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'Schools are not the silver bullet to fix all of society's problems'

We badly need some perspective when it comes to asking schools to solve society's ills – teachers already go above and beyond their remit. It's time for a society-wide effort, writes ASCL's Geoff Barton

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We badly need some perspective when it comes to asking schools to solve society's ills – teachers already go above and beyond their remit. It's time for a society-wide effort, writes ASCL's Geoff Barton

I have a document on my laptop labelled, pithily, "Schools should". Into it, I cut and paste the newspaper stories and press releases I read that urge schools to add something else to the curriculum. They often contain in their first sentence the phrase "schools should".

Here’s a few examples of what I mean:

  • Jayne Dowle in the Yorkshire Post urges (then) education secretary Justine Greening to rethink the policy on work experience.
  • Science practicals in schools are boring and irrelevant, and children should instead conduct real experiments which relate to their lives, says the head of the British Science Association.
  • Former England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio suggests that Ofsted should inspect schools for the fitness level of their pupils as much as for their academic achievements.
  • A government-commissioned review recommends that children should be taught about the importance of the armed forces as part of the national curriculum.
  • A group of 44 Tory MPs calls for school pupils to be taught the benefits of marriage.
  • TV and radio presenter Fearne Cotton calls for schools to put yoga on the curriculum in a bid to boost mental wellbeing.
  • Secondary school children should be taught more about organ and tissue donation, NHS Blood and Transplant says.
  • Campaigners urge the government to do more to support left-handed pupils.
  • Naps should be timetabled for secondary school children, according to a study by the University of Delaware.
  • Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, believes financial literacy should be built into the core curriculum early in secondary school.

I suppose we should feel partly gratified by all of this. These regular exhortations show that for all the swirling negative stories that can characterise coverage of education, our schools and colleges are still regarded as the optimal place for making the world better.

And while readers of this column may agree or disagree with the merits of the specific recommendations that I have listed above, I am sure they are all made with the best of intentions.

Schools have limited time and resources

It is just – and this is the obvious point – a great deal is already expected of schools and they have limited time and finite resources. And when push comes to shove, I suspect that most parents would agree that teaching children English, maths, science, geography, music and the rest, with some good opportunities for sports, arts and enrichment activities, really is the core job of schools.

And there is a deeper point here. There is a sense – and it goes much wider than the examples listed above – that schools can address all of society’s problems; that they are the silver bullet, the magic wand (insert your own cliché here).

The government already turns to schools to provide social mobility, social care and a bulwark against extremism, and it does so while relentlessly raising the bar of a crushing accountability regime. It’s to the credit of schools that they perform these multiple roles with determined professionalism.

But we badly need some perspective. Schools cannot solve all ills alone. Social mobility, to take one example, requires a determined society-wide effort. The most disadvantaged areas need more decently paid employment and family support services. Schools can and do play a crucial role but they cannot turn around the tanker of disadvantage without a programme of social and economic policies that restore hope to these areas.

And schools, of course, also need improved funding and sufficient numbers of teachers to enable them to fulfil all that is currently expected of them. These vital resources are in desperately short supply.

So, there is a job for government to do. But we also need a society-wide change of gear about what is expected of schools; an end to the tendency to make them the default solution for every challenge. I would remind those who want schools to do more of John F Kennedy’s famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Just substitute the word “schools” for “country” and you have got the point.
 

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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