“School or Hothouse?” Children are too different from each other for any good school to offer a uniform solution

In his blog in the Sunday Times, 21/04/13, Andrew Halls argues that Children are too different from each other for any good school to offer a uniform solution.

How fast can you take a corner on a wet road? It depends on your skill as a driver, the handling of the vehicle, the risks to others, the sharpness of the corner, and so on. We can all immediately understand that there are too many variables to make the question a sensible one. And yet in education we seem frequently to be engaged in forms of polarised debate which only allow opposites to be considered: Is this subject better than that one for getting in to Oxbridge? Are universities prejudiced towards or against independent schools? Is A level better than IB?

Recently, there has been renewed interest in one of education’s hardy perennials: are successful schools really just exam factories? Last month, Richard Harman, headmaster of Uppingham School, and chairman elect of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) stated that teachers and parents risk damage to children’s long-term development by “hot-housing”. This week, Peter Tait, head of Sherborne Preparatory School in Dorset has attacked the senior schools that his school feeds: too many, he suggests, offer a “narrow” education, preoccupied with getting their pupils “the best possible grades”, even if this will not “serve them best in the future.” Such schools, he inevitably said, are “exam factories.”

At the end of last term, the pastoral deputy and I presented a forum for King’s parents on the question of children’s emotional resilience. We are all too aware that boys and girls at leading academic schools feel enormous pressure to succeed, as I mentioned in my blog before Easter. But as parents shared their thoughts and experiences during the evening, we all recognised that every boy and girl is different. While some parents worry that their child goes to bed long after midnight because they are working so hard, others are frantic because the late night is due entirely to hours wasted on computer games or Facebook gossiping. Others again have a friendly, charming child who is neither addicted to war-gaming nor to social media, but who nevertheless is clearly making only a minimum effort in every subject.

So, just as we can’t say that the answer to the question with which I began is “30 mph”, nor can we be sure that any child who is ambitious, aspirational or high-achieving is in danger of overload and collapse. Family, child and school form a partnership, a nexus, and only through every partner in that relationship knowing the others well, coming to trust them, and sharing thoughts openly with them, can we be sure we will ever be able to say of a child: he is working too hard; she is being “hot-housed” and will lose the love of learning; they are too lazy – or whatever the diagnosis may be.

Good schools will never be exam factories. What would happen to sport, drama, music, the CCF, community service, time with friends, time growing up, if that was all a school offered? I suspect that even if Mr Harman were to visit every HMC school in his time as Chair, he would be hard-pressed to find a single example of an exam factory. And good schools do still more than offer a range of options beyond the classroom. They invest, too, in a pastoral system that tries to be as focused on each pupil’s character and needs as it possibly can be.

When Jeeves rescues his master, the feckless Bertie Wooster, from some emotional entanglement or entrapment, it is often because he knows exactly how to help a person behave in the way that he needs them to. He ascribes this to his ability to calculate “the psychology of the individual” – their character, their motives, their underlying certainties and insecurities. The best tutors or heads of house, like Jeeves, know how to read their pupils’ characters, and devote a surprising amount of time to doing just that. They know how difficult it is to achieve the perfect balance in each different child’s life between happiness and achievement, between feeling empowered and believed in, and sensing there is still more to try, or aspire to. They know that one boy will feel happier if he can devote many hours to his study of The Iliad, while another would achieve nothing in his studies if he could not get out and play sport at least three of four times a week.

There usually is a right answer, but it is not the same one for every child.

Andrew Halls, Head Master, King’s College School, Wimbledon

Click here to read the blog © Sunday Times.