Anthony Seldon: Education is about more than exams

Schools re-open in a month. Will schools be different because of the triumphs yesterday of Bradley Wiggins, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning – and doubtless many others in the coming days? Will it be back to Gradgrind as usual, with schooling weighed under by facts, tests and exams, or will our education system somehow be enhanced and transformed by what has happened in Britain during the school holidays?

Many heads in their opening addresses will feel under pressure to major on the summer's exam results and their school's league table position. Their teachers will sit more or less uncomplainingly through long PowerPoint displays of the performance of pupils, departments, and year groups.

This is all fine – up to a point. Schools need to concentrate on exams, and far too many have not done well enough for their children in the past. But as even the Government admits, education is about much more than the passing of exams. It will be a tragedy if, from September, schools are identical to the way they were up to July. The Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad should be the catalysts for the profoundest shake-up of the whole nature and purpose of schools. Otherwise we run the risk of squandering the Olympic legacy.

Everything depends on our vision of education. If we believe that it is merely about the training of the intellect, then narrowly focused schools will be the inevitable result. Schools will concentrate on the passing of exams (which, we may note, is very different from engendering academic curiosity through scholarship) and exam success will remain the Holy Grail.

But if we have a broader vision of what it means to be human, and to acknowledge that our humanity includes our sporting prowess, our artistic faculties, our moral sensibilities and spiritual quest, to say nothing of the development of good character prized since the ancient Greeks, then we would wish our schools to educate the whole child. Children from less privileged backgrounds depend even more on their schools to give them this extra-curricular enrichment.

The funny thing is that those schools which offer excellent all-round education, such as the Ripley St Thomas High School in Lancaster, or Thomas Telford School in Shropshire, also excel academically. School is a once-and-forever opportunity for the young to develop their talents, and what is not identified and nurtured by the age of 16, and usually long before, is likely to remain dormant for life.

Howard Gardner, the Harvard Professor, says we have not one but a whole variety of intelligences, and the sovereign responsibility of schools is to identify and nurture all of them. If we do not offer this breadth in our schools, we patronise children and deny them the opportunities of the rich heritage that is the birthright of every child.