Sunday, 15 October 2017

What IS an All-Round Education?

I’m not often stopped in my tracks by a question, so when I was recently asked if an ‘all round’ education was a way of saying ‘not-very-ambitious’ in any one area, I recognised a healthy and helpful challenge.

The work that James Heckman has done (see here) to demonstrate that what you learn at school which really gives you an advantage from an economic perspective are not the skills that are tested in an exam hall. Of course performance in an exam hall is important - it helps students (who want to) to go on to selective further education courses where they will acquire a wide range of useful skills. But Heckman also found that ‘non-cognitive’ skills, some of which pay off in the exam hall, like perseverance, play a much bigger role in the post school experience, fulfilment and ‘success’ of students.

So what does this have to do with ‘all-round’. In an all-round education, excellence matters, but not only in academic pursuits. That doesn’t mean academic excellence isn’t important - it is. But it means students are encouraged to pursue excellence in all things - academic (ie cognitive), athletic, aesthetic, affiliative.

The key here is that many of these pursuits are explicitly collaborative - and interdependent activity (rare, and not approved of, in the exam hall!) - prepares us for most of what we will do after school which will provide us with our fulfilment, success, and the other things our education is preparing us for.

Education which is all-round is no less ambitious - but it’s an ambition that manages the trade-offs between time spent in many different areas without simply allowing students to prioritise one simplistically above all others. It’s ambitious for outcome, and for process. And it’s ambitious for team, and not just for one’s own outcomes.

So, while the monocular judgement of schools’ success is merely the academic outcome, it fails to pick up so many important aspects of a school’s work, in developing confidence, a secure sense of identity, a breadth of thought, a capacity for leadership and teamwork, and an ability to be more thoughtful than a merely reflexive achievement-junkie.  The all-round education prepares young people not just to get into university, but to use their place, not just for their first job offer, but their first promotion, and not just for their economic effectiveness but also their personal fulfilment.


  1. I think the really interesting question is whether we should be trying, in relation to these characteristics, to measure students or schools. The current secondary qualifications are only crucial when you move from school to tertiary and/or employment. Once you have a degree or been in a job for a while they are largely irrelevant. They are, I would argue, the keys to a door, and they can almost be thrown away once you have opened the door.

    1. Choices always have to be made – you talk of trade-offs. Is prioritising one (or some) over others really “simplistic” as you describe. Most "all round" schools value sport over other areas such as the arts where the importance of having time for deliberate practice is just as important. If you want excellence in any area there is no short cut and by necessity some specialisation - which means allowing students to focus and give some things up - there just isn't time to do it all excellently. There is time to do everything mediocrely. I think schools are often disingenuous in proposing an all-round excellence. Excellence comes from high achieving specialists. An all-round liberal arts education is something different.

    2. The issue isn't whether an individual student does one thing or everything: the issue is whether the School as a community values one thing or everything. For some reason, valuing 360 degree excellence is interpreted by some as not being demanding of excellence.

      There is certainly time for each student to pursue academic excellence and do something else really well too. Some might manage academic excellence plus two other pursuits. In fact, excellence should be contagious - for some students they learn excellence in the cricket nets, or the music practice room, or in solving maths problems and then transfer the skills of excellence to other areas of their education.

      The key is that a school is both ambitious (encourages the pursuit of excellence) and adventurous (encourages diversity of pursuit). Neither strategy on its own prepares students well for life-after-school, but a combination is enabling.

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