Parents need to get over their “sick obsession” with exam results, an obsession that inflicts long-term damage to their child’s mental health. Students, in turn, need to understand “getting into a top university won’t really help them in their career”…
Published: Monday 18 November, 2019
Parents need to stop harassing their children, or worse, “brutalising them” with a “sick obsession” with exam results, an obsession that inflicts long-term damage to their child’s mental health. Students, in turn, need to stop cramming and worrying about getting into a top university – “it won’t really help them in their career” – and just spend more time enjoying and being themselves.
That, in a nutshell, is Sir Anthony Seldon’s rather blunt message, and like it or not, we should all listen for the three following reasons.
Firstly, there is truth in what he is saying, even if it is not quite as black and white as the language suggests
Secondly, even if you do not, immediately, plan to start telling your child to “chillax already”, you have to accept Sir Anthony has heavyweight credentials and his advice deserves consideration. The senior educationalist has been headmaster of two of the very top independent schools in the United Kingdom, notably Brighton College (1997 to 2006) and Wellington School (2006 to 2015). He is currently Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the first private university in Britain.
Finally, Sir Anthony is influential. If he is not writing books, he is getting interviewed for his latest thoughts on education, or publishing commentaries in newspapers. Many of his ideas have gained so much traction that many now sound a little worn. He has, moreover, likely to have influenced your child’s school having enjoyed a long term relationship with the KHDA, an institution that, in conversation with its leading figures, echoes many of his sentiments. He has also just taken on a consultative role with the country’s largest school group GEMS Education.
So, like it or not you are stuck with Sir Anthony. Why he seems intent on getting stuck into the UAE however is perhaps more of a surprise. It is not financial gain – or not obviously so, as his remuneration goes to the University of Buckingham. Nor is it an abundance of free time. We have lost count of the number of roles he has, and when he is not doing them, or advising governments, he is writing books. So, why is he getting involved in GEMS and the UAE at all?
“I have known the Varkey family for 10 to 15 years. I have always been interested in what they have done, but the group has become more and more ‘cutting edge’. GEMS schools today are doing interesting things in IB, holistic education, wellbeing, digital, AI… and that makes the company very interesting, to me.
“The group also shares my view that exams are not ‘the be all and end all’ of what a school is about. There are other private eduction providers worldwide that do not have this wider social imperative, that innovative mission. Varkey deserves credit for this – he does not need to do this.
“There is a lot of cynicism in education by providers the world over. They know that parents are, above all, interested in exam results, and so that is all is all that they cater for. They teach a standard curriculum out of a box, they are factories. GEMS is not doing that. GEMS schools are about more than that.”
Throughout our interview Sir Anthony revealed that he is as fixated on the obsession that parents have with exams, as parents are about exams themselves. He firmly believes that GEMS as a group has made great strides in making sure its schools do not focus on results and results alone. The danger, we argued, was that schools go too far the other way and lose site of the fact that exams do actually matter, that they are the basis on which you get a place at a university and on graduation, employers care very much care about the quality of the degree each student is awarded. Surely, we asked, it was not a school’s place to ignore this, on an evangelical mission to change society? Society should change first, and schools can then follow..?
Not according to Sir Anthony. “Schools cannot just give parents what they want,” he told us. “There have to be huge programs of education for parents to tackle their obsessions, and prevent them from damaging their children by transferring their own hang ups, rather than letting their children be the unique human beings they really are.
“Parents are obviously concerned about their children and their future. What parents do not understand is that education today is very different from what it was when they were at school. It is a buyer’s market. Yes getting into Oxford and Cambridge is still hard, but there are many other top-tier schools that are now significantly easier to get into. Excluding the MITs, Yales, Harvards, Princetons, MITs and a few others, it is now much easier to get into university because there is an over supply of places. To get into a top university in Britain you no longer need to knock your brains out studying A’ Levels.
Yet surely, we argued, the fact that there are too many degree places, and too many graduates, is the actual issue? Has not the result of this been the decline in the value of just “any” degree? Students today, we argued to Sir Anthony, are “knocking their brains out” so that they get into one of those institutions, and degree courses, where there is still value?
