A brave headmaster of an independent prep school recently spoke out on the dangers of ‘hot housing’ children and its potential impact on their health by, rather bluntly, robbing them of their childhood. The article published in the Telegraph was catalyst to a growing chorus of concern from educationalists over assessment regimes and their effects.
In our 2013 Ofsted report, where all areas of the school were judged as outstanding, inspectors noted that: teachers and leaders share the same very high expectations of what children can achieve and a common understanding of what methods help children to learn most effectively without ‘hot housing’ them and making excessive demands on them. They are willing to take risks and innovate.
Whilst the school has developed since its initial inspection as it has grown to full capacity, what has remained central to our ethos, is that an obsession with assessment and exam results, accompanied by relentless competition, only serves to create an unhealthy educational culture for the children in our care, most of whom have not yet reached double figures.
Responses to the article were diverse with many questioning why children should not compete, be ambitious or be defined by performance in exams. Where there was more agreement, however, was the subject of children’s experience of pressure and stress as a consequence of competition.
Development of ambition is, undoubtedly, pivotal in education. Where there are questions to be asked, however, is the rationale behind encouraging children to compete with one another. Whilst we need to be mindful that the purpose of every school is to prepare young people for, what one respondent described as ‘an unforgiving and relentless’ working life, addressing this in the small confines of the classroom is not the answer.
In competition-driven learning environments, the danger can be that children can be the ‘best’ and, unwittingly reinforced by peer and adult praise and approval, focus on small victories, without reaching their potential. At Wandsworth Prep, we focus on personal target setting, resilience, challenge, learning from mistakes, initiative and collaborative learning; we actively praise these skills. What we find, is that our children achieve so much more than their potential would suggest and, more importantly, support each other in the process. Our classrooms are places of stimulating and challenging learning with no parochial ceilings to hold our children back.
There will always be those who purport that children need to be ranked against one another, that this kind of competition spurs success. At Wandsworth Prep, we will continue to work passionately to provide an educational environment that is fun, as well as challenging, stimulating and rewarding. Schools need not be the experience that some respondents to the ‘hot housing’ article believe it should be; a ‘they had better get used to it’ attitude need not inform how we educate our children.
Bridget Saul - Headteacher