Royal Grammar School


Happy or successful? Or can we be both?

Happy or successful? Or can we be both?


I came across a strange debate on Twitter this week (yes! You can follow me: @bernardtrafford).

It centred on that same old dichotomy: must schools always concentrate on getting children through exams? Or is their main purpose to allow (to teach, even) children to be happy?

As the argument raged I was saddened. Are some schools so driven by government pressure that results are indeed their primary concern? The answer may well be yes, especially if the school in question finds itself under the government/Ofsted cosh.

Surely the welfare/wellbeing of the children in our care is the first and vital focus of a school? I’m in no doubt that it is at the RGS.

But that doesn’t mean that the school doesn’t set out to help boys and girls get the best exam results of which they’re capable. In our particular corner of Jesmond, we certainly set out challenge our students intellectually: when it comes to the exam years we are then called on to provide immense levels of support – academic, pastoral, emotional – as they drive themselves to achieve lofty goals, seeking the strings of A and A* grades required to achieve places on competitive courses at top universities.

That certainly creates pressure, and this summer period is a stressful one for many students as they seek to fulfill their (and, to be fair, frequently their parents’) aspirations. 

Not all stress is bad: students need to be keyed up to some extent to perform at their best (it’s the same for athletes or performing artists). What we must help our exam candidates to do is to keep that stress within manageable limits, to aim high but not beyond what they can achieve and to develop the necessary resilience both to keep going when things are tough and to cope with failure if it occurs.

Resilience: character; grit; those words are interchangeable. And they represent the vital element that we must help girls and boys to develop.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not, of course. We’re doing a lot of work on this and on other aspects of emotional wellbeing (EW), and you can expect to hear more about it in the coming weeks and months (not least in my formal Address on RGS Day, Saturday 27th June – 11am in the Main Hall). 

Meanwhile, at a time when society, emerging from economic downturn, is desperately seeking to encourage success, it also needs to protect and nurture its young people who will emerge from school into a changed world. It is helpful neither to wring hands hysterically and talk up a crisis in schools, nor to create false dichotomies between academic achievement and happiness.

Both wrong approaches should be shunned while schools focus on the real opportunities and challenges, identify the problems and work on the solutions. 

We can do it: we just need to be a bit more grown-up and sophisticated about how we proceed.

Bernard Trafford