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What does it mean to be academic?

In the current edition of Conference & Common Room Magazine, Rick explores this current dilemma and confronts the misconceptions around progressive education.

Read the published version here.

When I took over the reins at Frensham Heights school earlier this year, I was aware that I was stepping in to a role steeped in tradition – not a tradition of uniforms, authority and strict rules, but one of progressivism, of doing things differently and being proud of it.

Frensham Heights nestles in 100 acres of rolling Surrey Hills, a rare and stunning location which our founders in 1925 knew would allow the youngsters in their care to develop at their own pace and to become the free-thinkers and inquiring minds of the future.

They were aiming for a truly rounded academic education, one that acknowledged that there was far more to developing a successful human being than fact-feeding. It is an ethos which has served the school well – generations of successful Frenshamians are testimony to that. And it is an ethos of which I am now the proud custodian.

And yet, as I meet prospective parents at my school I am increasingly struck by the line of questioning taken by many of them. How academic is my school? Of course, my standard response is to say that all children are stretched to reach their full potential. I am referring to exam results, as are those prospective parents. It has somehow become the norm that this is what we now mean by ‘academic’.

However, an armful of A*s was not what Frensham’s founders had in mind when they used the word ‘academic’. And I find that I, too, am becoming increasingly uneasy with today’s shorthand for perceived success.

What parents are essentially asking is this: how well do the children at your school do in exams? If this is the way that a school’s academic credentials are measured, then I have a problem with the way that we define what ‘academic’ means.

While there is certainly still a requirement for young people to have good qualifications, not least to open doors to college and university, the skills that lead to career success have changed, and are continuing to change, significantly. A report last year on the future of the job market by the World Economic Forum picked out the key skills any workforce will need in the future if it is to be successful.

With the growth in AI and technology, those skills included creativity, initiative, problem-solving and resilience. Others that the report mentioned were leadership, emotional intelligence, service orientation and negotiation. Not one of these skills could be seen as purely ‘academic’. However, a school such as mine with its equal emphasis on the learning which takes place outside the classroom as well as in it, is somewhere these crucial skills are honed in abundance.

There is no doubt that an academic curriculum in the 21st century needs to be flexible and mindful of the changing demands of the world of work. To see the curriculum in purely utilitarian terms – as a set of grades to be achieved – is a mistake.

When Michael Gove redesigned GCSEs during his tenure as Education Secretary to make them more ‘rigorous’, he was wanting our classrooms to be more ‘academic’. But he missed the point. You cannot fill students with facts and make them ‘academic’. To be truly ‘academic’ requires a mind that questions, that is able to seek out fresh information, that is excited by that new information and dares to speak up. In short, becoming a resourceful and resilient thinker – a true academic – cannot be taught within the strict requirements of a two-year course.

There have also been some unfortunate consequences: ‘soft’ subjects such as Design, Art, Music and Languages have been stripped away, particularly in state schools, in a drive to encourage more children to study STEM subjects. If this is the hallmark of an ‘academic’ curriculum, then I worry that we are setting up thousands of youngsters for significant challenges down the line if we do not also look to develop those wider skills that the World Economic Forum sees as so crucial.

All children – irrespective of whether they are being educated privately or by the state – should have the opportunity to develop those skills.

When the founders of my school sat down in the early 1920s to work out just what they hoped to deliver, they were responding to the stifling and restrictive educational system of the Victorian era.

Today’s relentless focus on exams is not dissimilar. We may have raised standards by having a national curriculum and a system of public exams which are recognised as every teenager’s rite of passage. However, the impact on the wellbeing of children and teachers cannot be underestimated – and we certainly have not produced a super generation of ‘academics’. If anything, we are in danger of putting students off independent learning through the relentless pressure to acquire knowledge within a strict framework.

Frensham’s founders – three women who wanted to create a modern response to a rapidly changing world – offered an enlightened alternative to the suffocating Victorian edicts they had grown up with, allowing individuals to flourish and find their innate strengths.

Today, I feel passionately that I and my staff should continue that tradition here at Frensham Heights. I believe that our progressive ideals are as relevant (if not more so) today as in the 1920s. I believe it would be all too easy to sell my non-selective school on the basis of its very good exam results. What we are providing is something far more valuable for the developing individual in an ever-changing world.

Our curriculum takes children to Scotland for three weeks in Year 9 – away from modern conveniences and technology. The students themselves call it life-changing. We have aspiring engineers learning alongside ambitious dancers. We send students to Malawi. We are inclusive, not exclusive.

Whether it is on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe or coping with challenging weather at Everest Base Camp, we enable our students to discover what it is that makes them tick. It is what we do – and, I believe, do well.

When I first visited Frensham Heights two years ago, I was struck by how the school felt different to any other I knew. With its emphasis on the outdoors and freedom, its spirit of openness, it felt closer to my South African roots than any of the other UK independent schools where I have taught.

I know that every school will claim there is a little bit of magic about what it does, but with Frensham that special atmosphere is tangible from the moment you pass through its doors. There is a warmth about this community: everyone addresses each other by first names, and there is no uniform. It is an environment built on respect that is earned, not demanded. No wonder visitors describe it as a breath of fresh air.

There is a mistaken assumption that non-selective schools are not academic, and this frustrates me. My school is academic. In the truest sense of the word. That’s why this Autumn, as I begin my second year at Frensham Heights, I will be exploring the subject further at the TEDx conference we are hosting in our theatre in October.

And when visiting prospective parents ask me this year how ‘academic’ my school is, I will ask them what they think it is to be academic today. I am looking forward to some lively and interesting discussions. After all, that is what Frensham is – and always has been – about.

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