'Time and again schools are asked to solve all of society's ills...'

...but with no extra funding. The government can't have its educational cake while eating it at the same time

Cake and eat it too

“You can’t have your cake and eat it.” That once-common expression is currently out of favour. EU representatives used it to warn the UK that we couldn’t both Leave and retain the advantages of membership. Ardent Brexiteers, most famously Boris, famously assured us that we could indeed do both. As the machinery of government stumbles into ineffectual meltdown, political cake, in general, has taken on a sour flavour.

Sorry to mention this in half-term, when weary teachers can actually sit down and enjoy their cake, rather than grabbing a mouthful on the move. But the image is pertinent to education right now.

UK society has always demanded crazily wide-ranging, even contradictory, outcomes from its schools, too frequently requiring them to solve all its ills. Currently, the accountability regime, never more rigorous, and the financial squeeze – so tight that even the pips lack the space to squeak – together make it finally impossible to maintain the pretence of having our multi-layered, multi-purpose educational cake and eating it.

This week education secretary Damian Hinds was taken to task for urging state schools to prioritise character education in the way independent schools do, equipping them with “public school confidence and resilience”. The idea is all well and good but if it's to be done properly, it will come with a very large bill attached. Time costs: if schools are to tuck into the cake of character, they’ll have to pay for it.

Next came a plea from MPs, reported by Rosemary Bennett in Tuesday’s Times, to give children a legal right to 75 minutes’ break-time in the school day. This echoes the chief medical officer’s view that children should be active for at least 60 minutes a day, but contrasts with Ms Bennett’s observation that “many schools believe that a shorter day and less time spent having breaks reduces bad behaviour”. 

If we want kids really to be active during the lunch break, we’ll need more staff on duty, not merely supervising but leading activities. Yet, with government and Ofsted breathing down their necks, how many schools will divert scarce resources to that? Who’ll fund that piece of cake?

Private schools have always known that the out-of-classroom life of schools is as important to children’s development – to their character, grit and determination – as what they learn in the classroom: their aim, by the way, is to build rounded personalities, not engender swaggering entitlement. They do it rather well, on the whole: but it costs – as they and their fee-paying parents know.  

Meanwhile, voices are raised for other changes – such as a later start to the school day for teenagers. To implement that would be hugely difficult, given the pattern of adults' jobs, how many parents do the school run on the way to work and the (inevitably) inflexible structures of school timetables. 

The latter problem also faces suggestions that we should tackle teacher shortages by making schools more open to flexible working. In the recent past I’ve criticised both calls as impractical, but nowadays I confess I suspect we need the courage to think the previously unthinkable. (I know, I know! I can hear the voices: “It’s easy for you to say now you’re retired.”)  

There’s so much we could and should improve. But when (a) there’s no money to implement change and (b) government won’t reduce its relentless pressure on schools, we can’t pause even to consider significant reform.

Harried and underfunded, schools have neither time, money nor energy to plan and implement root-and-branch change: the most they can achieve (and are constrained too frequently by policy-makers to attempt) is mere tinkering. Under these circumstances, society simply cannot have its educational cake and eat it.  

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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