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I never cared much for The X Factor. Regular readers may be nodding, knowing well my intimate understanding and knowledge of popular culture or more accurately my lack of knowledge about such in almost every degree. That said, I am not a complete troglodyte and who could not be removed from the trials and tribulations of those who queue for hours in preparation for an audition that might …well indeed, what might it do? Success or failure is focused on that moment in front of the judges, where, abandoned to your own devices and the support of the audience you hope to go through to the next round. A binary make or break experience common in casting calls and beyond.

Education may think itself removed from this and it is, but only to a degree. In the course of our entrance interviews I have the pleasure of meeting scores of families and children from the world over. You might think that this brings an endless variety and yes it does but there are common themes. The one I should like to dwell on is that desire to do well combined with the dreaded fear of not doing just that.

We are in the season of assessments, our pupils across school are revising, being examined and looking ahead with anticipation to the grades they get. The press is replete with stories of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) and the concerns around bias and fairness. As an aside, I am incredulous of the ineptitude of some journalism keener to grab a headline than any sense of balanced nuanced reporting but that may be for another day. In this the school system, I make a deliberate distinction between this and “education” per se, is contributing to the X Factor dilemma. Success, failure and the consequences for self-regard.

Why are children anxious about exams? There may be the concern about how much or little they have done to attend to their education, to the discipline of applying themselves to develop their understanding. In many cases they will not want to let family down, or to let themselves down. The pupils I interview and those preparing for exams want to do well. There is a connection between doing well and their self-worth that is intimate and unfortunate. It is predicated that success or doing well is reflected in a mark or in getting through to the next round. To a position in a league table or being top of the class. In some schools these lists are published and children are encouraged to compete to be top of the table. Oh dear, therein is the problem.

When Quintilian set out some principles of education in the Institutio Oratoria, he never saw what would happen. The unintended consequence of the assessment of learning (rather than “for” learning) and the grading system is the focus on the grade and the connection between it and my value. I got a “B” in this or a “7” in that is a label that badges my ability in a fixed fashion. The value allows an individual to be positioned in the rank order but so what? Apart from telling us what they did or did not know or do on the day, what value does it have? What is it for? Universities use it as a filter for acceptance, but what value is it to me as an individual? This is a deeper question than you might at first glance consider.

I have always been of the belief that the comparison with others is redundant, it allows me to be above or below you in an ordering, but the assessment is only useful if I am on a personal journey to improve. The assessment is only truly meaningful if I see it as a diagnostic, take ownership of the areas I need to grow into and develop the areas of knowledge. The ancients may look askance at how we are using education. If we take the exam as a diagnostic moment, it is about my capacity to reflect on my understanding and to assess myself through the tool of the exam to determine the next steps. To do badly is not to “fail” but to understand what my next step must be. 

I am in no way getting away from notions of rigour, in fact I am advocating greater levels of rigour, harder tests if you will, because they are the steps to take us to deeper levels of knowledge not ever shallower levels of comparison. You might therefore see the delight in “failure”? It is the moment where I have reached my best at this point in time and couldn’t go beyond. It is then back to the training ground, more practice and refinement before going again. It is not the end, it does not define me as a human being, it is not connected to my self-worth but a measure of where I need to go next.

I don’t see this as being a hard sell, I do see this approach as one that takes the fear of failure from assessment and then from the experience of children. I have always said to children taking exams, “have fun with it”. They have always been perplexed, but why? I have always told them to “boss” the question, it is your opportunity to shine and reflect your understanding, if you are stumped, it is your moment to identify in your skill set the area that needs developing, in every way this is a good thing. Predicated of course on the desire to be your best and to do your best. The only real “failure” then is not to try. 

One reason children don’t try is the self-justification that if I don’t try I can’t fail because I have evaded the testing cycle, I have opted out. An application of the “kobayashi maru” principle, it is an approach that has its own logic but is self-serving and borne from the fear of failure where such failure is a comment on them as a person. It has always pained me to hear children describe themselves as no good at x or y, sometimes explaining that they are “useless”. The binary thinking that sees success as the achievement of a specific grade is exactly the one that sees high achieving pupils at GCSE flounder and collapse against the mightier hurdle of A Level. They are not useless, they have not lost all the talent they had three months previously, the subject matter just got tougher and they have to work the mind muscles much harder to get to grips with it. Two years later they emerge strengthened and ready for the challenges of university. 

Athletes train to be better than their previous best, the famous Dutch teams of the ‘70s are mimicked by the Barca’ tactics of today, play your own style of football, refine it and get better at it. They learn and take the best from the practice of others and apply it to improve, why is what we do any different?

At Embley, it isn’t, we do just that. I have never cared to focus on winning nor have I ever set my target against a grade or a position in a group, I have always sought only to get better.

This is the simple recipe at Embley, we seek to develop children’s understanding, we encourage risk taking and rejoice in deliberate discomfort because it is the moment of growth and the area of personal development. Cosy contentment breeds complacency, fear of failure brings a paralysis that inhibits understanding. Our focus is in the formation of characters that are open to risk, comfortable that “failure” marks the platform for future building and we recognise that that is different for all children. As with all human endeavour, it is an open-ended journey, personal to every child where each one of them has their own unique worth regardless of grade, where all are valued for themselves because of their intrinsic self-worth, the unique X Factor that makes them themselves.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead

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