Rounded and grounded; why extra-curricular activities matter

This week students and their parents nervously await A level results and the higher education doors they will unlock. It may well be a week of sleepless nights as families deal with the resulting potent mix of excitement and trepidation. Students whose hard work earns them excellent exam results should be proud of their success, but we must never forget that exams are just one measure of what a young person has achieved.  Those aspects of a good education that are least easy to grade can in fact have the biggest impact on a student’s life

In this rollercoaster of a week, when the difference between an A* and an A can feel like make or break, it is interesting to consider the recent remarks of the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) John Cridland, who argues that in fact ‘character and resilience’ are the crucial ingredients for success in the workplace. Mr Cridland holds that schools are too focused on exam results and  should do more to teach pupils resilience, humility, emotional intelligence, team spirit and how to go the extra mile – a more ‘rounded and grounded’ education in short.

For many educators this is a statement of the obvious; good schools have always adopted a more holistic view of education. They recognise the importance of providing not only a rigorous academic education but also the opportunity for young people to develop personal skills and character – and not just in order to do well in the workplace, as is the CBI’s priority, but in order to live life to the full.

Independent schools invest heavily in extra-curricular programmes, and for good reason. Time and again former Perse students tell me that it was the extra-curricular life of the School that, in shaping their characters, had the biggest impact on their careers. Long after O level knowledge was forgotten, the skills learnt on the pitch, the stage or in expeditions were helping Old Perseans thrive in their careers.

Extra-curricular learning is the perfect complement to classroom study.  Ensuring students have many and varied opportunities to participate in sport, outdoor pursuits, music, drama, debating, charitable fundraising, house competitions and many other out-of-classroom activities helps students develop team work, communication, resourcefulness, resilience, emotional intelligence and considerate self-confidence. Students who take on responsibilities for clubs and societies, whether organising the logistics of a camp or planning a charity fair, become more responsible, growing in confidence and stature.

The education that takes place beyond the classroom allows students to learn in a less structured environment free from model answers, contrived assessment criteria and restrictive syllabuses. In the extra-curricular sphere students do not just provide answers, they set themselves questions in the physical, artistic, and entrepreneurial challenges they take on. These exercises are often open-ended; students have the space to make decisions and own tasks, and many of the activities require genuinely high levels of team work, communication, and leadership.

There are no artificial A* caps on extra-curricular attainment. What is more, students who push themselves can experience the joys that stem from great success and learn how to manage the disappointments that come with failure. And of course extra-curricular activities are often fun; the pure enjoyment of playing a sport, climbing a mountain or performing in a play makes youth and school special.

I welcome Mr Cridland’s call for more emphasis on the development of students’ life skills and qualities, and that this should become a focus for Ofsted inspections. However, I end with a note of caution.  Inspections tend to be associated with minimum standards, national guidance and expected levels of attainment against which schools and pupils are judged. Such prescription could be self-defeating if applied to extra-curricular education, where the value of activities lies in their breadth and unstructured nature, which allows them to flex to the needs, interests and ambitions of the young people involved.

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