From entrance papers to GCSEs, A-Levels and beyond, exams are a fact of life for students up and down the country. But how do schools prepare young people for the trials and tribulations of testing and how important are good grades to future success? We spoke to Simon Head, headmaster at Wiltshire’s Chafyn Grove School, to find out…
How did your most recent crop of exam age students fare?
All of our children get into the schools of their first choice at 13+. There is a wide selection of schools represented, from Clifton to Marlborough, Canford to Sherborne. A third of the children successfully take scholarships; again the range of these awards is important. We believe in enhancing each individual’s potential, therefore it’s important we don’t just do one thing well. Our scholarships were in every category: Academic, Music, Drama, Sport, Art and All-rounder.
What do these results mean to the school and its teaching staff?
The results are very much the ‘icing on the cake.’ Some of the most important lessons of a prep school are not readily measured – but it’s important that the ones which are reflect well upon the learning environment. The staff are proud of the children’s success – one child’s good mark in a subject they find challenging is every bit as much of a cause for celebration as a scholarship success. However, there is a healthy disdain for teaching towards a test. The results are seen as a natural by-product of the curiosity we encourage and the challenge we provide. The knowledge and skills they develop undoubtedly put them in a good position for future public examination success, but it is really the habits and appetites which are exercised at Prep school which hold the greatest long term value.
Beyond grades, how do you measure “success” in the classroom?
Grades are a limited measure of success in the classroom. We gladly embrace the science of cognitive testing and tracking to help advise our teachers, but it is their acumen which I value the most when it comes to assessing progress and aspirations. Similarly, I salute the store senior schools set by my reports.
The best ones clearly need some data to help them sift their applications, but I find it both impressive and heartening how much rests upon interview and character. We operate to the same values. Nothing good happens without engagement. This is assisted by teachers having the freedom to teach what and how they want. I ask them all to be mindful of the syllabus, but not enslaved by it. For instance, some of our senior maths lessons use chess as a vehicle for developing problem-solving skills. If you can plot a six move checkmate, trigonometry is that much easier to tackle.
The relationship the teacher has with each pupil is all-important – how else can they pitch challenge correctly? The trust and understanding between the adults and children at Chafyn Grove is fostered by our policy of ensuring that no teacher just teaches. All offer clubs, teams and pastoral support. The more environments and guises in which teachers and pupils encounter each other, the more meaningful the relationship becomes. Something as simple as sitting with the children at lunch reaps invaluable dividends.
How do you put students at ease during the exam season?
Examination stress is undoubtedly a spectre within education at the moment, creeping ever more insidiously towards even our younger pupils. We believe that ‘less is more’ when it comes to testing. The children need to develop a certain amount of resilience towards testing through experience of it, however it is all too easy for it to acquire unworthy prominence if you test too often.
By playing down the importance of assessment, instead focusing on the invigoration of learning, you keep the stress of examinations in perspective. After all, perfect preparation prevents panic! Here I reference the Karate kid – shame on you if you don’t recognise the analogy. The student in the film want to learn karate, but comes increasingly frustrated with apparently unconnected tasks such as painting a fence or washing a car. Eventually the teacher animates the learning, revealing that the gestures of the tasks have been developing muscle memory and reflexes. If you only teach to the test, you never really graduate from the slog of fence-painting. If you make sure that there is an extra relevance to learning tasks, you get discovery and engagement (and maybe crane kicks).
I ask my staff to think of themselves as wildlife rangers when it comes to testing. You can tranquilise and stun a rhinoceros to examine it, or you can consider its droppings! It’s much healthier for the rhinoceros to be galloping around the savannah – assessment should never subordinate learning.