Earlier this year a revised draft of Keeping Children Safe in Education was published for consultation. This draft statutory guidance widened the scope of schools’ responsibilities regarding online safety; understandably given the dominance of the digital in young people’s lives. In doing so, it shed alarming light on the ever-increasing expectations of schools and teachers, in the absence of other "ethical" agencies.
The appendix dealing with online safety identified the key areas of risk, including, "being exposed to illegal, inappropriate or harmful material; for example pornography, fake news, racist or radical and extremist views". No one would deny that these categories are either illegal, inappropriate or harmful, but the implication was that teachers should treat them all identically.
Educationally, there is a world of difference between these categories. Schools are bound to help to protect students from exposure to pornography and many kinds of extremist views. But with fake news (and indeed some historical extremist views), surely it is the job of teachers to use exemplars in equipping young people with the tools to deal with such dangers.
Fortunately, the contentious list was omitted from subsequent versions of KCSIE, but it prompts thoughts on the spiralling expectations placed on schools and teachers in addressing society’s ills. This is an international trend, but in a new book the Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane observes that there might be a uniquely Anglo-Saxon dimension to the social role of schools.
'We rely on schools to teach character'
Macfarlane contends that in Britain and countries deriving their educational traditions from ours, the teaching of what we now call "character" was very early on contracted out by families to institutions. He points to a deeply-rooted tradition of sending young children of all social classes away from home to be brought up in service or as apprentices. Values, as well as skills, were learned outside the home. Over time, this responsibility transferred to schools. Unlike schools in continental Europe, which he says have an almost exclusively academic focus, schools in this country and across the English-speaking world were mandated to develop the whole person, ethical as well as intellectual. Sport, culture and character are central to English schools in ways not seen across the Channel.
The same applies in higher education. Historically, the English university experience is a rite of passage, typically involving a move away from home. On the continent, it was far more common to attend a local university and live at home. Typically, universities outside the English-speaking world tend not to prioritise playing fields.
Schools in the UK started with more on their plate, but recently even bigger portions have been piled on. Schools are expected to do more and more beyond the academic, filling gaps and covering for family and other (voluntary) social institutions, like clubs and religious groups. Online safeguarding is but one example of this trend, with anxious parents asking schools to determine how devices should be used at home.
Yet the increasing reliance on teachers in safeguarding the "character" of newly minted citizens has scarcely been reflected in any increase in the perceived worth of teaching as a profession. The status of teaching hasn’t kept pace with its growing social significance.
Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1