One of the oddities of the school year is that at the same time as we are responding to the needs of new year 7 students and helping them to adjust to the demands of a new school, new routines, homework, and significantly more complex organization, we are simultaneously showcasing the school to children and their parents in years 5 and 6 who will imminently be choosing a secondary school. But that is how it is – one of the reasons why time seems to accelerate in the school environment, as anyone who has worked in one will know.
Last week and this we are holding our traditional three open evenings for those interested in finding out more about how we approach things at Bennett. It’s always a pleasure to do this, and often I come across people who have some connection with the school. I had a ‘first’ this year though: at the end of the second evening, a couple approached me with their daughter, in year 6. It took me only a moment to realize that I knew them, and they had in fact been students at Bennett themselves in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was head of sixth form and deputy head at the school. In fact, they both started as year 7s the same year I did as a newly promoted head of sixth form. It was wonderful to hear what an important part the school played in their lives, and that they now want the same for their daughter.
People sometimes ask me to say in a nutshell what the one, key defining characteristic of Bennett’s approach to education is. My answer is always that it is the ‘growth mindset ‘approach to learning. The belief that the mind is malleable and can change and improve beyond expectations if the educational approach is right. With the right beliefs about human potential on the part of the educator, and if those beliefs and the approaches they inspire can be mediated to the learner, success is available for all. Bennett is of course a Christian school, and for me the growth mindset is the educational expression, a parallel if you like, of the fundamental Christian belief that redemption is freely available to all. There is no contradiction between the two.
The term ‘growth mindset’ was coined by the American psychologist Carol Dweck, and there is plenty of material on her work on the internet, for example at http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/index.html .
Today we had one of those annual traditions which are special to Bennett: the Saturday year 7 family day. Parents of students in year 7 are invited to come with their children to the school for a couple of hours of fun activities for the children, and a barbecue, with the chance for parents to mingle, perhaps get to know some other Bennett parents, identifying those hopefully who live nearby for future shared lifts and so on. The event went well, and I’d like to thank those who were able to get to it and those staff who came along to help: much appreciated.
Some of you may have seen some national news coverage earlier this week of a survey of headteachers which seemed to indicate low levels of confidence in the accuracy of GCSE grades (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/23/gcse-students-wrong-grades-marked-a-levels). While this may be true, this is a complex issue and from the point of view of educators, and parents and students, I think it is vital that we think carefully about how we handle and talk about it. There are big risks involved.
It is very easy for those of us who work in schools, and the ‘clients’ of schools (parents and students), either to use this sort of story as an ‘excuse’ for weak performance, or to allow it to weaken the significance of educational outcomes (‘what does it matter anyway, no-one believes these grades anyway’, sort of thing). This is very dangerous.
Educational outcomes, whatever anyone says, absolutely do matter for young people’s future, and the starting point for the long term enterprise that education is must be the belief that progress is both possible, and measurable, and that progress can be accurately attributed, in large measure, to the quality of teaching teachers offer as well as the wider school environment the student is in. If we allow confidence in outcomes to be undermined, we will undermine both the sense of responsibility we teachers need to take, and we will undermine the resolve and perseverance young people need to succeed.
So if there really is less confidence in GCSE grades than there was, it is imperative that it spurs us to action rather than words: above all we sort the problem out as quickly as possible, and not allow it to impact on the mindset either of teachers or of students.