The extra-curricular challenge – Emma Taylor, Head of Christ College, Brecon

23 Oct 2013

As the Inspecting Officer approached the First Aid stand at the CCF biennial inspection, ever louder groans were emitted by the ‘casualty’ whose leg oozed copious quantities of stage blood, and whose dramatic work clearly owed more to disaster movies than to Shakespeare. A senior cadet stepped forward, saluted and confidently explained to the officer what was being taught. These young people were clearly having an enormous amount of fun, while at the same time learning practical skills and gaining in confidence, both personally and as a team.

Any measure of education that makes an assumption that what goes on in the classroom is essential, while other activities are peripheral, an optional  bonus, fails entirely to take account of how many, if not all young people learn best, and indeed of the skills and qualities they will need in the world beyond school. Indeed, the term ‘extra-curricular’ is a misleading one at best; activities such as sport, music, drama and outdoor pursuits are a core part of what is on offer in independent schools, and particularly in the boarding environment, where so many extra hours in the day and week are available for the pursuit of skills and activities that promote much wider learning and character development than can ever be achieved in a narrow school day.

Sometimes these other contexts for learning can produce a breakthrough even in the most academic areas of a pupil’s development. On a recent trip for 3rd Form (Year 9) to the First World War battlefields, a colleague tells me she was delighted when one of our boys, who finds History difficult in the classroom, came rushing up to her, having found the name of a former pupil in the Book of Remembrance at Tyne Cot cemetery, and tracked down the inscription to him among the 35,000 names recorded there. This young man, son of an Army family, had shown that he could access and retain key facts, search for relevant information in a densely packed original source document, and apply his discovery in order to find the name of his school forebear among the thousands inscribed on that monument. How much longer would it have taken him to learn exactly the same skill in the classroom with a textbook, and how much less enthusiastically or permanently would he have established that particular skill in his repertoire?

Such learning opportunities present themselves in the most unexpected places, and some of the very best learning is done when pupils are unaware that they are doing just that. And it can be almost taken as read that there will be plenty of opportunities of all sorts in a boarding school. So how to choose between these schools? Well, in the end choosing a school for a child is a match-making activity, and parents will want to know whether the activities on offer outside the classroom are likely to pique the interest of their particular child, or to build on an existing talent.

One way of finding out more about what a school cares about most is to ask for a copy of the prizes presented on Prize Day. Forgive the dreadful pun, but the school prizes are a clear indication of what the school prizes most. At a prep school where I gave away the prizes recently, there were prizes for citizenship and endeavour, as well as a wonderful prize for ‘Thinking outside the Box’ – I bet there and then that we would hear of the young man who won that one in the future! In my own school our breadth of interest results in prizes for debating and choral singing as well as outdoor pursuits and service to the community, in addition to all the usual academic prizes.

Many schools also build their reward systems around some of the activities that happen outside the classroom, so that pupils are recognised publicly for excellence in sport, music, drama and leadership in the form of school colours or in some of the interesting diplomas and baccalaureates that schools are developing to encourage and reward breadth of interest and involvement.

Einstein is said to have written: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’ Exam results can be counted, of course, and they do count; they are critical for future success. However, so are initiative, creativity, leadership (and ‘followership’), courage, determination, kindness and much more; these things may be learned in the classroom but much more so, in my view, in the many and varied activities and opportunities offered in boarding schools. Some of the most rewarding moments in my career have been when a pupil, perhaps a rather unconventional pupil, finds his or her niche; as a theatre technician, perhaps, or a crack shot, or a persuasive debater. Finding such a niche in the school community establishes enthusiasms and expertise for life and often affects a pupil’s future choices significantly.

For all these reasons, and for the sheer fun and camaraderie gained by ‘doing things with friends’, the so-called ‘extra-curricular’  life of a school should really be seen as  central to  what it offers.

Emma Taylor, Head of Christ College, Brecon


Christ College – Brecon, Powys