‘I’ve been to a land where teachers teach and students learn, free of the pressure of high-stakes exams’
For some who work in education, April really is the cruellest month. There is a select group of teachers in the UK who spend their Easter holidays laughing at the education secretary, arguing with the chief inspector of schools and falling out with Hollywood. I hear that there are a few who, weirdly, prefer to spend their time with their families, generally acting like Real People. Some of them don’t even tweet.
Me? I decided to do some teaching in New York City. I was recently awarded the first Zagat Global Fellowship at Riverdale Country School, in the Bronx.
Now, any mention of that infamous borough conjures up images of tough neighbourhoods riven with every possible social issue facing the city today. But look at the name of the school again, and you’ll see that it also references a more pastoral side to the city’s educational heritage and the need for young people to escape the city so that they could be more active, spend more time outdoors, and (hopefully) develop into more rounded young people as a result.
To some extent this urge to combine a robust physical education with a demanding academic course of study is a defining characteristic of English public schools, and its most coherent international articulation is found in the work of Kurt Hahn. And so although I have hopped over the Atlantic, the ethos of this school is not dissimilar to the schools in England that I have worked in and inspect.
Conscious of its privileged position, the school remains ever more committed to a view of the world which means its students actively engage with others, rather than being inward-looking and focusing on themselves, and their academic results, to the exclusion of everything else. A significant number of its students have their fees paid for by the school, and they come from all backgrounds, and from across the city.
Resilience and character
Riverdale’s philosophy has evolved to embrace resilience and character, and these ideas are put forward, in practice and in print, by the school’s charismatic and influential head, Dominic Randolph. The school is proudly forward-looking and committed to making positive change in the world, and this no doubt reflects not only the ethos of its founding principles but also chimes with the values of its faculty and the parents who send their children here.
And it is there in the teaching. I’ve visited lots of schools in the UK and the US, both state and independent, and the biggest difference I see between teachers in independent schools in both countries is that in the US the absence of high-stakes testing at the age of 16 releases space and imagination to teach in a more liberating way
I have even seen curriculum specifications being used in UK schools as a classroom management tool (the idea being that, for example, students are more likely to behave if you stress that the lesson counts towards 5 per cent of their final mark). This is absent in US schools where, admittedly, other pressures apply. Instead, the focus is on the learning, and its innate worth.
At Riverdale I have not seen or heard teachers emphasising tests, examinations and other summative assessment models once. Not surprisingly, I haven’t missed it one bit.
Dr David James is deputy headteacher (academic) at Bryanston School in Dorset. He tweets as @drdavidajames