Leadership programme

Opportunity and Optimism

Chris Anders


Park Community School

The goal of education is to expand life chances. How do we do that? It is not by valuing norm reference and measurement by solely academic standards.

Our current high stakes exam system, where exams are preceded by a curriculum which values the most academic subjects, whatever the child’s needs and interests, has led to a situation in schools which has become unsustainable. Stories in the media about shockingly high numbers of children absent or suspended from school seem to follow from a narrowed educational experience.

Growing numbers of young people feel exam passes are irrelevant or unachievable. School leaders worry about career-ending inspections, tied to the need to be above average or continually improving, and this stifles initiative and creativity. Measurement by reference to national benchmarks and league tables, with in-built assumptions of comparability across context and need in each school across the whole country, reduces the complexity of life preparation in school to a simple retail experience.

Even school finances do not bear comparison between local authorities: historic funding differences, maintained even as we move to a ‘national formula’, ensure that whilst the list of schools is ranked on a one-size-fits-all approach, funding does not match that impression. We do not expect a poorly funded football team to compete with the best over a season, so why are over 3000 secondary schools or 20,000 primary schools looked at this way?

Brave leadership is commended, but leaders should not have to be brave to be innovative. Innovation and creative as a new normal would make the top roles more attractive to younger colleagues.

Leaders need to be given permission to be flexible to their local community. Extended school hours are really important but even wonderful opportunities after-hours or in holidays cannot be a good imposition everywhere. Space and time to try ideas, to find what works, and what does not, will allow schools to better engage with children and their parents, to make more use of school facilities at other times to impact in their community.

For young people learning to cope with life’s challenges, including modern social media pressures, a less relevant school experience, from a narrowed school curriculum, means pupils’ struggle in greater numbers than previously recorded and there are increased numbers of permanent exclusions. Anxiety has always been a part of life, growing up and learning. Excessive use of psychological language to describe a common human problem can lead to a false diagnosis, a diminished sense of responsibility for oneself and one’s choices, and so ultimately, less hope or optimism for the future.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on ‘flow’ suggests that when skills and challenge are equally balanced, hope is offered to all. An exam system covering only a narrow selection of subjects and structured to ensure 30% fail cannot give hope to all. School leaders can find ways to give hope, to explain the choices we each have in life and also to make space for self-discovery and personal improvement. The current curriculum does not give teachers time to teach these important lessons.

The next government should encourage vocational learning and a wider range of qualifications for school age children. The inspection system should promote the importance of real-world learning through a genuinely broad curriculum experience in which young people find things they love before age 16. New metrics should replace the current focus on EBacc entry and Progress 8, creating a system which values every child and their real starting point. The current measurement is useful if the goal is university but does not recognise a school approach focused on the broader interests of many children.

Trust is essential if we are to see any of this happen. If trust is given, we will not only help our young people but also make teaching a more appealing vocation once more.

Exciting times could lie ahead, but the next government will need to be brave and be willing to give control away from politicians and bureaucrats to those who have followed their vocational calling to a life in education. We need politicians who are interested in a life enhancing school experience for today’s children. Our education system needs to offer multiple and varied opportunities so that all students can improve and succeed.

Chris Anders, Headteacher, Park Community School, Havant

Big Education

Leadership Programme

Applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives you the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

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Related programmes

applications are now open for headteachers and senior leaders working across education. The programme gives leaders the opportunity to connect with your authentic self and equip you with powerful strategies to bring about the changes you believe in.

Who Will Get Your Vote in Education?

In election year 2024, this is one of a series of fortnightly blogs – running through the year – in which we invite colleagues from across the country to answer the question: Who will get your vote on education?

Roy Blatchford is serving as convenor and editor of the series. If you are interested in writing, please contact [email protected]

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