Keeping Competition in its Place: a challenge for heads of department in Catholic independent schools
by Dr Charlotte Goddard, Head of Classics at Ampleforth College
There are only two days in the year when education is guaranteed to attract headline attention. On two Thursdays in August, photographs of jubilant teenagers grace the front pages, clutching their exam results. It would appear that the production of qualifications is the sole purpose of education. The sequel to these scenes in secondary schools is not so well publicised but it drives the work of the whole school year. This is the analysis of data, the calculation of added value, the setting of ever more ambitious targets for the coming year, for individual pupils, for departments and for the institution as a whole. The responsibility for implementing this lies with middle leaders, the heads of department.
The obligation on Catholic schools to ensure that Christ remains ‘the foundation of the whole enterprise’ (The Catholic School, CCE, 1977: n.34) is best achieved when all levels of leadership model Gospel values. But whereas positions of pastoral and senior leadership in a Catholic school are often filled by, in some cases even reserved for, practising Catholics, the position of head of department, with the exception of RE, is usually only fortuitously held by a Catholic. It therefore cannot necessarily be assumed that Gospel values underpin the academic work of a school in the same way that they underpin the pastoral. Ensuring that they do so is an important challenge, especially in the independent sector, where the pressure to deliver examination results can become the overwhelming priority for academic leaders.
A word to be wary of is competition. Not all competition is to be avoided in a school: competitive games and prizes offer valuable opportunities to learn how to lose as well as how to win. But Catholic schools should be mindful of that competition which has the capacity to distort them from their Christian purpose. The academic life of a school is rich in examples.
First, there is competition between departments. Unlike pastoral teams, where rivalry should not normally feature (what reason does a head of Year Seven have to compete with a head of Year Ten?), academic departments have much to compete for, such as curriculum time, student enrolment, their perceived status, even the ongoing provision of their courses. If examination results wield undue influence, there is scope for invidious rivalry between departments, unscrupulous selection of students onto courses and exam entries, competing and unrealistic claims on students’ free time, and a tendency towards exam-based teaching to the detriment of a broader variety of learning opportunities. It is for senior leaders and governors to reassure heads of department that their remit is not to deliver results at absolutely any cost.
Then there is scrutiny of data, which is steeped in competition. Standardised baseline scores measure students against national norms. Target grades compare potential performance with that of previous cohorts, and are used to urge students to compete with themselves, to surpass even their own projection, in public exams which are themselves highly competitive. Value added calculations pit actual performance against predictive data, and facilitate competition between departments and between schools. There is much at stake and no room for complacency. Heads of department will continue to analyse results, track progress and implement interventions, but amid all this they should remember that the quality of the learning journey is at least as important as the end result.
Finally, there is the ranking of students by ability of performance. Some schools do this more frequently or more publicly than others, but all use academic assessment as a basis for setting, streaming, selection or reward, and we should be cautious of the dangers associated with this. Ranked assessment scores are convenient for teachers but are a generally a blunt measure in assessing a pupil’s learning needs and have no place in valuing a student’s worth. We will doubtless keep assessing, selecting and tiering, but we can help by being careful with language. Words such as ‘top’ and (worse) ‘bottom sets’, ‘moving up’ and ‘moving down’ can, in some contexts, invite the misconception that some students have a higher value than others.
The job description for heads of department in a Catholic school is unlikely to vary from its counterpart in a secular school. Delivering exam results is certainly a key requirement. But within a Catholic setting, the head of department should be doing far more. The ‘formation of the human person’, which is a defining characteristic of a Catholic school (Canon Law, 806:2), is not the preserve of the pastoral team, or of the Chaplaincy. It should be at the heart of the school’s teaching and learning, and should be a central priority for every head of department. ISI inspection criteria, which evaluate personal development alongside achievement, are helpful in this regard. A focus on the individual child should keep the competitive elements of education in proportion.
One of the most interesting parental communications I have received was from a parent who objected to her child’s exemplary work being shared with peers: the reason given was that their child, who had worked exceptionally hard, would thereby lose their advantage in the public exam, while less deserving students benefitted from another’s endeavours. It is a fascinating moral dilemma, and it highlights the problem that, although the academic world is so receptive to collaboration, the exam system we all have to work to encourages selfishness in learning.
A focus on academic attainment at all costs sells our students a lie. As any new graduate knows, academic success is not sufficient (and sometimes not even necessary) either for employability or indeed for many other measures of success in life. Most importantly of all, though adults know that no-one is a worthier or a wiser person for achieving well in exams, teenagers do not naturally absorb this message. And their teachers, anxious to guard against complacency and under-performance, do not often dare to tell them otherwise.
The pursuit of excellence has an assured place in Catholic education and it is absolutely right that results days should see Catholic schools celebrating success. But in addition, an important characteristic of good practice is the support and consolation shown towards those students whose results that day may not be a cause of celebration, but students of whom the school is nevertheless proud. The heads of department, in a quiet way, can do much to assert this message.
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