In school, we trust

Matthew Smith | Attain Magazine | Autumn 2017
Matthew Smith suggests that parents should forget their own experience of school.

If you can guarantee one thing about education, it’s the fact that the problems and issues making today’s headlines have been around – in one guise or another – since formal education began. When IAPS was founded, 125 years ago, one of the first academic issues Heads discussed was the process of assessment for transfer to senior schools. And it’s still a cause for debate today. From examinations to curriculum, pastoral care to pushy parents – it’s all been there and done that.

What this relentless treadmill of issues tells us is that education endures but does not stand still. Every aspect of schooling has changed remarkably in the last 125 years. At its core are the same challenges and, thank goodness, they will be always be there. Because if this were not the case, education would have become stale and lifeless. By its very nature, education should be the process through which children have their eyes opened to the world. They get to see all the opportunities and possibilities which are available to them. Good teachers switch on light bulbs; they inspire and energise those in their care. This process is so vitally important in the prep school years, when a child’s thirst for knowledge is so strong. During this crucial time, they will build the foundations from which to support all their subsequent learning – at senior school and beyond. Put simply, they will learn how to learn. This is why investing now in a prep school education pays dividends later. As Peter Tait wrote in Attain some time ago: these are the years which count.

And all this gives parents something very reassuring – it gives us trust. Longevity and consistency are two qualities which inspire trust, especially when combined with relevance and adaptability. The trust you have in your child’s school is a very important commodity. It started when you first chose it and it is often worth reflecting on. During your child’s journey through prep school – and beyond – you will undoubtedly come across the occasional pothole in the road. Avoid quick fix solutions: resist trying to remedy perceived problems through tutoring; or to fight all your child’s battles for them; or to fill every waking hour with extra-curricular activities. Take the long view and trust in the school. Seek their advice and, above all, remember why you chose it in the first place.

Nobody says it is easy being a parent. In most situations in life, you use a combination of past experience and judgement to make a decision which, hopefully, turns out to be the right one. With schooling, past experience is a less useful ally as times have changed from when you set off each day, clutching a school bag. Many parents look back on their school days fondly and can easily critique the present as it doesn’t match up to this rose-tinted nostalgia. Others have less favourable memories and this too can bring unhelpful comparisons.

Whether we like it or not, our time at school is unhelpful baggage. We have to accept that it is not relevant when helping our own children – except as a source of amusing anecdotes. But be careful here – telling your child, for example, funny tales of how you avoided doing much sport at school will hardly inspire them to Olympic greatness. But better this than the parent who wants their child to make the 1st XV where they didn’t; if it still hurts all these years later, trying to make yourself feel better by pushing your child is a recipe for disaster. You have to let them find their own passions and make their own mistakes. Regardless of the experience you had, it might be better to forget you ever went to school: de-couple the emotion.

Of course, when we step back from it, education can sometimes feel like a series of hurdles. From finding the right prep school to the transition to senior; jumping through the hoops of GCSE, then A Level or IB, and perhaps on to university. As time passes, so does the importance of these hoops and they gradually fade in the memory. After all, when did you last refer to your A Level results? Can you even remember what grades you got?

And what about at degree level? You should be able to remember this and also the reasons why (or excuses for) the class of degree you subsequently obtained. Frankly, reflecting on it all now, who cares if you spent too much time propping up the bar and not much in the way of academic work. You still learnt something but without probably realising – and those skills have stood you in better stead for the rest of your life than the subject written on a degree certificate. Everyone learns a lot at university, but it’s rarely about the degree.

And so it’s the same for school. Every year, we are treated to the spectacle of thousands of pupils jumping for joy at their A Level or GCSE results, clutching a piece of paper. It’s a symbol of very well-deserved success but, like all symbols, it is merely representative. It’s a part of a bigger picture; a bigger process which is not – thankfully – formally assessed and for which there are no grades. But the bigger picture is also, sadly, not celebrated enough. It’s about learning how to think and gaining the skills for adult life.

Examination grades are the currency of progression down this academic journey but there is so much more to education than a little piece of paper. Forget the grades, and forget the detail, because the school you have chosen for your child is quite rightly focussed on the bigger picture. They are helping your child learn to fly. It's all about trust.

Matthew Smith is the Editor of Attain.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Attain.

About The Author

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith is the Editor of Attain.

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