What is school’s role in society?

The more we argue that schools are pivotal to improving society and mopping up social problems, the more politicians will expect them to do more, writes David James, who calls for a reality check
13th December 2019, 12:04am
How Important Is School?
David James


What is school’s role in society?


How important is school? That sounds like a very easy question to answer. If, like me, you're a teacher, you might be inclined to say that our work is fundamental to shaping individual identity and that by believing this, we add greater meaning to what we do. Surely, no work can be more valuable.

That belief seems validated by everyday experience because, so often, we witness turning points in children's lives that are life-affirming and, we believe, transformative. As the old advertising slogan goes, teachers make a difference.

To believe the opposite - that school is of marginal importance - immediately undermines everything we are trying to achieve. It's a difficult enough job as it is; imagine doing it if we felt we were having little or no impact?

In more than 20 years of teaching, I have yet to meet a teacher who is ready to admit that, in the great scheme of things, the overall influence school has on an adult's life is relatively negligible.

The same would not apply to some other professions: lawyers and doctors can clearly see the differences they make, guilty or innocent, dead or alive. Conversely, we all know people in other professions who would make no claims for their work being of fundamental importance to human development. They do their job because it pays the bills and, if they enjoy it, then that's a bonus. Other professions seem to have parameters of expectation that teachers are denied.

Most people do not burden themselves with such an unachievable aim as having to transform the lives of hundreds of complex young people every day. If we are set such goals (by others and ourselves), no wonder so many teachers burn out and leave the profession, and so many have low self-esteem. We need to reassess what we can achieve and focus on doing that very well rather than trying to do the impossible and (inevitably) seeing anything other than unqualified success as failure.

So perhaps we should begin to re-evaluate how important school is. After all, what can we accomplish in the time we have? Students have to attend an English secondary school for at least 190 days in 12 months. There are, roughly, 6,000 waking hours in the year. This means that if they leave school at 18, then they will have spent about 18 per cent of their waking hours in school. Independent schools - and especially boarding schools - have more time with their students, but much of that is spent on co-educational activities rather than lessons. Even so, all schools have access to their students for only a fraction of the year.

For those who oppose independent schools, the time spent in such institutions is of enduring importance. They argue that it is because many of our leading politicians went to Eton, Westminster or Harrow that our country is in the state that it is in: riven with class divisions and facing high levels of inequality.

The reality is, inevitably, more complex. The inconvenient truth about these claims is that such a position is transparently too self-serving and filled with endless variables. Other factors, including social class, race, religion, gender, DNA and choice of university contribute to an individual's development. And, of course, such political reasoning does not take into account the many people from the same schools who commit themselves to good causes that seek to eradicate injustice, not entrench it, or the many thousands who go on to live quiet, happy lives of unremarkable contentment.

So many activists, including teachers, subscribe to the view that a school can be a crucible of privilege because to think otherwise - that it isn't and nor can any school be - leaves us with difficult questions that those on both sides of the argument do not want to ask, let alone answer.

'Dress-up box of good intentions'

For Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter and co-author of the 2018 book Social Mobility and its Enemies, the role that schools have in shaping society has to be reassessed. For him, "Schools do an amazing job counterbalancing the increasingly wide inequalities outside the school gates, but we have completely unrealistic expectations on education being able to solve all society's ills."

We now see schools moving into areas of social support that they are not designed to meet: providing wraparound care, breakfast and supper clubs, welfare and emotional support. As Elliot Major puts it, "the school-life boundary is completely blurring". And, as more strain is placed on a system, the negative difference that schools make - for example, for the 20 per cent of teenagers leaving school with only functional numeracy and literacy - cannot be avoided either.

So some schools might be playing an increasingly central role in their pupils' lives, but that does not mean this is desirable, nor that the outcomes will be positive.

The work done by the Sutton Trust on social mobility is undoubtedly useful in exploring apparent discrepancies between state and independent sectors. But is the success of those independent schools an illustration of an unequally weighted system or, as Sutton Trust chair Sir Peter Lampl argues, evidence that there is a "need to address the patchwork of higher education guidance and support" that currently exists in state schools?

