GEOFF BARTON: School is about more than exams

A Personal View
A Personal View
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I blame the Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Ever since she talked about the importance of schools building children’s character, it seems that everyone is at it.

Last week a Parliamentary committee said that all schools – not just those charging fees – should have at their heart a mission to build children’s characters.

The shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt – who attended one of those fee-paying schools – made a speech on a similar theme, arguing that ‘we want young people who are confident, determined and resilient; young people who display courage, compassion, honesty, integrity, fairness, perseverance, emotional intelligence, grit and self-discipline’. I suspect there won’t be many people queuing up to argue with that.

I welcome his comment, though – grumpy as ever – I have to point out that it wasn’t a message we heard a lot when Mr Hunt’s party was last in power.

Those of us arguing for more emphasis on developing ‘the whole child’ in the Blair/Brown years seemed to be in the permanent bad books for not welcoming another volley of their much-loved targets and performance indicators.

Thus the debate about character continues. Last week, Education Secretary Michael Gove stoked the fury of the teacher unions by suggesting that school days should be longer. The implication – wrongly reported, as it happens – was that teachers should work longer hours.

In fact, he was saying something different – that students from all backgrounds should be encouraged to take part in more extra-curricular activities, at lunchtimes, after school and at weekends.

I wholeheartedly agree – and it seems pretty shameful that the 7 per cent of young people in this country educated at fee-paying schools often have this guaranteed when those who might benefit the most do not.

Lessons are important, but what happens outside lessons also matters a lot. Being a member of a debating society, a school team, a chess club, an orchestra – these are the things that reinforce a sense of discipline, commitment, mixing with people of different ages, building our understanding of how to work with adults and so on. They are, in other words, essential preparation for life.

None of this is especially new, and it comes on the back of a period in education when far too many state schools have felt under the cosh of threatened public humiliation via examination results and leagues tables. That has led some to cut back on extra-curricular activities.

It feels unthinkable to some of us, but there are some secondary schools where children are apparently not allowed to attend after-school music clubs or other activities if they aren’t hitting their target grade in English or maths. Such is our national obsession with an industrial model of learning.

It’s dispiriting. And it needs more school leaders, supported by parents, to say that what we want from our schools is not mere exam results.

At King Edward’s we are hugely proud of our academic success – for example, that we have helped 17 of our students gain places at Oxford and Cambridge over the past four years. We are equally proud of those going to other universities, or into employment with training. But all universities and employers need to make a judgement about the kind of person they will recruit which even a clutch of A* grades won’t help with. A sense of character comes from our upbringing, from the reading that nourishes us, and from our schooling. That’s why we need all schools – not just the great schools we have in and around Bury – to encourage more students, whatever their background, to take part in extra-curricular activities such as sport, music, drama, Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and so on.

If developing character is as important as we all believe, then it should be for every child in every school in every part of the country.

We need our politicians to stop talking about it, and instead to help it to happen more.