The true measure of a school is its past pupils

28th May 2010 at 01:00

It is interesting to see our recently elected Prime Minister referred to so frequently as an Old Etonian. I think it is fair to assume that this is generally used as a shorthand way of emphasising his privileged background, but it does raise further questions which are worth considering.

If school does make a difference to an individual's whole future, not just in terms of the bunch of certificates and qualifications awarded but also in terms of career success and achievements in adulthood, as well as general well-being and happiness, why don't we make more of it?

Indeed, why are its pupils' later lives not even used as a performance indicator, just as examination data, absence and exclusion rates are (with the proper adjustments made to reflect value added, naturally)? You could argue that it is even more important.

Schools are frequently poor at embracing that part of the community which was once their bread and butter - the former pupil. Private schools tend to be better at this, but it is all too often a case of trying to raise a bit of money from somewhere or getting the ex-pupil-made-celebrity to present the cups at Prize Day. And yes, we often meet pupils-turned-parents at the Year 7 Open Evening who go through the staff list to see who is "still here".

The prospect of somehow monitoring progress beyond the final set of A-level results or whatever seems, at first, very daunting. But wouldn't it be interesting - wouldn't it, in fact, be useful - to know where those pupils are in five, ten or 20 years' time?

The point was made very clear to me at a small reunion last summer, when I met up with nearly every one of the pupils to whom I had been a form tutor in my first five years of teaching in a Northamptonshire comprehensive. They are now in their 30s, and I had not seen them since they were 16 and I was 29. None had become the Prime Minister - in fact, none has been so foolish as to enter politics - but each and every one of them had made a success of their lives. Some had even had occasion to use the French and Spanish I had tried to teach them.

It was a privilege to talk with them after such a long time. Their characters had scarcely changed: the shy were still shy, the leaders still leading, the late ones turned up late. But the fact that they were successful, friendly and happy people meant much more to me than I had realised it would, and far more to me than the GCSE results which, in truth, I have long since forgotten.

Changes in the way we live now, in our world of Twitter and Facebook, mean that keeping in touch with past pupils in both an informal way, but also as a means of evaluating our impact on people's lives, is becoming a great deal easier. Care needs to be exercised and teachers must, of course, beware of the pitfalls and dangers of social-networking sites. But they are full of such-and-such high school's "Class of '89 Reunion" group pages and so on, and I am sure similar experiences to my own have been enjoyed by many teachers.

Whether this is just the chance for a casual chat, to remember old stories, to finally admit that you were the one who hid the board rubber that time in RE, or whether schools go further in how they use these possibilities remains to be seen. Real data relating school examination performance to financial or career success, the current basis for which seems to some extent to be anecdotal, or evidence which relates interventions in key stage 3 to subsequent adult well-being, for example, would be both fascinating and useful. However, I realise this is not as straightforward as it sounds: data would be sometimes hard to substantiate, subject to privacy legislation, and its interpretation would be complex and difficult.

Success in life is incredibly hard to define or quantify, and it would be even harder to ascertain what part the old school - or, indeed, schools, for we need to include all phases here - played in achieving it. But there are undoubtedly people who have left school with few or no qualifications, who have gone on to achieve great things in their lives, and who would be the first to thank their old school for its guidance and tuition - just as there is a man who has reached the top job thanks no doubt in part to the education he received at his alma mater.

I can't help thinking that taking more of an interest in our past pupils would help us in developing how we work with our current ones. It might even make us rethink a few basic things in education, which I hope we would all agree is more about a preparation for life than just for examinations - however important they may be.

John Kendall, Headteacher, Risca Community Comprehensive, South Wales.

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