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Is academic achievement our only expectation of schools ?
21st July 2013 ... Nick
Michael Gove's proposed education reforms have provoked much debate. Whilst many have claimed they are damaging to teachers and damaging to pupils, the Government appears determined to press ahead with its plans.
The reforms to GCSE examinations aim to equip young people to perform in the modern world. With curriculums re-focussed on traditional subject content, a centre piece of the proposal is a return to final examinations as the sole measure of academic achievement. Continuous assessment will be abandoned in all but a few specific topics such as science, resolving what Mr Gove regards as a 'structural problem' in the current system of examination.
Most parents will welcome measures that encourage children to achieve their full academic potential, and many people acknowledge that annual grade inflation needs to be addressed if examinations are to continue to provide a credible mechanism to differentiate academic ability. So the need for change seems to be clear.
However an exclusive focus on final examinations, together with the existing emphasis on school league tables, suggests that our schools are being forced to focus narrowly on academic achievement. This inevitably comes at the cost of time devoted to other important skills such as the application of knowledge to practical situations, the ability to work in teams, effective verbal communication, etc. Teaching of these life skills needs to be an integral part of the overall academic programme.
Whilst the new format GCSE's will no doubt be welcomed by children who are adept at recalling facts and figures, many others are likely to perform below their natural ability due to the increased stress of make-or-break examinations. Whilst some people may draw parallels with old style O-level exams, the increase in stress-related illnesses over recent years suggests that today's social environment cannot be directly compared to years gone past. There must be a real concern that the new clinical approach to academic selection will see many able children undervalued and therefore deprived of opportunity.
Unfortunately there will also be an increasing number of children who will find the examination process overwhelming, unable to negotiate the pressure of academic expectation, and potentially driven into an emotional crisis.
The AcSEED Initiative encourages all schools to develop their students both academically and emotionally, and to emphasise to all children the importance of maintaining good mental health. There should be a focus on developing confident and well rounded individuals, but also mechanisms to identify and support those young people facing either short- or long-term emotional difficulties. With Mr Gove and Ofsted both obsessed with purely academic achievement, who is taking responsibility for the emotional development of our young people in schools?
With increasing choice and competition in the education sector, there appears to be an opportunity for parents to exert more influence. Schools will continue to comply with the academic regulations of Ofsted, but may need parental pressure to ensure that they also give attention to the wellbeing of their pupils. The AcSEED Award provides a framework of best practices that ensures a consistent level of wellbeing support in all schools, and we should challenge all schools to become accredited.
We should undoubtedly support programmes that engage children in school and encourage them towards achieving their academic potential, but not at the cost of neglecting other important life skills and their mental health.