School life: A great education is more than a set of great grades

The team made it to the National Finals of the Formula one in Schools competition
The team made it to the National Finals of the Formula one in Schools competition

The problem with education in our country nowadays is that we only ever judge things by statistical outcomes.

We have a generation of children passing through the system who no longer have a name or face but are instead a statistic in an ever growing and massively flawed centrally run spreadsheet.

Now I am not saying pupils should not achieve their best. They should. Neither am I saying that we should not prioritise academic achievement. We should, but this should be judged in context against a child’s potential. Not everyone can aspire to a top grade in every subject but this does not mean that an achievement is not outstanding relative to ability.

A great education will consider what is going into the pupils it serves as much as it considers the outcomes. How many parents would take their children to a fast food restaurant every day without questioning whether or not this might be the most balanced diet with the best health outcomes?

I doubt many, yet do we look at education in the same way?

W B Yeats once said that education is not ‘filling a pail’ but ‘lighting a fire’, and he is right. A great school remembers that every child is made of flesh, blood and bones. Each one has their own character and view on their existence. Each one has feelings and each one is being entrusted to the care of a school on their journey to adulthood. Education is ‘lighting a fire’. It can be anarchic and unpredictable as a result because children can be anarchic and unpredictable, but rigid specifications and relentless target setting cannot account for this.

A year or so ago a couple of Year 10 boys told me that they would like to enter a competition where they had to design and race a Formula One racing car and would I, as headmaster, support them. They have just raced their car at Silverstone in the National Finals of the Formula One in Schools competition.

On another occasion last year a colleague came to speak with me to say that he believed that we could design, build and successfully launch a space craft from our playing fields with a little bit of funding. Rishworth pupils went on to launch the first BBC Microbit into near space and, with 99 per cent of the atmosphere under the craft at its highest point, our space module became the 91st highest object of its kind in history. The next launch is being planned.

Education is about people and a great education nurtures an interest in learning that turns into a life-long love of learning. What the pupils behind the F1 and space launch have in common is their innate interest in finding things out and doing them ‘just because’ and this is the right sort of outcome to assess.

A great school is one that creates an atmosphere that allows and encourages this to happen. It will encourage children to develop an attitude to learning that Aristotle simply describes as the hospitality of the mind, where ideas are embraced and considered before being absorbed, refined or rejected.

‘Hospitality’! A great word! It conjures an image of warmth and welcome, where ideas are treated in a special way and where their stay will be cherished. We may not accept everything that comes along, but …and this is the exciting bit: thinkers who think ask the big questions. They want to know how and why, and when these questions are being asked, it is impossible to say where that thinking may lead.