In assembly on Monday we celebrated National Poetry Day. We heard six different voices coming from six different locations around the Annenberg Auditorium, some uncovering hidden narratives, some transporting us to different countries, others simply giving us a perspective very different from our own.
The theme for this year’s National Poetry Day was ‘change’, and the first poem was a brilliant example of the power of poetry to alter our perceptions in just a couple of lines. ‘Mrs Darwin’, from Carol Ann Duffy’s collection ‘The World’s Wife’, gives us a new take on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution:
7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him –
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.
As I was listening to this reading, it struck me that Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ was published in the same year that Wellington College opened its doors to pupils: 1859. As I listened to students and staff reciting their poems on Monday, I thought about how much, and how little, education has changed during the 159-year life of the College.
The educational experience we aim to offer our students has changed significantly. We are preparing young people for a world that is changing at a rapid pace. As a community, we are working hard to develop the skills of independent thinking, learning and coping; we are finding ways to build resilience; and, through our global citizenship programme and our workplace connections, we have embedded experiential learning opportunities into our curriculum. During Monday’s assembly, we heard accents from North America and Northern Ireland; one poem was recited in Russian, another in Cantonese. This was a fitting celebration of how diverse our community has become and, as the final reading referenced Hangzhou, there was a reminder that we are part of an international family of schools, and a reminder of why they are important to us: they give us a global outlook, a global perspective.
There is, however, one aspect of education that has remained largely unchanged during the life-span of Wellington College: the public examination system. Public exams were introduced in England in 1858, one year before the College accepted its first students and, despite numerous reforms over the years, the papers and the process remain pretty much the same. At Wellington, we are committed to helping students achieve the best possible grades, but we also recognise the importance of choice, of independence, and of enrichment beyond the syllabus. All these things are important to us. So, when an opportunity presents itself to allow greater freedom, greater creativity, we are ready to seize it.
You may have seen reports last week that we have decided to remove the Common Entrance examination from our entrance procedures. For pupils applying for 2021 13+ entry and beyond, offers made in Years 6, 7 and 8 will no longer be conditional on passing the Common Entrance exam. The fact that three leading public schools (Wellington, Westminster and St Paul’s) have arrived at this decision simultaneously is no coincidence. For some time now, our feeder schools have started approaching us with plans to stop entering their pupils for many Common Entrance subjects. Our reaction has always been wholehearted approval with a desire to be as flexible as possible. In addition, our decision was made in direct response to concerns expressed to us by prep school heads about the sustained pressure on pupils between Year 5 and Year 8. We do not believe that it is healthy for pupils to be preparing for examinations at every stage of their education.
We are responding to the changing times – and the decision has attracted a great deal of interest. Many prep schools are excited about the greater freedom this change will bring and have welcomed the opportunity to design their own curricula in a way that better prepares pupils for senior school and beyond.
When we speak to business leaders and industry professionals about the skills they are looking for, they cite such skills as creativity, critical thinking and problem solving – and these words have come up time and again in our discussions with prep school heads and parents since our announcement last week. We are all moving in the same direction and, at Wellington, we are proud to be leading the way. As one Prep Head commented in response last week: ‘Where Wellington leads, others will undoubtedly follow.’
Our decision to remove the Common Entrance from our entrance procedures represents a radical change for some but, for the majority, it is a natural progression – simply the beginning of a new phase in the evolution of education.
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