I had the great privilege recently of attending the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Hull and after 9 years of waiting was there to see Arsenal win the trophy that all their fans, myself included, had so longed for. It was a fantastic day and one that will live long in my memory as I was able to share the experience with my son seeing his favourite team win a trophy for the first time in his memory.
This caused me to reflect a little on the nature of success. Arsenal fans have been very divided on the management of Arsene Wenger. Some want instant success and have grown ever more frustrated by the lack of trophies in recent seasons. For many success needs to be instant, needs to be bought if it does not come naturally and must come every season. The modern world so often demands instant gratification and if it does not come then they call for the head of those in charge.
Yet, there is a different interpretation. Over these 9 years and many more besides Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League and have never finished lower than 4th. For most teams this would be a fantastic achievement. It is made all the more remarkable by the way that during this period the club has also invested in what are seen to be outstanding training facilities and a new stadium which again is the envy of every other team. Strong foundations have been laid for future success; the club has done this without significant borrowing and with a good deal of style. It is clear that the club is being run with a clear vision in mind and that this is a long-term vision.
This got me thinking about how schools define success. The government’s view is very much to look at League Tables and to demand instant success. The impact of this has been to define success in education very narrowly, typically by the number of A*-C grades achieved including in Maths and English. There is no doubting that academic success is important to individual students and so in some respects one can understand this focus. And yet this sort of instant success can be very transitory. Some schools have achieved it by selecting much easier subjects, some by entering students in exams across the full range of exam boards in the hope that the elusive C grade is achieved somewhere; others narrow their curriculum and focus everything they do on these targets.
Yet, is this how we should be defining success in education? To me it is not. Someone once said that education is what you are left with when you have finished school. Exam results are certainly part of this but equally important are the skills and character you have been left with. Skills and character traits such as teamwork, collaboration, communication, resilience, empathy, humility are just as important as those results you are left with for it is these things which will define how you can ensure your own sustained success in the future. These are important not just in the world of work but in your personal life as well and will ultimately define how happy you are. A good education should also leave you with other lasting effects. This may be a love of Music, a love of reading, a passionate interest in a particular subject area which can help to define a career. Involvement in things such as the Duke of Edinburgh award might give you a love of the outdoors or your volunteering might have sparked a lifelong interest in helping others out in some way. The friendships you make will certainly add great richness to your life and most of us can think back to some of our teachers and understand the influence that they had on our lives which again is lasting. All of these things underpin lasting success.
Thus, I am proud of the way that Arsenal have defined success in recent years. Investment in training facilities is bound to help with the development of future successful players and the financial clout in the future will be the result of the investment in the new stadium. Such things will be the foundation of success in the future and just as it was on Cup Final Day it will mean all the more because of the way it has been achieved. Arsene Wenger has developed a long-term vision for the club which is hopefully sustainable. Schools too must lay similarly strong foundations – we aspire for excellence in all areas as this means that whatever a student’s interest we will be able to develop it. The appointment of outstanding teachers becomes vital too because these have such a lasting impact on all those that they inspire. We hope too that our excellent surroundings inspire those that work and study within them.
I often ask our ex-students what they feel that the School has left them with. No-one ever answers by giving me their exam grades. Instead they talk about the way that they feel the School developed their characters, or gave them a love of something or about the inspirational difference a teacher had made. Others speak of how a love of travel was inspired by a school trip or how they have continued with the sport that they started at school. These are all the signs of an excellent education and yet perhaps impossible for the government to measure. It is perhaps not surprising that the politicians focus both on the measurable and the short-term in that the 5 years between elections goes past so quickly. The successes I refer to here are much longer-lasting. However, I guess in the end there is a middle way because there is no doubt that good exam results lead to excellent university places and then to good, fulfilling job choices. Thus, a balanced education which strives for excellence in the classroom but which also focuses on so much more besides is perhaps the ideal. Thinking of it for Arsenal the new stadium, training facilities and the investment in developing young players will be all the more enjoyable if from this point forward it is also matched by the collection of a good number of trophies. Success breeds success and long may this continue both in my school and for my football club!