A recipe for academic achievement
In the sixth of our series of blogs about what makes Salisbury Cathedral School special, Rowen Gower considers five key ingredients for academic success.
GCSE grades are the first permanent marker of academic achievement assigned to our children in today’s educational system. Thirteen years of education are reflected in a single digit number which grades a child’s performance in exams, each of which lasts less than a morning or afternoon. It’s so much more than just an exam, that’s why the recipe for success in this important rite of passage has more ingredients than teaching and testing alone.
The Salisbury Cathedral School recipe for academic achievement includes excellent teaching (of course), regular low-key assessment, a varied and interesting environment, physical activity, and creative pursuits, all underpinned by a strong foundation of pupil wellbeing and happiness.
Let us consider the foundation for learning first: pupil wellbeing and happiness. Research has shown that ‘. . . children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social, and school wellbeing, on average, have higher levels of academic achievement and are more engaged in school, both concurrently and in later years.’ 1 Salisbury Cathedral School, is rightly renowned for prioritising pupil happiness through outstanding pastoral care2 and impressive breadth of co-curricular opportunity to ensure every child finds opportunity to shine.
Despite the increased focus on the importance of pupil wellbeing and happiness, as our society turns its back on the more rigid educational theories of the past, we need to resist temptation to over focus on these two qualities alone. After all, enjoying life does not in itself divulge the secrets of quantum physics or help understand grammar and algebra.
That’s where the other ingredients for successful academic learning come in. Next up, the classics: teaching and testing. When searching for staff, Salisbury Cathedral School is always hunting for something extra, a spark of joy or inspiration that can light up pupils’ love for learning alongside impressive qualifications and experience. Expert knowledge is also prized as pupils enjoy subject specialist teaching from Reception up.
Testing is the next vital ingredient. Often viewed as the opposite to pupil wellbeing and happiness, testing is suffering from bad press thanks to Government league tables comparing schools on SATs results alone. This has inadvertently created a top-down pressure which can filter down to pupils, and
the resultant stress can negatively impact academic performance. Unfortunately, this recent phenomenon has tainted the reputation of testing as a vital tool for teachers.
Mr Elford, Head of Teaching and Learning at Salisbury Cathedral school, explains, ‘the usefulness of regular testing, conducted with quiet professionalism, never diminishes; but the method of delivery is a fine art that can make or break a child’s educational journey. That’s why our academic rigour is largely unsung, and our comprehensive programme of regular assessment is a low-key part of everyday schooling, not a big event overshadowing other aspects of school life.’
Assessments are carried out with the over-arching condition of ensuring low impact on pupils. This means small regular testing as part of the everyday school experience. Behind the scenes results will be critically considered and used to fine tune each pupil’s academic path. The goal being to maximise the usefulness of testing while minimising potentially harmful stress.
The academic path at Salisbury Cathedral School develops gradually. From Nursery until year 4, testing is informal. During years 5 and 6, testing becomes increasingly formal with pupils given advance notice to prepare. After the test, pupils receive their results with individual feedback on how to progress.
Moving to Upper Prep, school years 7 and 8, pupils attend revision skills classes and are introduced to formal examinations as part of the Common Entrance process. From Nursery up, teachers meet regularly to discuss each child’s overall progress and ensure the right support and/or stretch is provided. In the older year groups, the increasingly formalised testing is balanced with ongoing informal academic review.
The Common Entrance process, in years 7 and 8, culminates in an exam week which is deliberately designed to reflect what pupils will experience at GCSE. After all practise is a vital element of preparation, and children who have experienced formal examinations prior to sitting their GCSEs will be better prepared. However, after a recent review, Salisbury Cathedral School has reconfigured its Common Entrance process to balance formal exams with vital life skills.
This means that key academic subjects, including maths, English, French and science, are assessed with formal exams; but other subjects such as history and geography are assessed differently. Pupils are challenged to work in teams to make presentations, and to prepare extended pieces of coursework which require them to develop project skills such as research and evaluation.
Once excellent teaching and regular testing is simmering, the recipe for academic success continues with a generous dash of interesting and varied learning environments because, proverbially speaking, variety is the spice of life and a change can be as good as a rest.
Salisbury Cathedral School is very blessed to have a beautiful and historic campus as well as a team of teachers unafraid to learn outside in nature’s classroom. Pupils are often found doing maths in the playing fields or reading under trees. Subject specialised classrooms also add interest and excellence to the school curriculum in science, art, and DT.
A generous helping of physical activity is the next vital ingredient in the mix. A combination of long breaktimes spent playing outside in the school’s 27-acres of green space, competitive sport, and PE, keep pupils moving. Pick up time is often full of muddy knees and excited tales of sports fixtures at home and away. After school clubs extend sporting opportunities to include archery, fencing, sailing and horse-riding among other pursuits. Keeping pupils active helps them switch off any academic stress and form new friendships founded on shared interests.
Creative pursuits - art, music, and drama - are the final piece of the puzzle, encouraging pupils to develop and value creativity. Ability to be creative, to stand out from the crowd, is a skill which enables academically capable children to reach the very highest grades at GCSE, and beyond, because originality can be the difference between average and excellent results.
Salisbury Cathedral School is particularly renowned for its music3 which is great news for pupils as the benefits of studying music to enhance academic learning is increasingly well proven. The discipline and independence required, to practise and negotiate lessons within already busy timetables, are vital skills for successful revision. Furthermore, the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ has been proven to make your brain grow.4
So there you have it, the Salisbury Cathedral School Recipe for Academic Achievement: take happy children and cover with excellent teaching and low-key testing in an interesting and varied learning environment. Regularly season with physical activity and creative pursuits including plenty of excellent music. After eight fun years, serve excellent Common Entrance results with lashings of highly prized senior school scholarships held by happy children with a life long love of learning.