A World Away or a Class Apart? Some Thoughts at the Start of Term

Saturday September 6, 2014

Independent Thinking Associate Tim Benton has just come back from leading a two-day VIth form induction in a top school in Hong Kong. He came away with an important message for all UK teachers.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – From Plutarch via W B Yeats.

September is not the easiest of months. What vestiges of a Summer we may or may not have enjoyed slip slowly towards Autumn, the days grow shorter and warm weather clothing is dutifully packed away until next year. The nation shrugs, heaves a collective sigh of ‘well that was that then’ and girds its loins for Winter. Central heating systems are tested. More relationships, we are told, end in September than any other month. And why not? It’s the start of another season, after all. Give up. Move on. How depressing. Oh, and of course the new school year begins. More of the same… Yes, the storm clouds well and truly gather over September…

Two weeks ago I stood in a drama studio in an international school in Hong Kong. 170 sixth formers, fresh from GCSE results, crowded the room and an expectant buzz signaled that this group was ready for whatever I had planned. There were a few exceptions, as there always are, but mainly these were motivated young people, hungry to learn and eager to do well. Their ambitions are grand: they want places at the top universities around the world; Harvard, Yale, Oxbridge, Russell Group colleges and other comparable institutions across the globe. Many are also skilled artists, actors, athletes and could do well in these fields. Realistically, however, and because of parental expectations, they will go on to become doctors, engineers, financiers or CEOs. Their education has equipped them with the tools to gain excellent exam results so they can achieve these aims, but it has also given them far more and they have other options, even if they don’t take them. More importantly, because they have more to offer, they will excel in their respective fields because they bring more to the table. Their teachers understand that a holistic education stretches way beyond the results gained at certain milestones, important though these are. They appreciate that all the A*s in the world will not help these young people if they don’t have soft skills, creativity, energy, drive, curiosity and compassion. So their curriculum embraces service, arts, questioning, exploration and the love of learning. The young people ‘get it’ and can see how this prepares them for the world they are going into. It is relevant. The end products are young people ready to embrace the world with the mindset and attitudes that will position them at the forefront of whatever they turn their hand to. As a fee-paying school, in a competitive market, they need to deliver results, but without the encumbrance of target setting, Ofsted and league tables, their educators are free to prioritise what really is important. They also get the grades.

The buzz continued and I started my session. Over the following two days I would spend eight hours with this group. Would I see something different from what I see in UK schools or are sixteen year olds the same the world over? Does the education system there produce different outcomes?


Teaching should be the best job in the world. What a privilege to shape the lives of the next generation, to teach them all we’ve learnt and inspire them to discover more for themselves. It’s two weeks after my Hong Kong trip and I stand in front of a group of teachers, corralled together for the obligatory INSET at the beginning of September, already battle-weary and the kids aren’t even back yet. I ask them why they joined the profession in the first place. The answers aren’t surprising; to make a difference, because I loved my subject and wanted others to gain that passion too, to help, to ignite something in young lives and change things for the better. We work together over the next few hours and spirits are lifted and at the end of the session, they walk out brighter and more focussed. “Thanks,” said one. “I felt deflated at the start of all this, but I feel better now. I’m going to do a few things differently.” I smile. I hope that glimmer stays with her, and I say some last words of encouragement but frankly, when it comes to our education system, the beast is sick and enthusiasm and passion are sucked out of teaching staff from the off. The desire to educate is blanketed with an all-consuming drive for results, data, targets, paperwork, league tables, Ofsted and a myriad of initiatives that do nothing for lighting the spark in children. In fact, it does the opposite.

As I leave, I pass a newly decorated Geography classroom with its various wall displays. In an almost Orwellian manner, slogans about achievement and percentages are plastered around the room, advice and information about target grades are on large display boards. Everything screams about how to get A*-C in Geography GCSE. There is no mention on Key Stage 3. There is nothing that inspires a love of Geography. This room says nothing about why Geography is a great subject to learn. All it talks of is how to get the grades that will raise the headline figure for the school, boost its position in the league tables and appease the authorities. Where are the models of volcanos? Why are there no amazing posters about glaciers or rivers? Why is there nothing that makes students ask questions about population, poverty and injustice? What is there here that will inspire the next generation of Edmund Hillarys, Ranulf Fiennes or Bear Grylls? This room is a grade factory. I hope I have this wrong. I hope more aspirational material goes up as term goes on, but sadly, I don’t think it will. The focus is wrong. They will hit the target, but miss the point. Geography is dead.

The day before I work with the 6th Formers in Hong Kong, they took part in a poverty simulation exercise. An engaging and energetic presenter led them through a series of exercises that aimed to raise their awareness of some of the injustice that exists in this world. These kids come from affluent backgrounds and this is eye opening. That’s not to say they don’t understand pain; just because a parent can afford to send them to a fee-paying school doesn’t necessarily mean they are a stellar parent. Some of these students have been emotionally neglected. The simulation exercise resonates with many of them and their empathy is awakened. They want to make a difference. They feel compassion. Geography, suddenly, is real. Their experience of school, and probably Geography, to date, however has meant they rise to this challenge differently. They are inquisitive – so want to know more. They are focused – so they get more out of the exercise. They assume the activity will be a positive experience – and so it is. I wonder if that same presenter, if he were taken into that secondary school I visited this week, would have the same response from UK students? Would the drive to gain an A* – C in Geography, above all else, have paved the way for him to work with our young people and find them with the same open and enthusiastic mindset?