“True,” agreed Sir Anthony, “but even so, even if you have 4 A’levels at A* or 41 points at IB it is not axiomatic you will get into one of those institutions either.
“The likes of Oxbridge do not want to have factory processed students that have lots of facts but do not have knowledge coming from natural curiosity.
“The sickness is not exam results, but the obsession with exams as the only validation. Exams, yes, are valid, and important, but should not be ‘the be all and end all’ of what a school does.
“I do take your point that schools are at the sharper end of this, and asked to tack an issue that governments, parents, bodies like OFSTED are responsible for.
“Schools are to some extent dictated and guided by expectations and regimes that are not their own. Nevertheless there are some schools, and I think that I worked in some of them, that are able to buck the trend. I think in GEMS too you are seeing schools that are doing generally interesting things that are leading and not just simply following.
While Sir Anthony was at Wellington College, the school rose from 256th to 21st place in the Sunday Times league table of results, but at the times there was a broadening out of what the school took as its responsibility, introducing wellness programmes, character building, leadership education, and holistic education. As a result, according to Sir Anthony, students become more active and less passive in their own learning.
“It is the passivity in education that is its drawback and, if you add over active parents, obsessing them with exam results, driving their children on and on, you are going to get mentally unwell children.
“You see the same thing in music with children getting Grade 8s in different instruments, but they are not allowed out to play. They become technically proficient, but they do not, or perhaps cannot, put themselves in their music, their feelings and emotions are not there. We need to be educating children in a much more balanced way.
“If your child is only going to get 30-32 points at IB, or 2 Bs and a C at A’ level, yes they may not go to a top university like Oxford, but they will be equally happy at another university. Happiness is about finding your level. You are much more likely to rise to the top of the likes of P&G – or wherever – if you live at your level, rather than pushing themselves up to a level they are not comfortable within.
Interestingly Sir Anthony himself got a C and 2 Es at A’ Level, but decided to resit his exams at Tonbridge, a UK independent school. Clearly he knuckled down and banged his head quite hard, because, eventually, he got into Oxford, and eventually received a BA degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. We wonder, based on Sir Anthony’s obsession with exam result obsession, whether this, obviously traumatic moment of life, has had shaped his attitudes towards exams…
Expo 2020 and the future…
So far new ideas, in independent schooling have largely travelled from the UK outwards – certainly in the case of the UAE which has been heavily influenced by British education. The UAE is the largest independent, international school market in the world however. “Do you foresee,” we asked Sir Anthony, “a time when the UAE will be exporting innovation back to the UK – and elsewhere internationally?”
The UAE argues Sir Anthony is well placed for the sea change in education that, according to Sir Anthony, is about to hit.
“Every age says that education is changing more than at any time before, but now we face three extraordinary challenges that are coming together.
“Firstly, Artificial Intelligence, which will change everything – the way we teach, the way we learn, the way we prepare children for the world, in terms of jobs, university and the society at large we are preparing them for. That’s our big challenge number one.
“Our big challenge number two is global warming and globalisation, and how we prepare young people for this.
“Finally, one third of young people coming into university in Britain are reporting some kind of mental health issue. What is that telling us? It is telling us that something is not quite right.
“School’s are clearly going to be part of the solution. Parents are going to be part of the solution. Government is going to be part of the solution. And the UAE is positioned to show us how these three stakeholders can come together.
“There is a concentration of talent here, alongside a real investment in education. A lot of educators journey to the UAE to see what is happening in a country where there is strong academic success whilst, at the same time, a much richer, an enlightened sense of what education is about.”
“The UAE already has a number of remarkable schools, which are internationally focused, holistic and leading on the deliver of wellbeing in schools. The UAE itself has a minister for Happiness, for Youth, the Future – no other government has that. I think the Expo next year offers the country a huge opportunity to showcase to the world the new things happening here, and more specifically of what education really can be…”