Politics

Schools are alone to spell out a vision in the age of permacrisis

It's clear political vision is lacking and unlikely to materialise, so schools must take it on themselves

It's clear political vision is lacking and unlikely to materialise, so schools must take it on themselves

7 Dec 2023, 5:00

When events of the outside world seep through the school gate, the reactiveness of schools speaks to a lack of coherent educational vision. The education sector is too often caught in headwinds without direction.  

Last month schools marked Black History Month, but is it still relevant? The welcome refocusing on curriculum in schools highlights the importance of well-sequenced learning. A single month that allows schools to tick a box does not accord black history the respect that meaningfully embedding it would.

World Mental Health Day also occurred last month. A common response from schools to the mental health crisis is to mark such events while working with external providers to provide student counselling. However, rather than sticking-plaster solutions after problems arise, schools should proactively nurture happiness and resilience.

This idea is not new: Aristotle argued schools should develop the happiness of students. But it is hard for schools to deliver that amid constant new demands on the RSE/PSHE curriculum. You cannot resolve toxic masculinity in a one-off PSHE lesson. It takes planning, resourcing and a lot of thought to make sustainable change.

Yet the education sector’s default is to jerk its knee when faced with sensitive issues – and not just in schools. At a recent training session by a major exam board, the examiner explained how the organisation had redacted a source from a 2023 history GCSE paper because it did not align with its DEI commitments. The basis for its removal? One school complaining. This reactiveness does not suggest a robust rationale which balances sensitivity with the duty to show students the truth of the past. 

Let’s not forget about the travesty that took place at Batley Grammar School in 2021, where a teacher now has a new identity after being suspended for showing a cartoon of Muhammad in a religious studies lesson. In multicultural Britain, the balance between respect for cultural traditions and the need to provide a liberal, secular education is a delicate one. But however inappropriate, this teacher took the fall for a cartoon that had been on the curriculum for years – a knee-jerk act of cowardice on the part of regulators.

The outside world is going to keep coming at us

In fairness to schools, politicians should share the responsibility to support greater anchoring. When interventions do happen, they too often use schools as a mechanism to patch up societal issues or a lack of investment in education: funded breakfast clubs to tackle food poverty; schools obliged to use up precious budgets to sort out unsafe buildings.

But declining funding and the absence of political vision are reflective of a wider national indifference. According to IPSOS, just 8 per cent of the public think education is a high priority. Former children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield recently told the Covid inquiry it was a “terrible mistake” to reopen pubs in summer 2020 and keep schools shut, but was this prioritisation a surprise?  

National indifference partly explains the hollowness of Labour’s set-piece policy for state schools: a focus on oracy as announced by Keir Starmer himself. Though this has clear value, it exposes a paucity of imagination about how government could help schools have a stronger educational underpinning. 

Starmer appears unlikely to emulate Tony Blair’s biggest line as opposition leader. “Education, education, education” was the mantra in Blair’s last conference speech before becoming prime minister. Starmer mentioned education just once in what could be the equivalent political moment for him a few weeks ago. He referred to schools only in the context of crumbling buildings.

The evidence is clear that schools cannot rely on government policy to provide long-term vision and stability. We’ve had five education secretaries in the past two years and face the prospect of yet another new Ofsted inspection framework under incoming chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver.

And so the onus is on schools to have a robust, coherent vision to respond to the outside world. One of the best things government could do is to give school’s the capacity and support to grapple with fundamental questions. Because in the age of ‘permacrisis’, the outside world is going to keep coming at us, so coherence and clarity will become all ever more essential.

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