Does the label we give a school matter?

“These boys and girls are to be asked to wield the royal sceptre; we must therefore give them the souls of kings and queens. Otherwise it may be said of us that we took the ordinary person from the shadows of history and set them in the fierce light that beats upon thrones and they were blinded and ran away”. Nye Bevan

“THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTES REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY”. Inscription on Boston library, the first publicly supported free municipal library in the world.

It feels good to be starting a new term this morning and seeing colleagues and students back to school. When I first heard the announcement by the Prime Minister in the Easter break that she would be seeking a general election in June my first thoughts were probably similar to most educators along the lines of concerns that education would actually lose the attention it needs so crucially right now in national political consciousness and debate. The secretary of state, Justine Greening, only the previous week had caused a huge furore through a major speech outlining further details on the government’s proposal to allow more schools to select students and for the further establishment of new grammar schools. The public consultation on this green paper and the national Fair Funding formula were supposed to be made known soon after Easter. However, due to the civil service purdah during the election period, both these announcements have been delayed with the possible likelihood of a new secretary of state at the Department for Education; if Mrs May wins the election and she hopes for an increase in her party’s parliamentary majority. As a keen lifelong student of politics I am acutely aware of the seismic impact of last summer’s Brexit decision on the future of the UK. However, at the same time something as important as the future of education and the very real problems schools face right now cannot be allowed to slip down the policy agenda of any political party, especially during this important general election.

Over Easter I was asked a number of times my thoughts on selection and grammar schools. I repeated what I tell everyone that the question is not a very insightful one to ask. There are too many false dichotomies and binary arguments in the debate around educational structures in England. Having worked in and with many varying types of state schools and in and with many varying types of independent schools, in the UK and abroad, the question really should be asking what type of education, access, inclusion and learning should we have in our schools for the future of our young people whatever we end up calling the school. I have worked with some pretty poor independent schools and a fair few outstanding state schools in my time. The label doesn’t mean anything if teaching is mediocre, the curriculum is narrow and dry and the wellbeing does little to develop and nurture the individual in an overall negative school culture. I honestly don’t believe the rose tinted nostalgia that often accompanies the debate on grammar schools is helpful in examining how education has got to where it is in 2017, based on a personal perspective of an individual’s school back in say the 1950s or 1960s.

The original 1944 Butler Education Act, created a post-war tripartite system based on the assumption and belief that a worthwhile education is about the best in culture not accessible to all. I love the public library in Copley Square Boston and the very American/Founding Fathers notion that an educated population is the key to a stable and functioning free society. In 2013 the then education secretary, Michael Gove, quoted the Italian Marxist Gramsci in a speech to the Social Market Foundation. Gramsci had made the argument in his “Notes from Prison” of the need for “emancipatory education” and for everyone to have the access to “powerful knowledge”. Gove also quoted the educationalist E D Hirsch and the idea of education being about “cultural literacy”. I believe Gove was right to cite Gramsci and Hirsch in developing an education policy that makes sure education is worthwhile for all students. The reality over the last few years unfortunately has been an education policy that prioritises a standardised narrowing curriculum, rigid disciplinary rules and an authoritarian pedagogy. Not exactly a framework to develop critical self-consciousness in the learner let alone an ability to pursue TRUTH in any way, shape or form.

My own rose tinted view of my own schooling in a comprehensive in a former mining town in Shropshire has obviously played a formative part on my philosophy towards education. Fairly similar to Justine Greening’s comprehensive school in Rotherham in the South Yorkshire coalfields in the 1980s but a world away from Jeremy Corbyn’s fee paying Salopian grammar school in my former county; or even why Diane Abbot chose to send her children to a selective school than a non-selective state school. My state school had a very broad curriculum that included lots of cross curricula learning, a development of critical thinking, a strong emphasis on creativity and technology, was global in outlook, full of committed student centred teachers who pushed all students to learn more and access “powerful knowledge” through exposure to higher culture. I have never forgotten the fantastic educators who developed in me and my contemporaries a love of learning that has never gone away and has only grown deeper. My teachers instilled in me the ability to think critically, to question and to want to know more. I don’t care what the school was called or what category it came under but it allowed for my social mobility and a coalminer’s son to become the first in his family to go to university, and eventually the privilege of working in education to hopefully give back something that had been given to me.

When I first read the quote on education by Nye Bevan it resonated with me immediately. This is what we need to aim for with all our students. We will only be able to do this if we allow access to a broad and rich curriculum. Where all subjects are seen as vital and important for the future wellbeing of society. Where the curriculum develops the learner’s skills as an individual to access the future economy and society. A curriculum that places student wellbeing at the centre. I believe the current debate on education needs to break free of the tribalistic echo chambers of the respective protagonists. Successful societies such as in Scandinavia, Singapore and Canada have placed World Class education for all high up on the list of policy priorities and funding. What would be incredible in this general election campaign being fought over the next 7 weeks would be an education debate not stuck on grammar versus non-selective, but a debate that went back to the question “what is a worthwhile education?”What are we teaching the next generation? Is it preparing them well for the future? We need to make sure all our students are given the souls of kings and queens and none of them run away from the light as they take their places in society as the next doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses, builders, plumbers and so on. That they can not only cope with modern life but it allows them to enjoy that life. I know that is what my colleagues and the parents of this community want for the students of Wyedean. That is what we work towards every day.


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