A dependence on exam results is “brutalising” education systems and some parents are damaging their own children by putting them under pressure to achieve top grades, a world-renowned expert has said.
During a visit to the UAE, Sir Anthony Seldon, a British educationalist, historian and author, called for a reassessment of what is valued in the development of young people.
He believes far more importance should be placed on encouraging values that would lead to well-being and happiness later in life, rather than training pupils to pass tests.
He told pupils at Gems Wellington School in Dubai on Sunday that it was "not the end of the world" if they did not earn a place at the university of their choice and said he was concerned at the "colossal pressure" some teenagers and parents felt to secure a spot at prestigious institutions such as Oxford University, University of Cambridge or Princeton University.
Sir Anthony, who leads the University of Buckingham, joined the Gems Education group, which runs 46 schools in the UAE, as an adviser.
He said he was attracted to the role by the forward-thinking approach of the group, which he hopes to help make use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality in classrooms.
However, he said other education providers across the world were failing young people, by adopting a "factory schools" approach in which they were interested only in exam results.
“Around the world, there are misguided schools, that would reduce the whole of humanity just to your ability to pass exams, because that’s what the teachers or head teachers are rated on in many systems,” he told pupils.
“It makes them joyless, lifeless, loveless institutions where the arts, sports, leadership and volunteering are relegated because they’re not assessed.
“So many people prioritise job success and money, which they spend all their time boasting about, but actually success in life is about being happy.
"Don’t play the world’s game, make the world dance to your tune. Find out what you love to do in life, what gives you real deep joy, and go for it.”
Speaking to The National after he fielded questions from pupils, which included queries about university life and his 2014 knighthood, Sir Anthony expressed concern at the impact well-meaning but pushy parents had on their children.
“I think parents want the very best for their children,” he said. “But they worry terribly, ‘is my child at the right school? What happens if they don’t get an A grade?’
“Parents can damage children terribly by worrying too much about these things. For some parents, the story is too often about them, rather than their children.
"As a [school] head, it would always worry me where the parents wanted the child to be a mini-me.
“What I like about the Gems schools that I’ve seen, and know about, is that they’re doing much, much more. They’re getting very good exam results but they’re also doing much more to prepare people for the world of work.
"I want to be very clear that exam results do not guarantee success in life and they don’t guarantee happiness.”
His concerns echo the findings of a report published this year by Towards Global Learning Goals, an Abu Dhabi education network, which also hit out at an over-reliance on exams and said that many schools were failing to equip children with the relevant skills.
Sir Anthony, a former head of Brighton College and Wellington College in the UK, will act as an adviser to Gems Education for its British-curriculum schools in the UAE.
The schools will work on developing artificial intelligence for education purposes in partnership with the University of Buckingham, which is one of a small number of private universities in the UK.
“Sir Anthony Seldon has been a leading voice in the education sector for decades,” said Dino Varkey, chief executive of Gems Education.
“Our collaboration will focus on a number of areas, with a particular emphasis on artificial intelligence as we look to ensure our students are ready for the 21st century and a rapidly changing world. We are privileged and excited to have him on board and look forward to sharing Sir Anthony’s expertise with our students, parents and teachers.”