My two days in Hong Kong go quickly. I’m jet lagged and sleep starved, but the students are with me all the way. They devour information and rise to each challenge. They are exhausted from a full and demanding week of induction that has seen them not only stretched mentally but physically as well (they tried Zumba!). Yet, they continue to stay focused and on task. They want to do well. They want anything that will help them. We work on presenting and communication skills and on Day Two they each present a two-minute speech on a topic of their choice. They are passionate and articulate. They support each other and celebrate success.

This is a culture of achievement. They understand the importance of academic success and in some instances push themselves too hard and have too high expectations. Whilst I was there, GCSE results came out. One girl was inconsolable because her A* results were blemished by dropping to merely an A and B in two of her subjects. For her, this was failure. I’ve seen similar reactions in the UK too, of course, because young people are indeed the same the world over and there will always be those who try their hardest and are self motivated. But these students are not the norm in the UK – many are bored and disillusioned from a system that demands nothing but exam results. From what I saw in that school in Hong Kong it is different there; they own their education. This is about them. They want top grades because they understand this is their best shot to allow them to achieve their goals. So it is personal. But they also want more from their schooling and expect more. So this, allied with a love of learning brought about by making a curriculum that matters, means their attitude is right.

Chasing grades because ‘you have to’ is not motivation. If getting an A* in Geography is just about doing certain things, to formulate certain answers to tick certain boxes, motivation will always be lacking. A room full of posters about how to make the grade won’t inspire young people. It needs to be real. It needs to be relevant. We owe this to our young people. The world has grown smaller. They are no longer in competition with other young people from the school down the road. The people they are up against for university places and jobs are across the world in places like Hong Kong. When I was in India four years ago, I found the same thing. In Kenya, two years ago, I met students in poor rural communities working tirelessly to make the most of the privilege of education. It is their only way out. These young people are hungry, focused and determined. They work hard and their attitudes are good. They know what they want and they are going for it. Can we say the same here?

Back in the UK this week I led another sixth form induction session. Again, it was around 170 students, but this time it was just for two hours. Again, it was at a fee-paying school. They were lovely enough, most of them were with me for the majority of the session, but something was different. Even here, at a fine school, with excellent results, the attitudes were not as good as they were in Hong Kong. They struggled to remain focused for the full time, frequently lapsed into chat and that eagerness to learn was noticeably absent from many. In time, however, the rigours of A Level will become clear, they will step up, and most will do well, but they will still be trailing behind the international competition. They simply aren’t on the same page. The UK’s pervasive culture of grades above all else colours all our institutions, and its heritage affects all our young people.

And what of our state schools? How will our sixth formers fare against private and international competition? From what I’ve seen, I fear not so well. Our staff are worn down and our students bored. Higher education institutions complain that UK young people come in from A Levels expecting to be told the answer. Of course they are; their educators are under enormous pressure to get the right results and so buckets are filled rather than fires lit.

Something has to change. Teachers are hard working, committed and resourceful professionals. They train to become teachers to make a difference. So much of what they are asked to do goes against the grain of what they know to be ‘outstanding’ education – in the real and not the Ofsted sense. It’s all about getting grades, but not about preparation for life. It’s teaching to the test and not exploring the subject because the subject is worth exploring. Risks aren’t taken in case it isn’t what Ofsted want. But our young people need fearless teachers, who are prepared to draw a line in the sand and say ‘enough’. They need teachers who will do what’s right. So please take down those wall-coverings which say what the base-line target is for this year. Let’s stop ramming ‘how to get an A* to C’ down the throats of our disillusioned students. They don’t care. Instead, let’s get back to why we wanted to work with young people in the first place. Let’s get them back to the love of learning. Then they will sit up, take notice and want it for themselves.

Edmund Hillary had a picture of Everest on his wall. After his first failed attempt at climbing the mountain, he wrote this; “Mount Everest you beat me the first time but I’ll beat you the next time, because you’ve grown all you are going to grow, but I’m still growing.” Surely this would make a better wall display for the Geography classroom. Our young people need to be inspired and they need you to help them. They want to know this: Why is Geography worth studying? Why should we care? If the answer is just, ‘well, you need at least 5 GCSEs, grades A* to C and Geography could be one of them’ then that doesn’t cut it.

September is a fresh start and a time for new beginnings, and it doesn’t have to be doom and gloom. Let’s change some lives and make the difference again. Young people absolutely are the same the world over, but they will always be the product of their environment; good or bad. If we talk just of levels and grades, our young people will be equally hollow and disaffected. If we model bravery, they will be brave too. If we talk with passion, they will catch that fire. Of course they need to pass their exams, but they need so much more. Is it risky? Yes, but it’s time to be fearless. Surely we owe it to them to be remarkable, because if we are, they will be too.

Tim Benton is the co-author of The Brain Box, a book all about learning and motivation for young people


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