Which is more important: high grades or high values?

Chris Jeffery, Head of Bootham School, compares Singapore’s education system with the UK’s

I recently read a fascinating article by a leading light of Singapore’s education system about the changes afoot in her country’s education system.

When Singapore sees the need for a change, we should sit up and take notice. Why? Because its place usually at – or near – the top of the international PISA rankings for educational achievement has made it chief amongst the education systems that have been held up to us by successive governments as those whose standards and methods our own system should aspire to match. The centrality of ‘testing’ and ‘rigour, as well as the all-consuming drive for high attainment, form the drive behind many of the exam reforms that our secondary schools have been wrestling with for the past two or three years. This summer, of course, sees the first of the harder reformed linear A Levels taking place, part of an attempt to catch up with Singapore and Hong Kong at the top of the PISA charts, by doing things more like them!

Singapore, it seems, now has other ideas.

Leading lights see the need for a fundamental change. This is not only prompted by a re-evaluation of what the drive for constant academic attainment is doing for Singaporean society, but also what it is doing to young people and their wellbeing.

Lim Lai Cheng, former Head of one of the most prestigious schools in the country, writes cogently in  HYPERLINK ‘https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39142030’ the article about the necessity of education promoting social cohesion rather than individual success, about recognising the ‘double helix’ of attainment and wellbeing, and, most strikingly, about the importance of placing values more firmly at the centre of the educational landscape. In perhaps the most telling sentence in the article she writes:

Government policies are moving away from parents and students’ unhealthy obsession with grades and entry to top schools and want to put more emphasis on the importance of values.

Are you listening, Theresa May? Justine Greening? Michael Gove? Just as we’re moving in their direction, the country we most want to catch up with is passing us coming back the other way!

This chimes loudly and long with me as Head of a Quaker school.

Through helping our students achieve academically, grow in character and both recognise and harness that which makes them uniquely gifted, we want them to change the world

For us, the goal of the education we offer is more focussed on its greater purpose than its immediate outcomes for each individual pupil. Through helping our students achieve academically, grow in character and both recognise and harness that which makes them uniquely gifted – what Quakers understand as ‘that of God’- we want them to change the world. That this is also the most secure foundation for personal flourishing and happiness underscores the eternal worth and sense of such an aim.

It’s an education founded firmly and primarily on enduring values, summed in the challenge to each member of our community to ‘let your life speak’. This is given substance in the Quaker testimonies of Honesty and Integrity; Simplicity; Equality; Sustainability and Peace.

Not for the first time since I have been at Bootham this year, I am struck forcibly by the ways in which what Quaker schools have been offering to young people for nearly two hundred years addresses afresh the prevailing occupations of those who truly value what education can and should achieve.

It’s nice that Singapore, in its way, is realising something of that too. What about our own policy makers?

For more information visit Bootham School’s website. 

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