What is success anyway?
On the first of January, as the bells tolled their welcome to the New Year, I found myself along with many other people, wondering what 2019 would bring and reflecting on the previous year. I am pleased to say that 2018 was very successful at our school with many academic, sporting, artistic and musical achievements to celebrate, and we are expecting 2019 to be even better. However in the process of writing this article I have been reflecting on the meaning of ‘success’ and considering what it really means to be successful in modern world. Although the dictionary states that success is ‘the accomplishment of an aim or purpose’ this is not very helpful for the true understanding of the concept. From my point of view it seems that the popular measure of success has remained broadly similar over time even as the nature of work has evolved with new technologies; so when asked what they aspire to be in the future, some children will still tell you, as they did twenty years ago, that they want to be footballers, pop stars, fashion icons or reality TV stars while others still want to be doctors, scientists, hairdressers or teachers. What I think has changed significantly is the role of social media and the internet in changing and shaping perceptions of success. This has happened as a greater number of children spend time online ‘following’, ‘liking’ and tracking the lives of celebrities or others in the public eye. For some people success means having plenty of money, lots of possessions and involves a particular type of high profile work; if you get all that then you have ‘made it’ in the world. Others see success as more tied up with feeling fulfilled and happy, perhaps because of work, academic achievement or because of stable relationships and family life.
Schools should provide children with alternative perspectives on success
Whatever people’s views, I believe that part of our job as educators, and also as parents, is to ensure that our children get a balanced perspective by giving time to exploring concepts such as success, looking at different ways in which we can all experience it in our lives, understanding how different it can be for different people and how powerful a clear vision of success can be as a motivator. This is important because schools can sometimes unwittingly support the impression that success is almost all about how well children perform in exams whereas for many it may include other criteria such as proficiency in areas such as music, sport, drama or art, to name just a few.
Mistakes have been made and children have paid the price with a narrowed curriculum and less options
For many years, individual and school academic success at Primary School has been measured almost entirely on the data generated when children in Year 2 and Year 6 take their SATs tests at the end of the year. Sadly this has led to some schools focusing more and more of their energy on getting good scores in tests rather than considering the wider curricular and emotional needs of pupils. I think that this trend has been to the detriment of children and it has been tolerated and even encouraged for far too long. Happily Ofsted and others in authority have finally realised that mistakes have been made and the new inspection regime in 2019 will, apparently, be taking the broader culture and curriculum of the school into account when grading schools, with data taking less prominence than before. As a society I think we are slowly realising that by placing such emphasis on measuring exam success we have put dangerous amounts of stress on our young people which is at least partly responsible for a proliferation of anxiety related mental health disorders. At our school we have always resisted the pressure to organise our school according to the outcomes of tests and we have instead organised ourselves around getting the curriculum right for the children; some of you may have seen the following which is an extract from a piece that I recently wrote for a Sheffield newspaper on the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum.
‘Picture this, a hall on a summer’s afternoon and a play is taking place at my school. The star performer steps forward and starts to sing confidently and beautifully in front of the hushed audience of two hundred parents. She projects her voice, using tone and volume to communicate the sad plight of the character she is playing. It is a masterful performance, truly amazing, because this is the same girl who, a year before, would hardly speak in class, had never sung in public and who had rather a low opinion of herself. In those few minutes the audience were part of a transformational moment in that child’s life, when she discovered an inner strength and a talent that she had previously been unware of; education should be built on such moments.
So as we launch into the new year of 2019, I look forward to further developing our school’s curriculum so as to try and ensure that every single child in our school is achieving the sort of success that will lead to them becoming happy, fulfilled and truly ‘successful’ adults, whatever that means.