A glance at the Bennett website suggests that this is a very successful year for Bennett as a school and more widely for the Tenax Schools Trust. There is certainly a lot to celebrate, whether that be outstanding GCSE and A level results in 2017, the richly deserved public honour of a CBE conferred on Ian Bauckham, our Trust CEO, or all our students’ sporting, musical, and academic successes achieved since September. The diversity of these is really striking, not least because it speaks of the range of opportunities that the school supports; whether it be the two Bennett brothers who have secured themselves places in the National Youth Orchestra, or our sixth form photographer whose work will shortly be on show in the Turner Contemporary in Margate, or indeed our under 16 netball team playing in the Kent final last weekend. We have won national essay prizes in the Classics and had large numbers of Sixth Formers complete their Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award expeditions in challenging conditions in the Peak District.
External evaluation provides one way on considering our success. Just this week we have been accredited as a ‘World Class School’, one of just 60 in the country, and the only one in Kent. The assessment process for this designation as ‘World Class’ involved first a rigorous examination of examination outcomes, but this was followed by a more rounded evaluation against a broad range of demanding criteria and finally a challenging assessment exercise, where 3 of our students went off to Leeds to represent us.
As a headteacher, one of the most important measures of success has to be the examination outcomes of our students both at GCSE and A level. This is particularly because these are the qualifications which open doors for our students, but it is also because they underpin the public reputation of the school. In the latter context we were pleased to be reported as the third highest performing school in Kent in some local media, following the publication of the Department for Education’s performance tables; in the news stories we were identified as being well ahead of some of the sought after Kent grammar schools and just behind the two local girls’ grammars. In fact, a closer look at the national performance data reveals that the progress score for Bennett’s girls, which was +0.99, was in fact ahead of those two girls’ grammars, so I do think we can credibly argue that we were in fact the highest performing school in the county.
At this point I should of course reassure my reader that at Bennett we value and prioritise the development of the whole individual, not only achievement in examination courses. Nobody witnessing our Sixth Formers building cardboard shelters to sleep out for the homeless charity Porchlight, or hearing one of our more vulnerable students confidently presenting to an audience of more than 200, or reading the detail of our recent Outstanding Church School inspection report, could think otherwise. In this context, I’d observe that any view that suggests that focusing on outstanding academic achievement stands in the way of a child’s personal development is operating a profoundly damaging false dichotomy. Indeed children’s progress in academic disciplines deeply supports their wider social, cultural and emotional development. This is because the academic curriculum represents the body of knowledge which cannot be acquired easily at home or in the community that is required to broaden minds and enables children to make the biggest contribution possible to their communities. It is precisely what will equip them best to live their lives in the fullest way possible.
This brings us to the key question in measuring the success of any school. Before you can meaningfully measure the success of any institution you have to consider what it is for, its purpose in our society. At Bennett we believe deeply in the idea that public education and particularly Christian education has to be for the common good. The Church of England vision for education is that it should be ‘deeply Christian and for the common good of the whole community.’ Schools play a key role in reproducing society and enabling it to innovate and change. They do that by ensuring that the best of what is known and understood about our world is passed on to the coming generation. This in turn enables young people to develop and so move, intellectually at very least, beyond their local and particular situation. Potentially such an education is emancipatory. Certainly this sits well with the Christian notion of an education which seeks to promote Jesus’ promise of ‘life in its fullness’. This is precisely why a general education for all young people in the powerful knowledge of the academic curriculum is so important.
Judged objectively on this basis then, the progress of all of our Bennett students, irrespective of background or starting point, in developing a strong grasp of the powerful knowledge of an academic curriculum is testament to success. This powerful knowledge is that which reliably explains our world, be that the scientific understanding of evolution, or the knowledge that Britain has developed as a nation through many phases of historical migration, hence our hybrid language and diverse national culture. Such knowledge can be built upon to provide new ideas and knowledge. It is the basis of creativity. It is also the knowledge which is sought after by examiners and employers alike. Nor should charitable fund raising, or expeditions to the Peak District, or teaching in Tanzania be perceived as mere ornaments to this. They too convey powerful knowledge and in particular take our students beyond their local and particular situation. This is precisely why we provide these opportunities too at Bennett, in full measure.