Our glorious purpose?

“I am Loki of Asgard and I am burdened with glorious purpose”

First uttered by Loki in the first Avengers film, these words are the culmination of his ambition to rise to what he believes is his pre-ordained right to power.  At the risk of being a spoiler, it doesn’t end well for Loki.

The use of the word ‘burdened’ is used (I think) because Loki really does feel like he’s obligated to become a king – to claim victory over as many people as possible, so he can feel worthy of glory and fulfillment.  In part, it is also an acknowledgement that achieving his purpose will come at a cost.

Glorious results

As is the way these days, many schools have been publishing their annual summer exam results on social media over the past few weeks.  Most have lots to celebrate this year – it’s been a bumper season after all – so why not share the fact that your results are the “best ever”?  In fact, some of the posts have been so fervent that one can’t help but wonder if their exam results were, after all, the achievement of that school’s ‘glorious purpose’?  You would certainly think so.  Schools have always been competitive, but we are living in an exponential age where schools seem to be leaning into their results averages more than ever.  For many schools, like it or not, exam results are both how they define themselves, and it is how they are in turn defined by others – it has become both their glorious purpose and their burden. 

I wonder how schools will celebrate next summer?  More best ever results?  I don’t think so, but I am sure schools will somehow find some way to spin out an impressive success story.  

5 levers

Attaining high averages, and doing this year on year, continues to be a considerable burden for students, parents, teachers, and schools; the expectation to maintain or improve results is stressful for everyone involved.  Indeed, so great is the pressure for some schools that they need to pull hard on a number of levers to keep their success juggernaut going.  Here are the top 5 levers (off the top of my head) that some schools use to keep the results flowing:

  • Lever 1.   You can increase your average by only selecting students who will be able to achieve the highest grades.  You can do this through short entry assessments, or through ‘interviews’, or by profiling student applications.  You can even make this appear transparent, fair, and equitable.
  • Lever 2.   You can increase your average by becoming so exclusive that only the most affluent parents can afford to attend your school.  This will also help make sure that your parents will have the resources to invest in additional tutors.  More tuition +  more exam preparation = greater advantage and success.  
  • Lever 3.  You can increase your average by reducing the choice that your students have to select their study options.  Students can be directed to take the subjects where they have the highest probability of success.  
  • Lever 4.  You can increase your average by removing or reducing superfluous activity that sits outside the academic programme.  There are so many distractions in schools these days, time that could be spent on additional study or test preparation.
  • Lever 5.  You can increase your average by building a stronger competition culture within the school community.  Remind parents, students, and teachers what ‘“success” looks like.  Reward high attainment through scholarships, public accolades, and awards.  Consider ranking students too – it helps to focus the mind.  

Pull on these levers and your school averages go up.  It really is that simple. 

Holistic success

Whilst there is nothing wrong with celebrating student’s exam results; many schools are equally committed (in words at least) to being more diverse, more equitable and more inclusive (DEI) – none of which are really championed by schools who use these levers to perpetuate their success.  Furthermore, the impact on students within schools configured to achieve exam results is more visible than it has ever been and there is an emerging narrative that suggests that such environments can significantly affect children’s mental health and well-being.  And with so much focus on exam success, there is also a growing consensus that not enough time is being directed towards what David Perkins calls “life-worthy” learning – learning that matters.  

Worthy Purpose

With this in mind, we might expect to see more schools pulling on these counter-levers:

  • Counter lever 1 – intentionally select students for diversity
  • Counter lever 2 – reduce access barriers (particularly to achieve the above)
  • Counter lever 3 – cultivate student choice and agency (particularly where young people want to follow their passion)
  • Counter lever 4 – hold true to your holistic education philosophy – focus on learning
  • Counter lever 5 – create a ‘best self’ culture

There are more ways to define success than school averages – we just have to get better at telling that story.  What we can not afford to continue doing is to allow exam success to hold DEI; mental health, well-being, voice, choice and agency to ransom.  Can we do better?

If I were to channel my inner-Loki, the God of Mischief, I do wonder if some schools out there would have the courage to celebrate their exam results going down – in the worthy pursuit of being more accessible, more inclusive and more diverse? Or might that a burden too far?

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