Back when I was a teacher I taught a unit on environmentalism to an A Level politics class. We were looking at the tension between concerns for the environment and the economy in the developing world, and we came across a line that stuck in my head. I think it was attributed to the finance minister of a developing country: “of course we care about the environment, but can we eat first?” The argument, of course, is that it’s all very well for richer nations to bang the environmental drum, but poorer nations have more pressing concerns to worry about.
There’s something about this that reminds me of schools which prioritise all the nice stuff before they’ve got decent exam results. There is more to schools than exam results of course, but they’re a good place to start. A while back I encountered this line from John Tomsett which wonderfully captures something I had been trying to express for some time: “The best pastoral care for socio-economically disadvantaged kids is a good set of exam results.”
Great schools strike the balance between head and heart: their kids walk out with their pockets full of decent grades, but they also find time for the guest speakers, the OAP’s tea dance, the talent show, the Christmas hamper donations, the house quizzes, the activity week and the camping trips. But I wonder if too many of our schools focus on the fun stuff before their academic foundations are secure.
Suggesting that academic achievement should be schools’ primary concern might be stating the obvious – like someone in aviation saying that passenger safety is the number one priority, or someone in business saying that the firm has to deliver a profit. Yet I’m not sure that our profession agrees on this basic point.
I was reminded of this recently when a headteacher friend and I wandered into our local pub. The main bar was noisy and crowded so we headed upstairs in search of a quiet spot. We emerged in a private party and were welcomed by a friendly woman: “Come and join us, take a seat, it’s my leaving party. I was safeguarding officer at a local secondary school but I’ve quit because I don’t like the direction the school’s going in…. management want our kids to get good grades, but for lots of the kids I work with it’s a miracle they’re even in school – we should recognise that rather than focus on exam results.”
Clearly schools need to be compassionate and caring, yet this should support our commitment to academic success, rather than replace it. Of course we want the sports days, the trips, the charity weeks and the bake sales; and of course we don’t have to make a binary choice between standards or fun. But our primary duty, in my view, is to ensure that all students leave with a decent set of grades.