And are we expecting too much from them?
I recently joined Clubhouse the new online social platform which focuses on audio. Essentially it allows you to go into ‘rooms’ hosted by others members to discuss various topics. One such room asked the question ‘Do our schools prepare our children for success?’ and that stopped me in my tracks is that the bar now? Are we being held solely responsible for the future successes of young people? And what do we mean by success? This then led me to ask the question ‘What are schools for?’ Much like the age old debate about the role of the state we find boundaries shifting.
It takes a village – but that village has got a lot smaller.
You may have heard the saying it takes a village to raise a child and that was all fine and well when we lived in tight knit communities where people shared childcare. But now in 2021 the majority of care is given by schools and immediate family. Over time more and more is added to the curriculum to often teach children many of the things they may have learnt in communities, through mentors, peers and role models.
The question is ‘Have we spread ourselves too thin?’ And whilst the government cannot control homes is it over inflating the responsibilities placed on schools because it can? And does that set us up for a fall?
Do we even know what the role of schools is anymore?
Nick Gibb attempted to answer this question in 2015 when addressing the Education Reform Summit. He argued that the purpose was, well broken down into 3 purposes.
Namely these are:
Economic – to ensure our young people have the skills and knowledge to succeed in a demanding economy through an effective and rigorous curriculum. In his speech he focused on Maths and literacy in particular.
Culture – Here he makes the sensible argument that we need to teach young people the basic tenets of the curriculum for them to engage in culture – for instance grasping the language to enjoy poetry and set free our imagination. But then things get a bit fuzzy as he quotes Matthew Arnold and making ‘all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light’ before talking about how much the arts have been invested in and the need to break down class barriers.
Preparation for adult life – here he talks about character education and draws on case studies from the KIPP schools in the USA who no doubt do incredible work.
To summarise he argues that schools have ‘Three purposes – empowering young people to succeed in the economy, participate in culture, and leave school prepared for adult life’ – and argues that these have consistently guided the programme of reform by the government.
Let’s take each one of these in turn:
Economic – this is probably the one where most school staff feel most comfortable so I’m not going to discuss it in any great length because this is not a blog post about the curriculum. But at a basic level we all agree that a rigorous curriculum that allows our students to participate in the economy and be positive citizens in it, is something we can all get behind.
Culture – What worries me here is that he seems fine with the assumption that a solid education will allow students to break class barriers. We all know that education can play a huge part but it is not the only factor. For instance I can try and break down class barriers as much as I like by educating students but if mass unemployment is still the norm for parents these class barriers will remain because the economic conditions of many of these young people will not allow them to prosper. Also if we have such a commitment to the arts why are they not core elements of Progress 8 like science English and maths?
Preparation for adult life –
There is now very clear evidence that schools can make a significant contribution to their pupils’ achievement by finding opportunities to instil key character traits, including persistence, grit, optimism and curiosity.
I have no doubt the above is true. But I also have no doubt that the home and the character showcased by parents and role models at home play a huge part in students future opportunities. And we can teach these in school but what students need is the ability to practice them in the real world.
Far too often I read reports about the skills young people lack to make them employable. Quite often the feedback is from middle ages business owners harking on about how the youth of today don’t have what it takes to be employed and they have forgotten what they were like as kids. Its natural, I’m sure you’ve heard your parents say how much better life was 50 or so years ago, yet none of us want to go back there. I have a friend that lives in Yorkshire and was, probably foolishly discussing Brexit with an elderly lady in her 80’s. She like many other people voted for Brexit because she wanted to go back to the good old days. When asked when this was she said the early 80’s. ‘You sure?’ asked my friend, ‘you wanna go back to the miners strikes when we experienced mass unemployment and families struggled to feed their young?’ She then proceeded to hit him with her handbag and told him to stop being so clever. The point I’m trying to make is it is a story as old as time that older generations think that youths of the time are less capable then they were. My experience shows me something completely different. I see young people able to navigate comples social relationships, online and offline, caring about the planet, open minded. What these kids lack is experience in the workplace to put these abilities to use and a chance. Let me ask you would you hire yourself at 16? Or even 18? I asked my husband this question two days ago and his honest response was ‘I don’t think I would have hired me at 22.’ My husband who often manages placement students in their second year of university has to teach them how to write emails, not because schools haven’t taught them how to construct emails but because knowledge without context doesn’t work. They have to know how to address different people in their organisation and that happens in the workplace not in school.
My worry is each time one of these reports come out, education ministers start cracking the whip promising to make qualifications harder, kids more ready for work through a corrected PSHE curriculum. I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote character in the curriculum. I’m saying it can’t sink in with the adjoining help of the community.
So given the above can schools ever fulfil their purpose particularly if the onus is placed on them wholly? My answer is no. We’ve all become too accustomed to pointing the finger at schools rather than acting like a village with schools, parents, local business and the government acting together to form an empowering tribe for our young people.
It takes a village.