Perhaps it is in areas like this, rather than on narrowly defined academic outcomes and value-added scores, that teachers can make a difference to people's lives. The problem is that schools are increasingly mopping up social problems, and at the same time being asked to produce a highly educated workforce for the future. The more we argue that schools are pivotal to improving society, the more politicians could expect schools to do more.

I remember watching the late, great critic A A Gill talk to several hundred teachers at an educational event. He asked the audience if we had been happy in school and about half of us said we had been. He then asked us where we found the most pleasure in school: inside or outside of the classroom? Overwhelmingly, the teachers said they enjoyed school for the times when they were not being taught. It was an odd, awkward moment: hundreds of teachers admitting that they did not enjoy their own formal education.

Does that suggest that school is not the profoundly formative experience teachers claim it to be? Gill branded education "a dress-up box of good intentions, swivel-eyed utopianism, cruel competition, guilt, snobbery, wish fulfilment, special pleading, government intervention, bureaucracy and social engineering". For him, schools were the enemies of promise, places where happiness was largely absent. It is an unfairly bleak view, but one that is remarkably pervasive in debates on education. Importance does not automatically equal enjoyable.

It sometimes takes a non-teacher to ask us some questions that we do not even want to think about, let alone discuss as a profession. In his book Blueprint, the geneticist Robert Plomin asks another deceptively simple question: "How much do differences in children's school achievement depend on which school they go to?" The answer? Not much. For Plomin, average differences between schools "mask a wide range of individual differences within schools". For him, the quality of teaching is not unimportant, and if a child is happy in a school then that can make a difference to their wellbeing, but their educational achievements remain relatively unaffected. Plomin writes that "inherited DNA differences are by far the most important source of individual differences in school achievement and …schools make … little difference".

Rewriting false narratives

Such statements challenge us, as teachers, to think very carefully about what we can achieve every day. There is no doubt that, for some, such words can be profoundly unsettling. But, for two very different commentators, Gill and Plomin are surprisingly close in their vision of schools: both want them to be places where young people can learn to enjoy learning, and develop essential skills in literacy and numeracy. But both start out from different positions: one deeply personal, the other highly empirical.

No doubt many would agree that lessening the workload of teachers and students so that the sole measure of success is no longer examination results would improve the quality of everyone's lives. Furthermore, by resetting our expectations as teachers about what we can achieve and what is beyond us, we might begin to rebalance our own understanding of how much difference we can make. As Elliot Major told me, "We need a national debate about what basics we want all our children to leave school with." Achieving those basics on a wider and deeper scale could be, in itself, transformative for children and society.

With a more refined and clear understanding of how far our influence can reach, we could reposition the profession as something with a more achievable set of outcomes. That would require a fundamental change in perception from parents, students, policymakers, senior leaders and teachers, the last group of which would probably be the most difficult to change. Because although this may feel like an acceptance of a reduced status, it is only because what we expect of teachers is currently unrealistic and, ultimately, unachievable.

School is important, but it should not be viewed as the defining influence in someone's life. If it is, then that tells us a great deal about how unbalanced society has become. It also, perhaps unintentionally, removes agency from adults, as they begin to discover what their futures can be - and that understanding who you are, and what you want, can take considerably longer than your first 18 years. To keep adults anchored in a past of success or failure, to promote the idea that everybody is the product of their school days, which they cannot escape, is a dangerous and limiting myth.

We need to challenge such false narratives. Schools need to be brought down to a more human scale and placed in greater social and temporal contexts. This is not an admission of defeat. It is, instead, an overdue call for others to understand the increasing demands made of our profession and to share in our ambition for our children.

Schools can't do it alone. In accepting this, and by relegating them to something closer to the reality, we can begin to bring some necessary balance to teaching, which in turn could restore some perspective to how we view the role that teachers can play in everyone's lives.

David James is deputy head (academic) of an independent school in the South of England. He tweets @drdavidajames

This article originally appeared in the 13 December 2019 issue under the headline "How important, really, is school?"

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