The Easter holiday, and perhaps the space for thought and rest it affords, gave rise to more than usually optimistic headlines in last week’s TES magazine. How cheering to read Tom Bennett: “Paper trails hide what truly makes a school”.
He reminds us that the accumulation of knowledge and (too often) regurgitation of facts are but parts of education, more measurable but less important than the host of personal interactions, and all those wonderful opportunities beyond the classroom.
The best schools have always taken education beyond the formal end of the school day: as Bennett insists, there’s so much more to schools than schooling.
That brings us to the government’s latest wheeze for extending school hours. Jonathan Simons, former head of education in the prime minister’s strategy unit, warns that it’s “a drawn-out affair”. He notes the difficulties of spending the offered funding on third-party providers if schools aren’t in walking distance of those providers: “Beneath the treasury largesse,” he concludes, “it’s things like hall space, insurance and school buses that make policy fly or sink."
Kris Boulton, head of key stage 4 maths at King Solomon Academy in central London, states boldly that “no one utters the word Ofsted in my school”. The secret to a school that makes a difference is finding a meaningful common purpose rather than striving to fulfil an imposed set of ideals in order to be great: “If your vision for your staff and school is to be Ofsted outstanding, shame on you.”
Kris would be critical, then, of schools fingered by another report: “Ofsted to penalise schools for gaming league tables.”
He’d be right. Unless… what if you find yourself under Ofsted’s cosh? What if you have a cohort of students who start so far back that to achieve the progress measures demanded is simply impossible? “Poverty is no excuse," policymakers repeat the mantra like parrots. Unyielding and intolerant, ministers and the Department for Education are in a drive to raise standards and make everything world-class.
The aim is laudable, but the strategy is deeply flawed. Massive structural reform through academisation; unrelenting pressure from government; the dismal failure of education secretary Nicky Morgan to inspire or offer comradeship; these factors combine to demoralise schools, teachers and their leaders and push them into making those wrong choices that are so easy to criticise in print.
Inviting bids to fund an extended school day in order to help schoolchildren develop “character” or “grit”, as the government did in the Budget, misses the point. Not every school will get the money – not every school will be able to make use of it.
It’s a piecemeal, sticking-plaster, headline-grabbing stunt.
Schools succeed in extending the offer to children both in terms of hours in the day and the range of activities available only when teachers go the extra mile. That old tradition, somewhat unique to the UK, continues in places. It’s a distinctive feature of independent schools: but it must not become their exclusive preserve.
In their professional (let alone their personal) lives, teachers need space from chasing targets, planning lessons, marking work and chasing targets again: then they can find time and energy to pursue their extracurricular enthusiasms with their pupils.
It is powerful beyond words when pupils see their teachers in different guises: the maths teacher who runs a football team; the English teacher who doesn’t just teach Shakespeare, but puts him on stage; the science teacher who helps the kids build a car.
Have such role models disappeared into the mists of some legendary golden age? Not all, not yet: but their number won’t grow during swingeing cuts to school budgets under which, contrary to government rhetoric, teaching staffs shrink, teachers are harried and children’s opportunities are crushed.
The contradictions within that single edition of the TES accurately reflect the educational world we inhabit. There are great human beings working in schools who yet defy government’s utilitarian pressure and paper trails.
But government policy makes it harder all the time for them to maintain that inspirational, vital work.
Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal