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Here's a question: Why do we bother with schools?

I have had the privilege of interviewing many candidates for secondary teaching jobs over the past 20 years or so, and on more than one occasion it has been the answer to my first question that has helped those of us on the panel make our final decision.

We'll hear fantastic answers to questions about assessment, skills, what makes a good lesson and brilliant insights into teaching and learning. There will be cleverly prepared responses to searching questions about targets and data and, of course, the inevitable promises about commitment to after-school activities. People will have a question to ask at the appropriate moment and they'll be ready with a compliment about what a lovely school it is. All good stuff.

But the question that invariably seems to throw people, the one that they seem least prepared for, yet for me is absolutely fundamental and is the one I always ask first: why do we bother to teach your subject in school?

Perhaps I feel this is so important because my own subject is modern foreign languages and this was a question put to me on more than one occasion. Although able (I hope!) to justify it with reasoned argument, my first response to the question "Why do we have to learn French, Sir?" was often "Well, why do you have to learn anything in school?"

It is not such a flippant answer, however, and my experience of seeing some very well qualified and talented teachers flounder over this question in interviews is at best interesting and at worst quite a concern. It is not altogether a surprise, though, for it is so rarely asked.

The equivalent question for a headteacher at interview is, I suppose, "Why do we bother to have schools at all?" I have to say, I have never been asked that question and I am not even sure how often I have actually reflected on it. I wonder how often anyone really considers it at that most basic level, but I would like to suggest that now is the time.

It is a question that needs to be asked frankly and openly across our communities and it is most certainly not a question for teachers and politicians to answer alone. Parents, employees and, of course, young people in particular need to share their views. We are in a time of considerable upheaval. It seems that education always is, I know, but this time there is a harder edge.

Comments are being made about comparative standards, budgets are extremely tight, schools are changing radically across the country, and not always for the best of reasons. Jobs are hard to find, crime appears to be on the increase. Unless we return to this fundamental question, we run the risk of failing more young people. And unless we in schools can be absolutely clear as to our purpose, we will continue to be seen by some as second rate. We will end up yet again paying lip service to initiatives, and playing the game of improvement rather than actually tackling the problems.

I am not suggesting for a minute that schools are no longer required. In fact, I am confident that such a debate would result in the conclusion that they have never been so needed.

And I don't doubt that each and every one of us could pretty quickly draw up a list of the purpose of schools. Here are just three random ones: keeping young people off the streets, plugging the gaps left by poor parenting, ensuring youngsters get as many qualifications as possible regardless of their real value so they can compete with their peers and make our school look good ...

I hope I may be forgiven for playing devil's advocate in an effort to stimulate debate, but the truth is that all of those issues have played their part to a lesser or greater degree, and for very understandable reasons. But I doubt we feel comfortable with any of them.

The issue is, of course, priorities. Initiatives such as the 21st Century Schools programme and other more recent developments address only certain aspects. One of the great things about Wales is that we are the size where a debate of this nature could really happen, and happen right across the country.

We need to listen to what our society expects and needs from its schools. By embracing this most fundamental of all questions in education, which we quite simply do not currently do, we could come up with some radical suggestions and solutions and perhaps be a world leader, instead of being subject yet again to the perception that we are the poor relations who end up following our neighbour over the Severn Bridge.

England certainly hasn't got it right. There's plenty of talent in Wales to suggest that we can.

John Kendall, headteacher, Risca Community Comprehensive School, South Wales.

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