Funny how on its own, a word like grammar can be perfectly innocent, but like certain chemical weapons, combine it with another, equally innocent, word like school, and you unleash poison on a truly devastating scale. As a professionally objective educationalist, the chemical warfare that accompanied news that grammar schools might make a reappearance prompted me to look beyond the lurid layers of political interference that have characterised educational discourse in the West for decades, to re-ask that most fundamental question: what are schools for? Because I have little doubt that, while the UK spends £30.3 billion annually on schools alone, it does so without any consensus on the answer to that question.
The closest the Department for Education gets to an answer is to say, "We work to achieve a highly educated society in which opportunity is equal for all, no matter what their background or family circumstances." Which is curiously modified on its Facebook page to "Our vision is for a highly educated society in which opportunity is more equal for children and young people no matter what their background or family circumstances." One could debate the subtle differences at length.
More significantly by far, outside any hyper-attenuated discussion that will have preceded an individual civil servant actually signing off those words, neither view has much currency. Voters have other ideas. In the minds of the general public, schools now fulfil every imaginable role, from nanny to jobcentre. They have become the dustbins, not the drivers, of ideas.
Schools as formal institutions, physical locations where parents sent their children specifically so that other adults could teach them, have a long history and emerged in cultures and regions as different as Classical Greece, Ancient China and the Middle East. But what they had in common, even schools as different a madrasa or a 19th-century Irish hedge school, is of far more significance than how they differed. However technical or philosophical the focus of the lessons, whether it was the art of war or love being studied, schools were driven by the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
Mankind’s innately ignorant relationship with the physical world starts to unravel with the emergence of schools. Schools trigger the desire in individuals to know and to understand. It’s no accident religions across the globe have been key providers of education for centuries and remain so today.
What those fortunate enough to be educated in them do with that knowledge and understanding, how they choose to add to the sum total of mankind’s inestimable wealth of wisdom, is ultimately their choice. Schools can’t, in themselves, change anything. And that is the fundamental fallacy that has dogged educational policy-making and fuelled political interference in education for a generation. The truth that schools can change individual lives: has morphed into the lie that schools will change society. Caught up in a cross-party zest to pursue equity, schools have lost sight of the more important half of their purpose: that highly educated society the department says it is equally keen on.
So today almost any kind of UK school you care to look at, elite boarding or coasting comprehensive, is more concerned to demonstrate its credentials in the pursuit of equity, than knowledge and understanding. This is especially bizarre when you consider that one of the first things for any child to understand about the physical world is that it is neither equitable nor fair. Nature nurtures just long enough to make sure you are lunch for something else.
For decades now, schools have naively and meekly embedded what are essentially politicised messages about their purpose, with minimal, if any challenge to that new political orthodoxy. So they extend the range of their activity to embrace everything from sex education to dieting, from drugs to social media misuse. Simultaneously they increasingly allow their place in the employment food chain to determine everything they do, and apotheosise school-wide exam success at the expense of individual pupils’ freedom and choice. The utilitarian view of education as every government’s plaything, provided it’s in the cause of a better society, has swamped all trace of the private citizen, free to pursue knowledge and understanding as they see fit.
The side-effect of this homeopathic dilution has been to weaken their purpose so much that parents, even those of markedly differing social class, now regard schools not as the triggers and drivers of knowledge and understanding, but as an opportunity to abdicate their own responsibilities. With every new social dilemma that comes along – radicalisation, sexting, legal highs – it’s immediately assumed schools should pick up that responsibility.
My work has taken me into a school where the headteacher told me the only reason any parent would visit the school was to confront and hit a teacher, another where a head had lengthened the school day as much as she possibly could and said she wished she could make the school a boarding school, because the more time the kids spent away from their families the better. I’ve heard two headteachers in green and pleasant rural Britain instruct architects bidding to build them a brand new, shiny school, that no signage was to be put up anywhere in the school grounds because most of their parents were illiterate and they did not want to discourage them from coming onto the site. I’ve heard a head tell me when a new girl joined his school, the man accompanying her, nominally her father, didn’t know her first name.
The least this suggests to me is that for many children in the UK today, school has become their parent in every sense but that determined by a birth certificate, the nanny state incarnate.
Besides the £30.3 billion on schools, the UK spends a further £47.6 billion on education not defined by level. How much of that, one wonders, fuels the catalogue of external organisations now providing the additional expertise schools need to bring in, to fulfil the overwhelming range of responsibilities they have naively taken on? Mission creep on this scale, and with so few voices sounding the alarm, can result in only one thing, failure. What use is equal educational opportunity if the education on offer offers such narrow horizons?
No surprise then a small army of Ofsted inspectors has been bolstered by a team of eight regional schools commissioners, also tasked with improving schools. They will be busy indeed. Against the backdrop of history, the real reason many UK schools will continue to be branded coasting or failing is because, as a nation, we have collectively forgotten what they are for.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author