The marks myth

The myschool website has set off all kinds of alarm bells all over the country. The assumption seems to be that parents will overwhelmingly prefer the schools with the highest academic ranking. I would like to believe that people are smarter than that, but I fear there’s an alarming amount of truth to it.

It is natural for parents to want their children to have the best opportunities, and to maximize their potential. But what I find alarming is the idea that academic potential is all that matters. Leaving aside for a moment the myriad factors that contribute to a school’s test results, let’s proceed from the simple, albeit erroneous, assumption that schools with the highest results will ensure that your child achieves the most success.

Of course you would choose the school with the highest ranking. Wouldn’t you? Yet here’s the thing. All the research, and indeed most of the common sense, points to academic results being very low on the list of factors that make the most difference to your life, happiness, and even success. They are on the list. But they are nowhere near the top.

The factors that make the difference are overwhelmingly emotional and social. Resilience in the face of setbacks, ability to create strong, supportive social and professional networks, persistence… these are all far more important factors in your life than your marks on any exam you choose to name. They can also be learned, and even taught.

When we looked for schools for our eldest daughter, we checked out our three closest state schools. One of them had an awesome academic reputation, yet when we visited it, the overwhelming feeling we got was cold and impersonal. When the principal showed us around, the only interaction she had with the students was to shout at them for running in the corridor. When we asked if we could stay on the first day if our daughter needed us to, we were vigorously discouraged from such bizarre behaviour. “We know how to deal with upset children, it’s better if you go.”  Another school told us that we weren’t even allowed into the building after the first few days – “For security, you know.”

The school we chose, by an overwhelming margin, could hardly have contrasted more. The principal greeted all of the students by name (and they greeted her with enthusiasm and obvious affection and respect).  She paused our tour in one of the senior classrooms so that she could check on two friends who had recently been fighting. She wanted to make sure that the chat they had just had in her office, over tea and orange juice, had truly sorted things out – which it had. Their classroom teacher commented that it “must be healing air in there”.

The students in the younger grades all wanted to show the principal their work, which she enthused over appropriately. Even more to the point, she spent most of the tour talking to our daughter – not ignoring us, but clearly making our daughter her focus and priority.  We were charmed, and felt welcomed into the school community from the moment we stepped onto the property.

When we asked if we could stay if our daughter needed us on the first day, we were warmly encouraged to do whatever worked for us. The Principal assured us that the school would work with us to make sure that our daughter had what she needed, whatever that might be. As we drove away, my husband commented that he had the impression that if we stayed in the classroom all year the school would be thrilled.

This was largely the basis of our decision, and in the years since then we have had that decision confirmed over and over again. The school has a strong focus on emotional and social intelligence. The senior kids look after the younger ones every year – each year I assume that they have a really special year of grade 6s, and each year the next crop is just as wonderful.

The whole ethos of the school is that everyone looks after everyone else. When our daughter had some problems with another girl picking on her in prep, everyone rallied around her, and one of the grade 6s came up to me to ask if there was anything she could do.

It may seem strange for someone with a PhD in Computer Science to say that academic achievement isn’t worth worrying about. It’s certainly not irrelevant. But it’s a very poor basis for determining a child’s future. If you’re looking to choose a school, the emotional and social aspects of the school, though harder to measure and display on a website, are easy to see, and far more important in the long run.

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