The Purpose of Schools

Throughout this perplexing time in education, ever since that surreal moment in March when we closed (but didn’t close), I’ve been knocking around a kind of theory. It goes something like this. Where schools have invested heavily in community, in relationships with parents, in creating an outward-facing culture, they have generally risen to the challenges faced. On the flip side, schools that have put up the barriers and gates and shut out those around them, those that rely on a national accountability regime to find purpose, I would argue that they have generally struggled to find an identity.

I was therefore overjoyed when this very unempirical hunch was given some credibility in a brilliant exchange between Matthew Taylor and Sir Anthony Seldon on Radio 4’s Moral Maze. I was driving the family down to Spain and catching up on some of the episodes. One of the benefits of modern technology is that you can be listening to something via the BBC Sounds app whilst your teenage children are hooked up to their own stuff, oblivious to the boring rubbish that Mum and Dad are listening to. However, they might have been a bit disconcerted when they saw me bashing the steering wheel and shouting ‘Yes!! Yes!!’ at the sunflower fields to my right. This was a direct result of their discussion about the future of education.

I say exchange of views – Taylor and Seldon were basically agreeing. And, dare I say it with a hint of arrogance, they were also agreeing with me and many of the themes of this blog.

Their points went something like this.

That schools should be civic institutions with significant local autonomy. They should be actively seeking solutions and responding to their local communities, not awaiting the latest national diktat to be told what to do. They should look outwards and liberate staff, not constrain. Teachers should be trusted and not be bound by excessive accountability.

Schools that embraced this attitude were the ones that responded best to the pandemic shock, leaving others caught in the headlights, frozen as they awaited someone to tell them what to do.

I just can’t agree enough. Ever since becoming a headteacher, I have looked to my community as my accountable body. That’s not equivalent to doing as it says, or pandering to its wishes. It’s more of a collective thing; if they know that the leadership of the school is open, trustworthy, purposeful and collaborative, then there is a positive dynamic. Because all we do is for the benefit of the pupils and their families, a culture of ‘we’re all in this together’ results. In such situations, you can get through anything. Including a worldwide pandemic.

But if your only accountable body is the DfE, or Ofsted, what happens when they cease to exist? Or their measures of accountability do, as has now happened, albeit temporarily. Well, your whole modus operandi is compromised. If the whole purpose of your school is to look good to some bureaucrats in city-centre offices, then how do you find purpose when they suddenly disappear?

It may also be the reason that private schools have improved their reputation during the crisis. With parents paying significant sums of money, they expect their school to respond pro-actively and creatively, not sit around waiting for someone from London to tell them what to do. Private schools are often the most innovative and forward-thinking educational institutions we have though I accept they have many other advantages that make it a whole lot easier.

My school might be in the tenth most deprived community in England (IMD 2019) and one that faces huge challenges, but I try to convince myself that the parents are paying for their child’s schooling. I always ask, what if they were? We’d want them to be so satisfied with their decision to choose us that they would speak highly of the school in the local community. I think we’ve generally succeeded as a result.

And yet I know of schools that are hated in the community, but praised by the system, at least until March. I think this is why Adonis and others got so angry as they gradually realised just what they’d created. Is this what we really want for the future?  

So it’s only a hunch, but I’m going for a positive conclusion here. This crisis may present an opportunity, one that I now know both Taylor and Seldon agree with (it’s great to know you’re not alone). Let’s return schools to their communities, devolve the autonomy locally, empower teachers and school leaders to serve these communities innovatively and creatively. Let’s come off our addiction to national strategies and national league tables and national standards. It seems even more sensible once you accept that the country has never been as divided as it is – national comparisons are about as useful as a canoe in the desert.

If things are going to change, it has to be this year. It’s like having a free hit in cricket – you can’t be out.

A free hit. Now that’s a positive message to take in to the summer holidays.  

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