What price success?
In a recent issue of The Times Educational Supplement, maths teacher Jonny Griffiths recounted a conversation he had had with a highly achieving but anxious A level student who had approached him (again) for advice about his studies. Seeing how anxious the student was, and knowing how counter-productive that can be, Jonny encouraged the student to try not to worry so much about his grades, finally saying, ‘what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?’
The story was picked up by the blogging community and quickly led to a storm of protest by some who felt this squashing of aspirations was ‘typical’ of those in the state sector who encourage their students to lower their academic sights and settle for less. Politicians weighed in with the same complaint, comments extending even as far as the Secretary of State for Education.
Having counselled numerous students over the years – particularly very bright, motivated but sometimes overly anxious girls – I am with Jonny 100%. Of course we want our pupils to aim high and achieve their best. We want them to set for themselves, and work hard to reach, ambitious but not unrealistic targets. But if this striving for success makes them so anxious that this actually impedes their chance of success, their health (including their mental health) suffers and they end up miserable, it is perfectly acceptable to remind them that high grades, and a place at the most sought-after and competitive university, isn’t the be-all and the end-all. Cambridge and Oxford AREN’T for everyone, and sometimes students who are intense and prone to anxiety will not thrive in this rarefied environment, so encouraging them to keep their options open, and to see that there is a life and a world beyond their coveted university place, is sensible. I suspect that as a head in the independent sector I could get away with saying this far more easily than some of my state sector counterparts.
More of us should have the courage to say it.