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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

These delightfully startling opening lines welcome the reader to Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. Set amid the turbulence and chaos of the French Revolution of 1789, the story and its teller set out a narrative of contradictions. Was it the best of times and the worst of times? Over the past week a number of events have brought this essential dichotomy into sharp focus at school. Well, they are of course the best days of your life, aren’t they? You know how it goes: you never had it so good; just wait ‘til you have to work for a living; think of the holidays. But think on, what are students experiencing, if not repeatedly then often enough, the teenage cocktail of confusion and identity questioning, where unsuspecting rebels-without-a-clue line up to collect their cause? They hear the virtue of a balanced approach to work at the same time as hearing remonstration about working hard.

They are told it is good to take time to get away from the books to be with friends but remember your revision. They are encouraged to “be yourself”, but it would be terribly helpful if your best self was some version of what I want you to be. We live life going forward but make sense of it in reverse. How many of us look back with a rose-tinted hue at the period of our adolescence? These past weeks more than most bring that to my mind. In correspondence with various parents over this week, quite a few explain how glad they are that the exam week is over. Quite right too. It is an unnatural moment in the life of the school which exists in suspended animation, all the same players take to the field but few move; corridors are still and a silence hangs around every corner while clock ticking marks the passing of days and Physics questions. Spare a thought for the GCSE and A Level weeks of exams.

In speaking with the students, I remind them that it is a marathon not a sprint. For some the challenge is to sustain the momentum over days where they have no exams and then to gear themselves up to the right pitch without being over anxious, the better to be in the right condition when the day arrives. And what pressure! University places hang on grades, there are social pressures to achieve and there is the desire to please domestically as well as the personal ambition to be their best. None of this is new, but there has never been a time in history where it has been so acutely felt.

Early this week the BBC ran a story about a student with several thousand followers on YouTube. She used her channel to dispense advice and encouragement to her peers who followed her advice on exam technique. She left her Biology paper in tears and went on to explain how she had “messed up”. This was more than frustration and disappointment, it seemed to go much deeper. I see this from time to time and am very concerned by it. We seem to have obscured two fundamentally different issues, that my performance and myself are not co-dependent. There is a world of difference between my result and my worth. My value is intrinsic to me, it is inalienable and regardless of how my life experience may make me feel about it, it is a universal constant. My results may go up or down, they may be helpful or not, they may be many things and they all contribute to my experience but, they do not affect my worth. There is an increasing tendency to connect performance with value. It is not enough to say I did not do well, there is a growing sense that my worth rests on my performance.

All of our children are worthwhile, all of our children are valued for themselves and are precious to the staff and to me. Each one is unique and individual. I am proud that we don’t compare them one to the other and proud that our focus is for each of them to be their best. I am also sad that I live in a world where unenlightened thinking shamefacedly espouses league table positions as the measure of success.

Results matter and as I have said in this place before, they are important. But to value them because they are something we can measure is to lose sight of what is worth valuing and beyond measure. For our children it is both the best of times and the worst of times, but for us as educators and for those with responsibility for stewarding our children and young people through the age of confusion to the age of wisdom, it is a far, far better thing we do now than we have ever done.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley

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