Dr Anthony Seldon: Education goes beyond exams

It is reducing the glory of human knowledge to the memorising of correct techniques

Related Topics

Ed Balls, Michael Gove and David Laws, the respective spokesmen on schools for their parties, have been slugging it out in the past few days, and I do mean slugging it, from the BBC's Newsnight studios to newspaper forums. They are on the prowl trying to convince us why they should be entrusted with running the country's education system after the May general election.

All three are sure they have the right answer. Balls wants to build on a long list of achievements over the past 13 years, including 40,000 more teachers, and offers a programme of increased spending on schools which the Tories are not willing to match. Gove's pitch concentrates on reversing what he regards as sinking standards under Labour, and wants British schools to be more like Swedish free schools and US charter schools, while Laws for the Liberal Democrats bases his case around "intelligent accountability".

I have no doubt that all three are capable and sincere men, who are earnest about their intentions. My concern is that, if their policies are put into action, the experience of schools and education will remain much the same for children in 2015 as it is in 2010. Considerable progress has been made on academic results since 1997: schools are brighter, more purposeful and more efficient. Children are better taught, teachers better supported and schools better resourced.

I am absolutely confident that, whichever party wins the general election, the upward trend in GCSE and A-level results will continue, and the successful party will boast at the following general election that "education has never been better". But I am far from convinced that we will see the sea change in the experience of children at school that can and must occur.

We need to ask ourselves the question: "What is education for?" To all three main parties, it would seem to be primarily about maximising exam results. This is not at all unworthy. Exams are important as a way of measuring the performance of a school, and assessing certain skills of individual candidates, which allow higher education and future employers to make judgements upon them. But exams tell only a small amount about the quality of the human being. Consider all the many very distinguished figures in Britain from Winston Churchill to Richard Branson who did not fare well in exams. Schools need to have a far broader vision about their role than being exam factories, and it is this vision that I am missing from our three education champions. Concentrating on exams is not even improving teaching and learning, or the understanding of academic subjects: it is reducing the glory of human knowledge and wisdom to the memorising of correct techniques and answers.

The time is ripe, not least in the week that we learnt university cuts are to be even deeper than we feared, to launch a fundamental debate about the purpose of education. Is it all about metrics, whether A-level passes or grades on final papers at university, or is there a broader vision? Higher education too is suffering from the same dehumanising reductionism of exam-passing, which is one reason why US universities, which offer a much more holistic education, are becoming popular. It was Einstein who said: "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."

Education, I believe, is in part about the end product – producing young men and young women able to benefit from higher education, to contribute positively in employment, and to lead meaningful and productive lives, and for the first two ends at least, exams can be instructive. But it is also about developing the whole human being. Philosophers have endlessly pondered what constitutes man. I find no better model than that produced by Howard Gardner of Harvard University, who has argued that we have not one, but many intelligences. At my own school, Wellington College, we say each child has "eight attributes", which we see as four sets of pairs: drawing loosely on Gardner, we describe these as the logistical and the linguistic, the creative and the physical, the spiritual and the moral, the personal and the social. All schools in Britain should see their task, in the classroom and beyond, as developing all eight of these aptitudes, recognising that what is not nurtured and developed by the time a child leaves school may well remain dormant for the rest of their lives. Our education system should be trying to educate our leavers to lead not half lives, but lives in the full.

Where children come from backgrounds of lesser means, where they may not enjoy the same opportunities for enrichment and cultural development as others, it is even more important for schools to develop the whole child. If such children are fed primarily on a diet of exam preparation, by teachers who have had their initiative and individuality sucked out of them by a regime which dictates that school teaching is replaced by mere instruction, then large numbers of pupils will be bored and resentful when they are at school, and under-fulfilled after they leave it.

Schools can and should be places of engagement and delight. But too many pupils today resent and insufficiently value them. Parents should be actively engaged in and full of gratitude for the schools that their children attend. Instead, they are often indifferent and even uncooperative. Teaching should be a profession which the brightest and most energetic should aspire to and fight to join. Instead, it is hard to get top graduates to apply. And when they do, it is difficult to keep them in the profession. To be a head should be the apex of every teacher's dream. Instead, such is the emasculated nature of the job, many heads' posts remain unfilled.

I would like to hear those who want to run schools and universities after 6 May telling us less about structures and organisation, and more about education, and how they are going to trust schools, heads, and teachers again to do the job, and how they are going to re-engage the minds, the hearts and spirits of our young. It is not about statistics; it's about children. Truly, nothing matters more, and deep down I suspect Messrs Balls, Gove and Laws know it.

Dr Anthony Seldon is headmaster of Wellington College. His programme 'Trust in Politics' is on BBC2 on Monday at 7pm

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page


General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk