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What does success look like?

At a recent school assembly, I asked our pupils what they would want to have happened in their lives by the age of 25 for them to view it a ‘success’. As a headteacher I probably spend more time than most thinking about the importance of aspiration and working hard to achieve goals. We want our pupils to be ambitious for themselves and to have optimism and confidence about the future. But I recently found myself considering how we decide what these personal goals look like and how we measure success.  

I tried to imagine what my own hopes would have been when I was at school. I’m fairly sure I’d have said that I wanted to get good GCSE and A level grades, to go to a top university, get a good job and buy my first flat. I’d like to think that I’d have also mentioned things like having good friends and enjoying my hobbies but I worry that my answer would actually have been very narrow. It was reading an interesting newspaper article that prompted me to look at two books that pose some timely questions about the measures of success in today’s society: ‘The Tyranny of Merit’ by Michael Sandel and David Goodhart’s ‘Head, Hand, Heart’.

In schools and homes across the country we encourage children to work hard so that they achieve good academic results and can go on to be successful in their adult lives. So suggesting that a meritocracy – a place in which people progress based on ability and talent, rather than on class, privilege or wealth – could be ‘tyrannical’ probably seems a bit odd. How can achieving success through hard work and ability be tyrannical? Sandel’s arguments are too complex to explore here but one strand he pursues questions whether we have become overly focused on intellect and academic qualifications as the ways to define achievement and make progress in society.

The author of the newspaper article described a visit to Cuba 16 years ago and a conversation with a university professor. At the time, the country was under Fidel Castro’s leadership and the university professor was moonlighting as a tour guide because he couldn’t survive on the salary he received as a professor. The journalist wondered how the less well paid survived if professors earned so little. In response, the professor explained that, along with many other occupations, academics were at the bottom of the earnings scale. In a country where the state controlled salaries, work that was viewed as “intrinsically privileged and interesting”, such as being a university professor, was considered in need of no additional incentive. Following this rationale through, the highest wages were paid to people who did tough, manual jobs such as street repairmen. These unpleasant, exhausting jobs that involved working long hours in difficult conditions were the ones that were financially rewarded. 

It is an interesting illustration of an extreme situation but it made me consider whether our generally accepted views about those skills that should be most highly rewarded by society in the UK are correct. At the start of lockdown, headteachers across the country received the list of ‘key worker’ jobs so that we knew which pupils (the children of key workers) would be coming in to school during lockdown. We could all have made a sensible guess at some of the jobs that would appear on the list – doctors and nurses were obviously front of everyone’s minds at the time – but the list was much longer than we might have expected. Those who were needed to keep society functioning ranged from care workers, postmen and binmen to supermarket workers, delivery drivers and many more. A significant proportion of the list were roles that might have been perceived as relatively low status and that are certainly not financially well rewarded. How had we lost track of all the different elements of society that work together to keep our lives functioning, to care for us, to feed us?  In a time of crisis, we developed a newfound appreciation for many previously undervalued members of our society but will this be temporary or will it shift the way we view success and accomplishment longer term?

David Goodhart’s book divides human aptitudes into three areas: Head (cognitive), Hand (manual/craft) and Heart (caring/emotional). His observation that we need all three elements for a successful society seems like common sense, but both he and Segal note that we have focused so much on the knowledge economy and our cognitive ability - how intelligent we are - that we have forgotten the value of both the hand and the heart.

We know that our pupils at St John’s have a good amount of the ‘head’ aptitude. They have a level of intelligence and ability that means they can pursue the academic benchmarks that our society deems key measures of success for young people – their GCSEs, A levels, and the degree courses that the majority of them will progress onto when they leave school. There’s no question that they should remain aspirational about these goals because achieving these markers of success can open doors and create opportunities for them to pursue their dreams. But I hope that we also achieve a balance at St John’s which brings in the heart and the hand. 

We take seriously our role in creating a rounded education that recognises there is much more to successfully navigating your teenage years than simply achieving a good set of exam results. Talking to our pupils this month, I reminded them that some have exceptional levels of emotional intelligence; they recognise how people are feeling without it being spelt out or they can predict how interactions between people will play out. Equally, others amongst them have exceptional ability to construct, to paint, to create, to apply their skills in a practical way. There has been much discussion about how artificial intelligence might change the future workplace and it is possible that aptitudes of the heart and the hand will rise to the fore. Whether it plays a role in their future careers, or contributes to a happier and more fulfilling life, I hope our pupils celebrate aptitudes of heart and hand, in both themselves and in others, just as much as they acknowledge their intellectual and academic achievements. Perhaps it is time for us all to broaden our definition of success. 

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey