Developing the whole child: a holistic approach

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Nowadays it is common for schools to speak of educating the “whole child” and providing a “holistic education” for their students. They acknowledge that a successful learning environment is about much more than just the best possible academic results for every child. However, when considering the relative merits of a school and the quality of its educational provision, the main focus for parents can often be narrowed down to the relative grade attainment of their child and the competitiveness of this attainment compared to their child’s peers for entry to university. Looking at academic results in isolation is not always indicative of the full value that can be attached to the whole education that a child receives at school.

In the accreditation process for British Schools overseas through the Department for Education, an essential element of the inspection is a consideration of the extent to which the British character of the school is evident in its ethos. Schools are inspected against standards for the welfare, health, and safety of their students as well as their spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development. For example, they ask “How does the school enable students to develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem, and self-confidence?” and “Is the school effective in ensuring that students behave responsibly, show initiative, and understand how they can contribute to community life?”

It is essential for schools to develop the cognitive skills and abilities of each child and evaluate these regularly through the traditional approaches to assessment. Baseline testing of students in subject disciplines and measuring value-added over time to each child’s learning are measures used at the Alice Smith School to track a child’s academic progress. We also give similar emphasis to the broad range of qualities and skills outside of “academics” that are essential for individuals to have a successful life. We consider the ways we can support and develop our children to have a strong self-esteem and a positive self-image so that they have the motivation and confidence to take advantage of different opportunities, respond positively to challenging situations and deal effectively with difficult circumstances. We promote values and develop skills in our students which will help them to flourish and succeed in school and beyond. An important part of this is nurturing and developing creativity and curiosity in our young people, along with their resilience, persistence and perseverance.

Traditional testing allows a school to evaluate and report its students’ academic success and the effectiveness of its teachers’ performance. The mastery of content and skills against set standards provides the objective benchmarks of academic grades and attainment levels required for transition between schools if children move or by universities to compare students for offers of places in higher education. This information is also commonly used by parents as the measure of the quality and success of a school when comparing standards of education between schools. Less importance tends to be given to the affective domain i.e. the development of the whole child through a holistic educational experience.

As educators, we should be placing greater emphasis on how we can understand and assess each child’s personal development in essential life skills such as their level of emotional intelligence, their strength of character and their willingness to face challenges. The subjective nature of these qualities makes them difficult to test and track, but one could argue that they should be highly relevant in the assessment of the educational progress of each individual. This is something our school is working towards.

So what does a holistic education look like? How does this manifest itself in the ethos and culture of a school? Should a greater emphasis be given to this by educators and parents when we assign value to the quality of a child’s educational experience in school? For children to develop intellectually, socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, good schools do more than simply deliver a formal curriculum during lesson times in school The very best schools engage their students in an expansive programme of wider learning and enrichment beyond the boundaries of the classroom and adopt a growth mindset to developing the skills in young people that will enable them to flourish in life. The breadth, scope, challenge, and quality of these learning experiences in the wider informal curriculum, together with the care, attention and support for the positive wellbeing of each individual lay the foundation for a positive and dynamic learning environment for every child and a successful holistic education.

By Roger Schultz, Head of School
The Alice Smith School

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