This Sunday is Advent Sunday, the beginning of the season of Advent which leads up to Christmas. At school, this coincides of course with the last part of the long autumn term, which in many ways is the backbone of the school year, when a large part of the work of the year is accomplished. Year 11 students are taking their trial GCSE examinations right now. These are designed not only to simulate the examination experience, but also diagnose areas which require further work and preparation before the summer.
It is so easy for us to think, especially if way pay too much attention to education in the news, that the one and only object of education is getting GCSEs. Of course, excellent academic standards are the bread and butter of schools, and at Bennett we certainly focus on that. But successful adults have more that A grades. They have the strengths of character, personal qualities, things like resilience, perseverance, humour, respect, ability to work with others, imagination, creativity, and much more. Now, there is a strand of the debate in education today which sets up what I think is a false opposition: they say that a relentless focus on standards means you have to neglect those other all important qualities; or, put the other way round, schools which get lower standards because they focus on personal qualities are treated too harshly by Ofsted or the government.
Actually, I believe, more strongly now than ever, that both aspects of education go totally hand in hand. If you think high standards means mindless drilling for tests, then perhaps not. But if you think high standards means setting the highest possible expectations of achievement for all young people, and working relentlessly to instil in them a mindset that enables them to meet those expectations, then there is no contradiction at all. In fact, the two aspects of education need each other: to believe you can achieve the best and get there you need imagination and you need resilience, and sport, music and other activities help you develop these. I heard someone say recently that in education we were always talking about how things would be better in our school if only this or that were the case. But what we have to do is focus on where we are and get on with the job: it isn’t so much that the grass is greener on the other side, but the grass is greener if you water it!
The American psychologist Carol Dweck, whom I admire enormously and have quoted before, says that if you always praise a child for good work by telling them that they must be very clever, then their performance will decline because they think they do not need to work hard, or because they become so afraid of getting things wrong that they stop taking risks, trying things out. If however you reward a child for doing well by praising their hard work, they will over time improve further by trying harder still. That is what she calls the ‘open mindset’ – this approach promotes resilience and perseverance and ultimately high achievement.
I happened recently, in my role as president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), to be at a conference of the heads of private girls’ schools (GSA). These heads were trying to identify the key quality which their schools give their students, and the conclusion was that above all it was the ability to ‘defer’ satisfaction or gratification. In other words, not to be easily satisfied with the fruits of your efforts, but to continually self-criticise and try to improve further. Perseverance, resilience: not easy qualities in a world where we always expect instant answers.
Back to Advent. It is often thought of as a period of preparation for Christmas, as Lent is for Easter. But actually Advent has a character of its own. It is not so much a season of penance or self sacrifice, as Lent is, but rather a period when we focus on the theme of hopeful expectation. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I think we spend more time anticipating and looking forward to things in life than we do actually relishing them when they arrive. Holidays are certainly often like that: the thought almost better than the reality when it arrives. Advent is an opportunity to allow God in to all that time we spend anticipating things by aligning it with the greatest anticipation of all. A favourite Advent poem of mine, Advent 1955, by John Betjeman:
The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound –
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out ‘Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’
And how, in fact, do we prepare
The great day that waits us there –
For the twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards, And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know –
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defence is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.