It may seem ridiculously early for parents to be worrying about the future employment prospects of their children when choosing a prep school. After all, how can the decisions a parent makes for a child at age seven have a major impact on their job prospects at the age of 21? Yet an increasing number of prospective parents are concerned with just that question. Whereas in the past, future senior school destinations or the range of extra-curricular opportunities would have been the key determinants, now there is growing concern and interest in how employable a child will be at the end of their education.
Parents are right to be worried. It has got nothing to do with being over-zealous or in any way 'pushy'. These parental concerns are often fed from direct experience in their own workplace. Parents who visit my own school – who come from a wide range of industries – often recount their frustrations over their inability to recruit young people who can problem solve or think independently. They describe graduates who have a wealth of subject knowledge, but who lack the skills to use that knowledge and build upon it. They describe poor communication and negotiation skills, and weak social and processing skills – all experiences which have been supported in reports recently published by both the CBI and Deloitte. So why are young people ending up with such poor skills and finding themselves unemployable?
I believe that the major factors have been two-fold. Firstly, a narrowing of the curriculum and, secondly, too much teaching of facts, rather than skills. The pressure caused by league tables and a blinkered focus on examination results have sometimes been at the expense of broad, creative and inspiring teaching. Yet it is only through a broad education – not a narrow specialisation – that you will see successful learning for all children. At the prep school level, parents have inadvertently been part of the problem. Quite rightly, they are keen to ensure that their child is reaching their potential and is being well prepared for the entrance test that they face at age eleven or thirteen. But too strong a focus on examination preparation will always be to the detriment of a child's overall education.
I am heartened by the growing number of parents who are keen to know whether their child is going to receive a diverse curriculum which will enable them to develop the soft skills that are going to be so important for their future success and employability. Prep schools are in a unique position to unlock a child's creativity and passion for learning at a time in their lives when their willingness to learn and zest for discovery is at its height. Good prep schools can provide children with wonderfully broad curriculums taught, in many cases, by specialist teachers with a passion for their subject. Our independent schools can afford to be more creative in the design of curriculums and with that more creative in the delivery, because we are exactly that – independent. Our curriculums are not controlled by Government and we do not have to submit to the scrutiny of national tests.
Of course, we need to ensure that our pupils have covered the level of work required to move onto the next stage of their education but children need more than just knowledge. Children need the skills to enable them to use that knowledge and build upon it. Lessons should give the children the initial input and encourage them to run with it, to power share, to have a voice and have input in what and how they learn, and for their learning to be relevant. Whilst pages of work in exercise books may look impressive, it is not actually an indication that excellent learning has taken place. It is not unusual for the children in my school to have not written a single word during a lesson – but they have learnt a great deal and the lesson will have been buzzing with discussion and inquiry. When parents collect their children from school, they should not be asking what they have been taught during the day – but what they have learnt. I am sure I am not the only person who struggled in maths lessons at school where I had been shown an example of how to complete a sum, and then told to do the same for the next twenty questions. The page of ticks looked impressive but, a month later, I would swear blind that I had never seen that type of sum before. I had been taught the method and the lessons had been 'scaffolded' for me, but I had absolutely no understanding of what I was doing. 'Over-scaffolding' is still happening in schools today, mainly due to national tests and, in some cases, entrance examinations.
The pressure causes schools and teachers to feel that they need to deliver lessons in this way in order to achieve the desired results – a short term fix for results but not a long-term solution to learning. One of our learning support teachers, with only prep school experience, recently spent three weeks teaching Year 5s in a state school as part of her PGCE. Many of the children whom she was teaching were very bright, but she was surprised to find that if they were given an activity that was not completely 'scaffolded' for them, they were totally lost and did not know where to start. They could only complete a piece of work if they were given the required layout and key questions to answer along the way; due to time restraints and pressure of results, they had not been allowed to develop their independent thinking and analytical skills. They demonstrated weak problem solving ability and a reluctance to take on a challenge. Being taught is therefore very different to learning. Children have a much greater chance of remembering something if they have learnt it, or acquired the knowledge through their own investigation, rather than having been taught it.
If parents want to ensure that they are giving their children the best start in life, they should ask the school how they are helping their child to learn and develop an inquiring mind. Most children can be taught enough facts and rules to pass even the most demanding of entrance exam, but this is not going to help them in the long term. From an early age they must be helped to develop strong communication skills, problem solving and analytical skills, determination, negotiation skills and independent thinking. They need to understand resilience and appreciate the benefits of trying, but not always succeeding.
Parents should not judge the school's value on the amount of homework they give each night, how many scholarships they got last year or whether they can get their child into a particular senior school. Children are going to have to offer a great deal more than paper results and a forward-thinking, independent prep school which offers a broad, inspiring and creative curriculum is where their journey to success begins.