to shift its focus from examination results to a wider consideration of all aspects of school life might easily be missed. It is, however, an important development, the fruition perhaps of the Chief Inspector’s reported desire to launch a ‘big crusade’ against the over reliance on examination results as a measure of school success. Ms Spielman’s reported view that ‘children getting a rich education is better than false assurances that standards are always rising in exam league tables’ does seem to have been more than mere words given last week’s announcement.
Interestingly, the press has focused on the promotion of resilience amongst pupils as a key part of the revised framework. Few would argue that this is a vital part of a proper education: our task as educators is to prepare the young people in our charge to face the rigours of the adult world and the challenges and disappointments that world may bring without being crushed by it: to make them, in a word, resilient.
Easy to define, perhaps, but much trickier to measure and assess resilience; how does one find hard evidence that children are more resilient as a result of the work done in schools? Sure, we can test physical resilience in a gymnasium, but emotional and intellectual resilience are much harder to measure. Yet the fact that such things are not easily measured does not mean that they are not worth promoting and developing. Amanda Spielman’s thoughts suggest, perhaps, that a paradigm based largely on measurable targets and quantitative outcomes may in future be tempered by a more holistic approach to assessing the work of schools.
And it could be argued that the widespread concerns about the mental health of young people means that the promotion and development of resilience was never more vital than it is now. As a school, we have taken explicit measures to promote that, with training provided for staff on mental health first aid and for all students during a mental health and well-being day. Dame Allan’s Schools have long employed the services of a counsellor whose work supplements a well-established and professionally delivered listening skills course to Year 12 students who themselves act as peer counsellors in the Schools. The impact of this course on the whole sixth form has been marked in terms of encouraging an open climate in which young people are willing to share their concerns and worries and also to support their peers when in difficulties.
But such explicit ‘teaching of resilience’ is only part of what develops this quality amongst pupils. OFSTED’s proposal of a stand-alone category for “personal development” in inspections as a way to encourage schools to prioritise extra-curricular activities recognises this. Resilience can be built and developed outside the classroom just as easily as within it - arguably even more so. If resilience means a willingness to take risks, what better than playing a solo part in a jazz ensemble; if it means keeping going in the face of adversity, what better than an outdoor expedition; if it means acknowledging that one can move forward after setbacks, what better than playing sport - for even the very best lose sometimes - and if it means dealing with emotional stress and upset, what better than exploring how others have tried to do this through the medium of dance or drama?
Affording too great a weight to quantifiable examination results risks pushing such activities to the margins as the pressure to get ever better results eats up more and more teacher and pupil time. Denying young people the opportunity to explore such activities creates pressure for all: for the most able, the focus on academic perfection becomes greater and may be linked to our current worries around young people’s mental health; whilst the less able are denied the opportunity to explore other skills and talents - consistently performing below par in a system in which grade outcomes hold central sway is not best designed to improve their resilience.
Of course, a varied programme of activities that balances the vital academic work with a range of other activities is not, in and of itself, enough to develop resilience in young people. It can only be effective if a school genuinely supports all of the children in its care, not by shielding them from the consequences of failure by avoiding situations in which it might occur - to do so would diminish resilience - but by helping them to deal with both the possibility and the consequences of failure. For most young people, the feeling that someone is concerned about them and is willing to help and support them, is central to their developing the resilience to stand on their own two feet in adult life. So our music teachers should set challenging jazz solos but be prepared to accept any failure to hit all the notes as an opportunity to develop in the future just as our sports coaches should eschew a win at all costs mentality whilst being properly critical of poor performance resulting in defeats.
In short, a range of activities in which high standards are expected but the ability to grow and develop is prioritised by adults - whose key intention is to support and develop the young people in their care - will help to provide that holistic education which best provides the resilience young people need to face the challenges of adult life.