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Embracing community values while appreciating individuality

A colleague was telling me recently that one of our most successful and impressive senior students, who joined us in the Third Form a few years ago, had never done an exam before his Whitgift entry. Of course there are plenty of ways this might happen (Middle Years Programme, home schooling, other country’s educations systems…) but it must be unusual, and the particular student concerned seems not to have suffered one bit: he’s done superbly well.

Anyone who comments on schools (and most people do) comes across ‘exceptionalism’ quite often. You hear people saying ‘well I/someone I know did x or y (or didn’t), and it turned out very well’, and this is often used as an argument for getting rid of, or not, certain systems. My colleague didn’t, and the boy hasn’t, but you can almost hear some people extrapolating from this example: ‘see! Exams aren’t necessary! This student turned out ok without them!’

We are all the time in schools, though, navigating ‘exceptionalism’: trying to set up systems universal enough for everyday clarity, flexible enough for individuals to flourish. We don’t (luckily) tend to have too many arguments about hair, say, or uniform, or qualification to do certain courses or activities, but you can see how difficult they might be, especially in this individualist age. I was stung early on in my career, when, as a Head of Modern Languages (somewhere else!), I decided a particular pupil was not advanced enough to enter the stream of pupils who took French GCSE a year early. His parents were so cross that they entered him anyway, privately, and he got a top grade. Understandably, I was convinced by the sympathetic but pragmatic Head that I’d have to move him up a set. What, I asked, if everyone behaved like that? Fortunately, he said, they don’t.

Should everyone conform, whether to an exams regime or to what may seem unfair rules? Part of the answer is courtesy, the ritual, as Kenneth Clark wrote, whereby we avoid hurting other people’s feelings to boost our own ego. It is courtesy – going along with what others have reasonably set up, even if you would ideally not want to do it – which underpins school rules and conventions, which doesn’t (I hope) stifle individuality, but oils the wheels of community, and which is a virtue we stress often and strongly.

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