Education is about more than just high marks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 3:44pm

My eight-year-old son is not very academic, and struggles with his schoolwork. Even though we have spent lots of time reading to him since he was small, and helped him with his schoolwork, he achieves below average test scores, and makes comments about how he is in the bottom groups in maths and English.

Thankfully, education today is not just about test results that have a narrow focus. Schools that measure a child's success by academic ability alone have become somewhat outdated. Educators are increasingly aware of the importance of recognising and developing personal, social and emotional intelligence as the basis of developing vital life skills.

Our students' employment prospects will depend more and more on their problem-solving abilities and critical-thinking skills. But as parents and teachers, our job is to help them reach their full academic potential. It sounds as if you are rightly concerned with giving your son the best possible chance of academic success.

Each child is born with different inherent strengths. The key to your son's future success is his self-esteem and confidence to face challenges and changes as they arise. It is important to tap into his interests both inside and outside school. I hope his school offers a wide curriculum, giving him opportunities to shine in other ways.

I have taught children who are highly academic but have poor social skills and few, if any, friends. Then there are children who are not very academic but have strengths in other areas such as sports, arts or drama. Some also show a high level of initiative, are creative, and can think out of the box or display leadership skills.

Of course, there will always be a need for academics who can deepen our intellectual understanding of the world, and it can be hard for parents to see their children struggling, especially if they are academically inclined themselves. This may lead to high expectations.

Try not to put too much pressure on your son or transfer your anxiety or disappointment about his academic achievement, as children do not learn as effectively when they are stressed. Putting pressure on children can be counter-productive.

Recent research has suggested 'character' can be more important than academic ability for life success

It can feel like a near-impossible task to get it right, but a wise parent will let their child develop in their own way. Continue to support him academically and read with him frequently. Being able to understand a wide variety of texts is at the centre of many academic subjects.

The fact that your son is commenting about being in the bottom groups at school may be an important talking point with his teacher. Discuss your concerns about his self-esteem and see if there are ways in which it can be boosted in class - whether celebrating things that he is good at or perhaps giving him opportunities for extra responsibilities or leadership roles.

There can be a seven-year ability gap in mixed-ability primary classes of children of the same age. Teachers sometimes group children in order to differentiate work, ensuring they are both challenged and working at the appropriate level. However discreetly this is done, students key into these things easily and are often surprisingly aware of their ability level.

Recent research has suggested "character" can be more important than academic ability for success in life. It recognises the importance of stretching the mind and increasing brain capacity rather than a narrow focus on exam results, which are still all too often achieved through rote learning and memorising facts. Qualities such as social intelligence, curiosity, perseverance, resilience and, most importantly, optimism are seen as vital for future success.

This fits with the recent shift in focus to a more cross-curricular approach with an emphasis on creativity and problem-solving. Teachers provide opportunities for students to work together and learn to co-operate in different ways. They recognise the need for students to effectively communicate the thinking behind their findings and use a range of media to aid and present their learning.

Academic qualifications do not necessarily make you a more successful, or happier, person. Enjoy your son for who he is. Give him plenty of opportunities to develop his strengths and interests outside school.

The most important thing is that your son is happy, self-confident and well adjusted. He will make his own path in life.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school