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If you know of a school that is geared, in everything it does, not just to get its students over the Key Stage thresholds, but to nurture their natural inquisitiveness, develop their creativity and instil in them a life-long love of learning, we want to hear from you.

I’m a huge believer in the importance of exam success. Qualifications open doors – to life-changing opportunities, life-affirming experiences and life-enriching occupations– that often remain shut to the unqualified.

But there are lots of things exam success doesn’t always tell us about the qualification holder – whether the knowledge they’ve acquired is likely to be forgotten soon after the exam; whether that knowledge reflects deep understanding; whether they not only have the necessary facts at their fingertips, but are capable of interrogating, testing, exploring, explaining, analysing, connecting, debating, presenting, adapting and applying those ‘facts’.

What is more, exam success tells us little about the person’s ability to put their education to use – their ability to work with others, in real life situations, under time pressures, learning from, and not being disheartened by, mistakes, showing initiative, spark and leadership. It doesn’t tell us whether they enjoyed learning the examined facts, or learning in general, or whether, having passed the exam, they are determined to keep on learning, fuelled by a sense of curiosity and wonder. And it doesn’t tell us whether they are happy, kind, selfless or brave – whether they will go out into society determined to help others, to stand up to injustice, to make a positive difference.

Yet all of these things matter, and many of them matter as much as, if not more than, whether you can remember the names and fates of Henry VIII’s wives or solve a quadratic equation, interesting and occasionally useful as that knowledge can be.

All of which is why I have spent the last month – and will spend the next two months – travelling the country in search of schools that not only agree that these wider outcomes matter – and are a matter for them – but are actively engaged in trying to deliver those outcomes. The schools I want to visit are those that believe in educating the whole child – head, heart and hand – to instil in them an appreciation not only of what is ‘true’, but of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘beautiful’.

How they turn that vision into a practical project will, of course, vary from place to place, proving the old adage that nothing works everywhere, and everything works somewhere. But as a rule of thumb, the schools I have in my mind’s eye are not only brilliant at teaching the core academic curriculum, but are also: 

  • Networked – linking students to people and institutions beyond the school gates to prepare them for the manifold challenges and opportunities of adulthood.
  • Inclusive – recognising that every student has a unique talent or gift, and that it is the job of educators to identify and nurture it, and to demolish each and every barrier that stands in the way.
  • Creative – introducing students to the worlds of art and culture and design and making and cultivating the creative capacities (such as inquisitiveness, collaborativeness, discipline, persistence and imagination) people need if they are to come up with original ideas and make them happen.
  • Holistic – recognising that, alongside the transmission of cultural and academic knowledge, schools need actively to promote wellbeing and to develop those character strengths and ‘soft’ skills that we know are crucial to later success.
  • Empowering – creating and curating an environment in which teachers can take responsibility for their own practice and development, and students can take responsibility for their own learning and growth, and in which the relationship between them is characterised not be coercion but by mutual respect.

It is perhaps fitting that these five characteristics produce the acronym NICHE. Not because most schools wouldn’t enthusiastically sign up to many, if not all, of these aims. But because schools that not only include them in their mission statements, but consistently place them on an equal footing with the task of meeting the government’s performance targets, are few and far between. When the exams loom, or the inspector calls, the temptation – indeed the rational response to the system’s incentives – is to narrow the focus, teach to the test and concentrate only on those outcomes by which your performance will be judged and on which your job depends. In systems marked by high stakes accountability, what gets measured, gets done, and what doesn’t, doesn’t.

So this is a plea to readers of this blog and to the RSA Fellowship.

If you know of a school that, in everything it does, sets out not only to prepare young people for exams, but to prepare them for life, please do get in touch. You can email me at Julian.astle@rsa.org.uk or my colleague Marcello Newman at Marcello.newman@rsa.org.uk

We can’t promise to go everywhere, but the more schools we hear about, the more likely we are to find what we are looking for!

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