Our Culture of Perfection

I read with interest this week an article written by the Headmistress of the Lady Eleanor Holles School on the topic of perfection.

A lot of what was written really resonated with me and what we have at St Martha’s. We live at a time when everyone is striding towards the same thing and in educational terms this means the A*.

The problem is that in this culture we can lose sight of the individual students we have in front of us in the classroom. I am a firm believer in the fact that my school is full of individuals and they should feel that they are treated as individuals. The danger of this obsession with A*s is simple – not everyone is able to secure them! But because of this, those students who do not secure them feel like failures and I am not in the business for setting people up for failure.

Like many schools, St Martha’s is not really an academically selective school. Yes we have an entrance test but that simply allows us to gauge their current level of attainment but for me I place equal weighting on the reference from their current school and how they interact in an interview with me. If we think about entry into Year 7 it is really potential that we are looking for because pupils and students mature academically at different rates and they also need time to perhaps find the academic disciplines that play to their strengths.

I often think about what it would be like to work in a school where the primary function was churning our as many A*s as possible every year. I imagine what this would do to the confidence and self-esteem levels of the students and staff in that school. I also think about those students who would get lost in an environment like that or perhaps even be cast aside because they were not conforming with the norm of that school. I also think about those students whose talents and strengths lie beyond the classroom – maybe on the sports field or the stage and who require a little more assistance in the classroom.

We all know that these schools exist and I do know that this type of environment is right for some students but as a parent you would need to be supremely confident to put your child through that. Every school has students who will secure the top grades because their ability and talent demands it and it is vital that they are celebrated but I will still get excited by the girl who secures a higher grade that neither she or her parents expected whether that be a C,B,A or A*.

Maintaining a sense of perspective is vital for all of us. Examination grades are important and allow our students to begin the next stage of their education and development but we should also be advocating the acquisition of those essential life skills that universities and employers speak so often about. My mantra to the staff and students at St Martha’s is to be the best that they can be. A key part of this is knowing when something is good enough as well as developing an understanding that sometimes a B or A is normal, fine and not the end of the world. Perfection should mean different things for different people because without this we perpetuate the belief that some of our students are failures and I know that none of mine are.


Matthew Burke, Headmaster, St Martha’s School

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