The Penny Drops

The responsibilities taken on by schools are, to use a familiar adverb, rising exponentially. The pandemic might just be exposing how much society relies on them, particularly those serving our youngest children. Ever the optimist, I just wonder whether the penny is dropping. It’s true, as my colleague @OldPrimaryHead said in a recent blog, that some ‘heads are still in the sand’, but it might be the case that the longer this pandemic goes on, the more chance we have to bring this to people’s attention. So I’ll stick with my optimism. Let me explain.

Let’s face it, for the past few weeks there has not been much else for children except….well…school. Indeed, for some of my pupils, there has been little else since March 23rd, the day when so-called vulnerable pupils came and took up lodgings.

Oh, there was so much wailing and gnashing in teeth back in April and May. So many of these vulnerable children were not attending school, instead hidden from society. Images were painted of some of the most dreadful things happening to these children – all because schools were closed, so the argument seemed to run. It was almost as if their plight was schools’ fault!!

The fulminations ran into June when it became clear so many pupils were not engaging in online learning, unable to access a laptop or concentrate. The chattering classes imagined a cornucopia of abuses taking place whilst recalcitrant schools continued to shut up shop (even though they were open).

Even if you accept this narrative (for the record, I think it’s a clichéd and ignorant view), what is true is just how much society relies on schools, especially primary schools. And especially those located in areas of multiple deprivation. Has this pandemic lifted the middle-class politico commentariat from their latte-infused slumber, helping them realise just what schools actually do, away from traditional teaching?

Well, maybe. I think the penny might be dropping. Listen to what Amanda Spielman said at a recent appearance in front of the Commons Education Select Committee (and no, I don’t count her as part of the latte-infused etc etc – she’s very astute and has her ear to the ground I think.)

‘There’s a difficult balancing act here – to make sure that we expect of schools everything that they can and should be able to marshall with what’s at their disposal, without holding them responsible for things that they cannot.’

Things that they cannot. This is a highly significant comment. It is a sentiment that needs to be taken up by wider society and merit a much bigger discussion, particularly involving those who were so appalled at how these vulnerable children were closed off from society during the spring/summer of 2020. And those who rallied to the battle cry of Mr Rashford, demanding food vouchers for children living in increased proverty.

Things that they cannot.

You see, the thing is, most schools invert this statement because they have little choice. They might not be able to take responsibility for those things they can’t control, but they address them anyway. And why? Because there’s precious little else out there to address it.

Increasingly, there is a helluva lot more that primary schools do than it says on the tin, and HMIs must have been listening to a lot of this during their visits to schools over the past couple of months. Here’s a quick list I put together of some of the things that we now do habitually…

  • Toilet train – many come to school in nappies
  • Train children to eat, how to hold a knife and fork
  • Provide breakfasts and ensure children have a good meal
  • Teach pupils how to talk – many arrive at school unable to communicate
  • Teach pupils the most basic of social skills
  • Advising on drug, alcohol and gambling abuse
  • Provide clothing for pupils and families
  • Intervene in social media disputes which usually hit on a Monday
  • Offer informal marriage guidance
  • Act as amateur detectives, often before things get to the police
  • Act as front line in asylum applications, housing applications, passport applications
  • Act as counsellors and mental health practitioners
  • Do much paediatric nursing on a daily basis
  • Organise baptisms and funerals (maybe not habitually, but we’ve done it!)

(*Any school staff reading, please feel free to add to the list)

Of course, Sure Start and Children’s Centres were set up for most of these things but guess what? The majority are locked up, disdainfully dismissed as yet more nanny-stateism from lefty councils. If there’s one thing I could wish for during this new decade, it would be the return of Children’s Centres, but with teeth, providing tough love for communities overwhelmed by social problems.

As more and more front-line services are salami-sliced, so does the burden fall more on schools. Health authorities have got enough to deal with now there’s a pandemic, so the idea of a school nurse dropping in every week is for the birds. Social workers? You’d be lucky to speak to one, let alone see them, their diminishing resources reserved for the more extreme cases.

I was brought up to believe that responsibility lies with the family. I feel that all the above bullet points are my responsibility as a parent/husband/son, and lots more besides. I could go on a rant about a how personal responsibility has declined alarmingly over the past thirty years or so. But we are where we are. You either address it, or erect high fences and echo the cry ‘things that we cannot.’ I believe in the former.

We really do need a robust debate about this. In primary schools, we have no choice but to address the issues – to deal with the things that we cannot. In order to educate pupils, we need to attend to so much preliminary work with young children just to get them in a healthy and stable place, ready to take on the challenges of the curriculum. But it’s increasingly back-breaking work, and mentally exhausting.

The current state of affairs is fascinating. We’ve reached a consensus that schools MUST REMAIN OPEN, whatever happens. It is SO IMPORTANT. Fine, but as it’s so important, why not open a debate as to why? Come on, it’s not just about exams, is it? Get real! It’s because schools provide a front-line service to society that is becoming increasingly indispensable. Wake up!

Do we want schools to take on these responsibilities ad infinitum? Or is it time to have a healthy debate about personal responsibility and the importance of the family?

Schools cannot continue dressing the wounds of society without serious investment and support. If they are to deal with the things that they cannot, we must be honest and open about what is happening, which no amount of vouchers or pupil premium allowances will address.

I think the penny might just be dropping.

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