In recent months there has been increased media focus on the pressures facing young people growing up in today’s world. Bullying, self-harm, eating disorders, online porn and poor mental health have all attracted comment. High on the list also is the culture of testing in schools which leads to significant stress.
According to an OECD report in 2008, English children are among the most tested in the world. Research conducted by the Children’s Society last year found that out of 15 diverse nations, England ranked 14th in terms of the life satisfaction of its young people, behind countries such as Ethiopia, Romania and Algeria. What is going on? We are one of the richest countries in the world and yet our young people are unhappy. Is there a correlation between the pressures young people feel at school and their level of happiness?
It begs the question – does education have to be like this or is there another way? Take Finland for example, a country which scores well on international measures such as the OECD PISA tables, but where there is only one national exam at the end of compulsory schooling. This shows that high levels of testing do not lead to better outcomes for young people.
There is a glimmer of hope in England: the new Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, has spoken about the need for a broader curriculum and has suggested that there should be less of a focus on exams. Her comments reflect developments already underway in the Scottish and Welsh systems.
Whilst most independent schools are not inspected by Ofsted, a change of their parameters could shift the national dialogue towards more child-friendly educational approaches. This is an opportunity for schools to raise awareness of the pastoral work that they do and explore ways of educating that lead to greater wellbeing. Parents need to understand the damage that too much pressure can cause to children, and schools have a role to play in conveying this message.
There are already some inspiring examples of schools that do things differently in the independent sector. King Alfred School in north London prides itself on its child-centred philosophy which has underpinned the school since it opened in 1898. Whilst acknowledging the importance of exams staff want children to value learning for its own sake. Another well-known school, Bedales, was founded in 1893 as a humane alternative to the authoritarian schooling regimes of the time. The focus is on educating the whole child – head, hand and heart. St Christopher’s in Letchworth is committed to helping students develop into capable, responsible and imaginative citizens. Small classes and individual attention are key to achieving this. Small alternative schools in the independent sector such as Sands in Devon and Lewes New School in Sussex have similar values.
Schools such as these are based on the values of a healthy society – of democracy, community, fairness, openness and support. Children who have experienced these values in an active way as an integral part of their education are more likely to reflect them in their own lives. Now more than ever we are aware of the need to create a world which is based on such values, and the challenge for education is thus to inculcate them.
Independent schools have the freedom and independence to innovate and do things differently. It is important to make the most of these opportunities to inspire parents – and society – by providing an education that puts children first.
Alternative Approaches to Education: a Guide for Teachers and Parents by Fiona Carnie is published by Routledge.