Going beyond exams

No longer is examination success the passport to a successful and fulfilling life – it's more complex than that, as James Barnes, PSB General Secretary, explains.

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We live in challenging times which have inevitably had an impact on education and prompted a more proactive approach to all aspects of provision for pupils. Schools are having to adapt, and the reality of education failing to provide the solid foundation which enables young people to flourish in a rapidly changing world has been chastening. No longer is examination success the passport to a successful and fulfilling life; it's more complex than that.

Recent announcements by some senior schools have brought this into sharp focus. They have been reviewing their admissions procedures and looking again at what they want from Year 9 pupils. Whereas traditionally the bar to gaining a place was success in the Common Entrance examination, the view of these senior schools is that any examination success has also to be well supported by an understanding of the essential learning skills that enable more meaningful progress. Some have gone so far as to announce they will no longer use CE for matriculation, which has certainly sharpened the debate.

Many of the skills young people need to be successful adults must be developed in prep schools. Many bright and capable young people, who have achieved great success in academic pursuits at every level, wrestle unsuccessfully with the demands of modern life which can be complex, fast changing and calls for far more from adults than was ever the case for previous generations. Contributory factors are the plague of social media, the need for portable and adaptable skills and a relentless drive for material success. None of these things can be uninvented, but education has not responded strongly enough.

"Many of the skills young people need to be successful adults must be developed in prep schools. Many bright and capable young people, who have achieved great success in academic pursuits at every level, wrestle unsuccessfully with the demands of modern life which can be complex, fast changing and calls for far more from adults than was ever the case for previous generations."

I believe that one of the answers to this problem can be found in the approach taken to learning, which is where our own Pre-Senior Baccalaureate offers a solution. The PSB, used by 26 junior and prep schools, is about challenging perceptions of school and developing a love of learning. By focusing on the core skills, children are best equipped to deal with the challenges and opportunities of senior school life and beyond.

At the heart is a skills grid, with independence, collaboration and leadership developed in the context of thinking/learning, reviewing/improving, and communicating. The aim is to ensure that pupils develop a secure understanding of how to learn. Examination success matters but it must not be the overarching focus of prep school life.

Pupils studying with the PSB model have an extended project to complete and a pastoral programme focused on strong tutoring. A number of our schools still use core Common Entrance papers and others have adapted their own papers from an ISEB base. What we are able to achieve, with flexibility over the use of Common Entrance, is more time for tutoring and breadth within the PSB framework. The certificate provides pupils, parents and senior schools with a clear indication of academic progress and ability but crucially how successfully each pupil has developed key skills such as collaboration, leadership and independence.

Everything should be riding on the ability of prep schools to hand over their pupils rich in knowledge and skills. By shifting the emphasis away from an extensive set of ‘do or die’ papers in the June of Year 8, we are being offered a great opportunity to prepare pupils more rigorously, thoroughly and appropriately for life far beyond Year 9. We cannot shirk our responsibility to adapt to the changing times we are in; that responsibility is exciting, challenging and inspiring.

James Barnes Photo

James Barnes is PSB General Secretary.

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