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Culture Comes Before Curriculum

The Head of Rye St Antony considers priorities in maintaining a healthy and effective learning environment
Central to personal development is surely being loved and respected and learning how to give love and respect in return

For nearly a quarter of a century successive governments have made league tables their principal tool for measuring school performance, and while the league-table mentality has been satirised and denounced as far back as 1854 by Dickens in Hard Times – the tables hold us in thrall, the absence of evidence of their value notwithstanding.


Biographers often note, usually with a mixture of pride and amusement, their subjects’ lack of distinction in their school years. Perhaps it would help parents, teachers and all involved in education, pupils not least, to realise that it is the exception more often than the rule for examination rank orders to match profiles of subsequent achievement. High-functioning adults, secure in their own wellbeing and contributing to the wellbeing of others, will have their roots in a significantly richer and more complex soil than that of their school studies and their mastery of examination technique.

Central to personal development is surely being loved and respected and learning how to give love and respect in return. Love and respect need to underpin the culture of school as much as the culture of home. Young people who know themselves to be loved and respected and to have a sense of purpose – a purpose in which they believe and which is affirmed by others – will then have the energy, motivation and confidence to explore and discover the world – the physical world and world of the mind, emotions and imagination.

A happy and purposeful learning environment, a can-do culture and a setting in which learning is exciting and can be undertaken in the fair expectation of success – these are the distinguishing features of a flourishing school life in which wellbeing is genuinely ‘of paramount importance’ and from which will emerge young people of stature and potential who are equipped to take their place in the world, able not just to manage their own lives but to support and guide others too.

George Eliot in the final paragraph of Middlemarch gives us the model and inspiration of her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, a woman made wise by age and experience, and making her mark not by the glamour and drama of her youthful ideals but by the ‘incalculably diffusive’ effect on those around her of the ‘unhistoric acts’ that leave things ‘not so ill with you and me as they might have been’ and that nourish ‘the growing good of the world’.

Contributing to ‘the growing good of the world’? Not a bad vision to which to aspire.

- Alison Jones, Head of Rye St Antony, Oxford