Schools provide children a narrow education. They could do so much more.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

We are on the fourth education secretary of 2022, but one feature of our schools persists: the narrow education schools provide students. The impoverished conception of education is not primarily the fault of schools but the wider societal context in which they operate. Michael Sandel in the Tyranny of Merit, a compelling critique of meritocracy, charts how James Conant of Harvard created the SAT test in the mid-twentieth century to select those most appropriate for higher education. The system spread throughout the USA. Our equivalent in the UK are GCSEs and then A-Level. As Sandel describes, the civic purpose of schools became secondary to their sorting function. This is useful for universities and employers. But what about the kids? How far are they really prepared to be citizens and the adults of tomorrow?

When exams were cancelled in March 2020 due to COVID, the rug was pulled from beneath the feet of students due to sit their exams that summer. For five to seven years, secondary schools funnel kids down to that pressure point. They hear the mantras daily in school of how “this is to prepare you for your exams”. There were calls in that surreal March, when the methods of schooling went through the biggest change since the creation of secondary schools, to tell students there was more to all the years of schooling than those exams. But such calls rung hollow. You can’t magic up a new meaning for school in an exam factory. As expected, schools have reverted back to norm.

The purpose of schools are outsourced to metrics, in the form of exam scores and ratings from the regulator Ofsted, which enact the sorting function. If deemed worthy, schools from Northumbria to Cornwall will have that distinct navy-blue Ofsted banner on their school gates containing the ultimate validation of either ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Schools are run on autopilot, an annual cycle of churning kids towards exams, before the next set come on the production line. The product can be forgotten once the value in the form of a number is ascribed to them. But numbers, while giving a comforting sense of certainty, cannot encompass all that matters in education. Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. What Robert Kennedy said about GDP can be applied to metric-based systems: they measure “everything except that which makes life worth living.” Last Friday evening as most students had left, a tricky student sheepishly approached me in a staff office to say “thank you sir for speaking to me about my misbehaviour in Miss’s class. I reflected on right and wrong as you told me to and I think I got it wrong.” Such moral cultivation cannot be captured in a number.

Schools serving more deprived families often have the additional, noble purpose of social mobility: supporting students to get grades so they can advance in society through university and onto jobs in a way their parents might not have. Yet schools cannot do this alone. A recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that despite improved schools, there has been virtually no change in the gap between children on free school meals and their peers in the last 20 years. Schools cannot generate social mobility alone. Other factors matter for reducing inequality, such as government investment in public services, the welfare state and other redistributive polices. Britain and the US do particularly poorly for social mobility: there’s been no progress since 1954 in getting working class children into the top US universities. A school is not being honest if it claims that it alone can help students climb up the meritocratic ladder. Education qualifications are not enough: according to Dr Sam Friedman, a working-class student with a 1st is less likely to get a white-collar job than an economically privileged student with a 2:2 from the same university.

Obviously, academics matters. But they are not the only thing. As Martin Luther King suggested, “intelligence plus character: that is the goal of true education.” Where schools just care about numbers that they are held to account for, they neglect a deeper responsibility they have to children. Every parent wants their kids to be happy, yet how much is this supported by schools?

One of the great privileges of teaching young people is how malleable and mouldable they are. But schools do not operate in a vacuum. Along with the family upbringing, we vie with influences that do not have the interests of young people as a priority. Much of the young fritter away hours on social media, where social media giants entrap them through psychological manipulation into addiction, where they compare themselves to others and seek external validation. This is one factor among many for why their mental health problems continues to grow. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt advocates raising the minimum age to 16 for social media, accompanied by ID verification. Will we look back in twenty years and think it a madness this was not done sooner?

As well as socially, comparison and competition are baked into learning. Students are told from an early age that the game is to beat others on a bell curve in the arms race of exam grades and university places. Human worth is based a singular sense of individual achievement. How did children feel who were not in the social media output or press releases of schools on GCSE and A-Level results day because their grades were not deemed worthy?

Schools could do more to nurture virtues in children that will serve both themselves and society well in the future, such as kindness, gratitude and compassion. I saw a sad stat recently saying 3/4 of young people want to be ‘influencers’ when they grow up. Whatever this means, it does not suggest schools are cultivating citizens of tomorrow. No other global figure in history has received such international mourning than the Queen. Descriptions of her focus on qualities such as service and dedication to others. Schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh, which involve volunteering, have value in part for how they nurture a sense of duty and commitment. Schools might also want to inculcate the value of democracy, given the young are the age group who have the least faith in democracy according to the Future of Democracy project at the University of Cambridge.

Within the teaching and education community in the UK, there has seen a flourishing in dialogue about sharing best practice in pedagogy and curriculum, assisted by social media platforms like Twitter or education conferences. But there is very little dialogue about school culture and purposes. Schools often make a tokenistic nod towards something they believe in, but it tends to be shallow. You read about values on the website or signs in the corridor, but they can’t be seen in the classroom or assembly hall, which is driven by subjects. The conversation of how best to educate young people should be an ongoing dialogue, rather than one that has been resolved by metrics.

With these metrics doing the work for them, schools do not have to ask intellectually taxing questions of what the purpose of their school is and how they best serve their students. Aristotle did not have that luxury when creating the Lyceum, perhaps the first ever school created. It is now a dusty excavation site on the edge of central Athens. Yet despite the humble origins, a placard speaks of Aristotle’s ambitious aim to develop the “complete human personality.”

There are schools out there, who share in Aristotle’s capacious vision for education, that other schools could learn form. Visiting Givat Haviva in Israel, the school’s founder told me how they aspired to help heal a society that is riven by a permanent divide between Palestinians and Israelis. Touring the school’s campus that educates Israelis and Palestinians together, which at the time was the only school in Israel without a fence, the founder commented how “when students walk into this campus, they see something very different to what they see in Israel. They see many different people, approaches and beliefs…we hope it opens student’s minds to see what society could be like.” A unique context, but all schools can generate an animating purpose that drive the education of the school. XP School in Doncaster serves a working-class community still impacted by deindustrialisation. Social mobility might be the obvious goal to align with. But according to the school’s founder and principal, the idea of social mobility is “insulting”. Social mobility says “you can have an opportunity if you get it right in a particularly narrow way. And if you do, you can have the breadcrumbs of what’s left.” Alongside getting students very good results nationally, the school’s approach to education nurtures ‘habits of work and learning’, character traits being developed through expeditions in the school building and out in the Pennines and having a meaningful care in the work students produce. The principal, who had given such deep thought to the purpose of his school, commented how “Conformity is the enemy to creativity. We want our kids to develop as people not just as learners.”

As workers move to flexi-working, teachers must continue the five days a week plod in the office. It is commendable for a school to get their kids those grades on pieces of paper. What might appear as just going through the motions to get these is incredibly demanding. But just because schools are how they are, does not mean that is how they should be. Schools have a continual obligation to ask if the hard work they do best educates the students it serves. Schools could do so much more with the privilege they have to nurture the citizens of tomorrow.

Part of the research for this article was for a project I am undertaking: Around the World in 80 Schools. Get in touch for further details.

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