A Modern Education 23.09.16

Friday 23rd September

In the recent parental survey, a number of you commented that you would like to hear more from the Headmaster about his vision for the school. What follows paraphrases part of my speech at Senior Prizegiving on Thursday 21st September where I spoke about my hopes for Loughborough Grammar School and for your sons over the coming years.

My educational philosophy has its roots in my own education in a large independent boys’ school in South London, where I was expected not just to work hard, but to explore and to develop my broader intellectual and co-curricular interests. The first fourteen years of my teaching career were spent in similarly-minded urban boys’ day schools. In these schools, I learned how to help boys balance their commitments, so that they would leave school not just with three strong A Level grades, but also with skills and passions that would sustain them through university and into adult life. Ultimately, my experience tells me that boys achieve best when they have this balance in their lives; a balance between challenge and support, and a balance between academic work and mental relaxation.

My desire that boys understand how to achieve this balance has been strengthened in recent times by the awareness that all of us involved in education now have of the increased mental health challenges that young people encounter in our society. There have been several articles in the media recently about the stress levels of school pupils being at an all-time high. I don’t believe for a minute that any of us in leadership positions in secondary schools can totally eliminate the stress that boys feel when faced with public examinations that clearly affect their future options. Unfortunately, a low-pressure setting too often goes hand in hand with low expectations. While we clearly need to have high expectations of our pupils, my colleagues and I have a duty to keep the pressure that they feel at manageable levels. Academic achievement will always be the most important aspect of an LGS education because good grades, increasingly in our educational landscape, offer the key to opportunity. However, all work and no play is likely to make Jack a stressed-out boy, and moreover, in time, a man who lacks the ‘soft’ skills needed to help him make a success of his personal and professional lives.

I am determined, therefore, that grades will not be the only thing that matter at the Grammar School. Why am I so vehement about this? Because I have met (and worked with) some highly capable people whose skills are highly developed but extremely narrow. Although this makes them ideal for a few specialised roles, the vast majority of jobs require balance that includes these ‘soft’ inter-personal skills.

Those of us who manage teams of people know that there are important personal attributes that are not represented by qualifications. There is no GCSE in humility – no A Level in teamwork – no Master’s degree in empathy. Alongside their 9/10 GCSE and 3 or 4 A Level grades, Grammar School boys need to develop communication skills, self-motivation, empathy, the ability to work with one another, and the resilience to accept failure, to learn from it and to refuse to be defined by it.

In schools like LGS, these skills are best developed outside the classroom in what many schools refer to as the Extra-Curricular. I much prefer the expression Co-Curricular. ‘Extra’ means ‘outside’, suggesting that these activities are something of a bonus, of secondary importance. I disagree. I prefer ‘Co-Curricular’ because they stand alongside the academic curriculum, offering boys something different but equally important to their holistic education.

In order to develop these broader skills, I want every boy to contribute to school life in whatever way fits his talents and interests, whether music, drama, sport, CCF or charitable work and to have the opportunity to lead others in these areas as he gets towards the top of the school. I have been delighted by the dynamic atmosphere and ethos of service at the Grammar School during my first sixth months as its Headmaster. I have seen boys on countless occasions stepping up to a challenge, helping one another, and being prepared to take risks. Such attitudes are essential for success in modern society, and I passionately believe that boys will leave the Grammar School at the age of 18 as well-rounded individuals precisely because they throw themselves into both intellectual and co-curricular activity.

A modern education in the classroom also reflects the changing needs of the world of work, which has changed beyond all recognition since I left school. The idea of a job for life and a gold-plated pension at 60 has gone. Most LGS boys will have several different careers during their working lives, and many of the jobs they will do have not even been invented yet. We must therefore accept that our youngsters need a rather different set of skills to those needed in the latter part of the 20th Century. Parents often tell me that school now is ‘so different’ from their own teenage experiences. Certainly, my colleagues’ teaching styles have evolved hugely during the intervening decades. No longer is education largely about factual recall. Instead, schools and the examination system have understood that boys need analytical and evaluative skills to thrive in modern society. Lessons therefore give boys the opportunity to question received wisdom, to discuss ideas, and to justify their views in the face of contrary evidence. LGS teachers need to teach your sons not only subjects but also skills and attributes that will enable them to love learning for its own sake, and to become increasingly self-reliant as they move towards the top of the school.

In addition, in our ‘global village’, I want Grammar School boys to be outward-looking in their attitudes and to understand their place in the world: their role in understanding their environmental impact; their responsibilities to others less fortunate than ourselves (for example through engagement with charity work); and their need for understanding of different cultures.

Over the coming years, I will be looking with my colleagues to develop the LGS curriculum. A future post will reflect on the major examination changes that have been introduced over the past three years thanks to the previous Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Although we have no input over the national decisions that have been made, I want LGS to use the opportunity brought about by imposed change to review how we structure boys’ learning at each stage of their education. For example, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is gaining popularity nationally, and is highly thought of by universities. Boys follow a course dealing with research and independent study skills before writing an extended essay or producing an artefact on a topic entirely of their choice. Our results in 2016 were excellent: 14 A*s and 7 As from just 28 candidates. One of our curriculum changes is therefore to work out how more of our boys can benefit from this sort of course that prepares them for the challenges of university study. I will take up this theme in my next post …