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Regular readers of this blog will know from the last episode that we introduced a homework remission week every half-term in the Senior School, and it won’t come as a surprise that one of the ways younger pupils came up with to improve further their quality of life was to have even less homework. Their older peers point out that the current Lower School pupils, so those in Years 7 and 8, do about half an hour less each evening than their predecessors, but this insight fell on deaf ears. Well, we’re not likely to shift much but it’s nonetheless pleasing to see pupils of any age sharpening their negotiating skills on matters of import! However, I have been keen to see whether homework remission, designed to allow pupils a breathing space to do other things (read a book, for instance, or get to a play) or, for older ones, to catch up and consolidate, has also helped pupils to do some ‘expectation management’.

What do I mean? Well, it’s not surprising, if schools set entrance tests and offers places to those who do well in them, that those who take up those places make assumptions: they will assume that what got them the place is what will get them success in their chosen school; ‘coming top’ would seem to count, and so they embark on their school career with test results and class or year positions in mind. If coming top is elusive (and sometimes even if it isn’t) they will work harder and harder to meet those expectations. If their own efforts don’t produce the goods, their parents get worried (who wouldn’t?) and look to supplement the school diet with tutor supplements, and, well, what happens to childhood?

So, the message has to be, once a child has reached our Junior School or our Senior School, leave the experience of 7+ and 11+ behind you. You won’t be facing another entrance test to transfer to the senior school, and the sixth form threshold is years away, and a safety threshold rather than an opportunity to re-compete. We don’t need to be measuring and reporting your week by week, month by month, term by term attainment. Of course, we want you to make progress, and we’ll keep a close eye on how well you’re grasping new content and retaining it, on how you go about working in class and at home, so that we can give you the advice, encouragement and prompting any child needs, and so that teaching  is re-calibrated to take account of what you do get and don’t get. What we want is your enthusiasm, your willingness to do things because you’re fired up and curious because in that way you’ll tap into discretionary effort and work harder than you probably need to (and we’ll keep an eye on that, too). We will be careful to keep at bay language which suggests that you’re good at one thing relative to another: our expectation is, based as it is on experience and knowledge, that you can and should be good at anything and, by extension, given time and encouragement, everything!

My wonderful Junior School colleagues express this a lot more simply and attractively: no glass ceilings, they shout! At which point, a sharp, creative junior mind points out that the lovely Junior School building does have some glass in its ceilings, and off they scoot to explore the unpredictable, creative highways of the pre-teen thinker. So, no glass ceilings, no stereotypes about what girls or what boys are thought (wrongly!) to be good at, no hierarchy of subject values, no preferred destinations to shape and limit a child’s potential: this is the Highgate recipe for keeping childlike curiosity alive and a-thrive. If that message is lost in the midst of entrance test data – and why wouldn’t it be? – just hang on in there and believe it: a parallel perhaps with the General Election? We needs must have elections and campaigns, but we shouldn’t conduct good government as though it were an election, so it is with entrance tests: they’re not meant to determine how we spend our childhood!

A Merry Christmas to you all, and fingers crossed for a wonderful 2020!