'Schools are constantly being asked to do more with less – they can't solve all of society's issues alone'

Extra duties come with extra costs and next week's budget needs to include additional funding for our schools, writes one teachers' leader

James Bowen

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In the past few weeks, we have heard calls for schools to start teaching pupils about immigration, mental health and even yoga. 

This is nothing new. Teachers have become used to being tasked with addressing some of society’s most intractable problems. Whether it’s financial literacy, community cohesion, sexual health, the national obesity crisis or the 2012 Olympics legacy – it would appear there are few societal problems to which schools are not the answer.

Leaving aside the rather obvious question of exactly how schools are to find the time and resources to add these topics into an already packed curriculum, there is the more profound question of exactly what schools and teachers should be responsible and accountable for when it comes to educating our young people. 

The role of the teacher has always been about far more than the just the inculcation of academic knowledge. Teachers know only too well that they have a vital role to play in terms of a child's broader personal and social development.

However, continually stacking up additional responsibilities on schools (as worthy as they may individually be) is unhelpful, can cause a range unintended consequences and may even be counter-productive. This becomes exacerbated when such expectations become attached to our high-stakes accountability system. 

The duty on schools to teach British values acts as a prime example of this. Aside from a tiny number of high-profile exceptions, schools have always been places where tolerance, mutual understanding and inter-community cohesion have been promoted and celebrated. Teachers didn't need to be told to do this by the government – they instinctively saw it as an integral part of their job.

'Jumping through hoops'

However, since it has become something that schools are specifically held to account for, they have felt an all too familiar pressure to gather "evidence" in order to be able to prove that it is happening. Policies have been produced, photos gathered and displays mounted in order to demonstrate to the powers that be that schools are meeting this latest in a long list of duties.

The frustration felt by schools is not so much that they have these broader responsibilities to their pupils, it's that they are forced to constantly jump through hoops in order prove that they are meeting them rather than just being trusted to get on with the job. 

Schools cannot be expected to solve these deep-rooted issues alone. They need to sit within a network of support services that work together to meet some of the biggest challenges our young people face today. When it comes to areas such as supporting pupils’ mental health, access to highly trained specialists is an essential part of the jigsaw.

Teachers do so much more for their pupils than help them to achieve academically, but let's not make them responsible or accountable for single-handedly solving all of the challenges facing society today. 

Whilst schools are prepared to step forward and play their part, they are constantly being asked to do more with less. And at a time when schools are being forced to reduce staff and narrow the curriculum, their capacity to take on more is seriously hampered. There is no getting away from the fact that additional support for pupils of this nature requires additional resources.

If the government expects schools to continually expand their remit, then they have a duty to fund them adequately and to recognise that extra duties come with extra costs. Next week’s budget provides an ideal opportunity for the chancellor to do exactly that. 

James Bowen is director of middle leaders’ union NAHT Edge. He tweets @JamesJkbowen

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James Bowen

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