By Adam Gillett*
I’m Associate Vice Principal at a large (nearly 2000 student) secondary school in Barnsley and have seen first hand how education has changed under Conservative governments over the past thirteen years. As schools continue to face a myriad of challenges, I often consider their evolving role in our society. That is why I am seconded to Minds Ahead one day a week – to be part of sparking a new conversation about the purpose of schools, urging the government to ponder whether we are primarily educational institutions or social hubs addressing gaps in underfunded social care and policing.
We as a nation need to have an open and honest conversation about what we want schools to be and then fund them accordingly.
Undoubtedly, the responsibilities placed on schools have expanded, and staff find themselves playing the roles of food banks, social workers, and counsellors, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. I spent yesterday delivering food parcels to our disadvantaged families, something I would never have been expected to do prior to the pandemic.
However, we do feel at Minds Ahead it is important to take a strengths-based approach to the current education picture, recognising the commendable efforts of school leaders and staff who navigate incredibly tough situations with limited funding. Their ability to pivot during challenging times should be a source of pride, but it also underscores the urgent need for proper funding to empower schools to do even more.
We know the transformative potential of schools when they succeed and the potentially damaging impact when they fall short. The Chief Inspector of Schools’ observation about the changing attitudes towards school rules in the wake of COVID-19 is a stark reminder of the fragility of the social contracts that shape our education system. Given the mental health crisis unfolding in our schools (with 5 students in a class of 30 struggling with mental ill health) it is more important than ever that we re-examine our education system.
As a teacher of history at GCSE, the curriculum content is crippling, leading to burn out of students and staff. It is simply about rote learning and knowledge acquisition, with limited time to discuss, develop and install a love of learning. The changes made under Michael Gove to the curriculum have undoubtedly contributed to the mental health crisis we are seeing unfold.
A recent article in The Guardian stated over 700,000 pupils are learning in substandard facilities and the alarming rates of teacher resignations, further underscore the dire state of our education system. The tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry highlights the mental toll that external inspections can take on schools, signalling a need for a more supportive and holistic approach to evaluating schools. Ofsted is, we should note, trying to evolve. The problem is that we haven’t defined what we want schools to be, so how can the inspectorate of those schools be consistent when the narrative is so converse?
Schools should be places where children not only learn academic subjects but also develop essential life skills, build friendships, and become curious individuals.
The current state of schools reflects broader societal challenges, including the neglect of vulnerable pupils, weakening community bonds, and a sense of social decay. This is not, however, through lack of trying. Schools are trying to pivot to address the personal development of our students, but the crippling curriculum expectation, EBACC judgement and spectre of Ofsted are massive barriers to this being achieved. The recent Ofsted report into PE showed how schools are having to pull students out of PE to do extra Maths and English. Why? Because school leaders are terrified of this judgement-based system we have developed.
The call to listen to pupils and involve them in shaping the vision for a good school is crucial.
Understanding their perspectives and needs is fundamental to rebuilding trust with families and creating an environment that motivates students to attend. The government has failed a generation of children through inadequate responses to various issues, from teachers’ pay disputes to the crumbling infrastructure of school buildings. And because of this we have sleepwalked into a mental health crisis for our children of our own creating.
We passionately believe that we need to re-evaluate what we want our education system to be, what we want for our children and most importantly, keep the child at the centre of every conversation we have.
*Disclaimer: Adam Gillett contributed to this blog post in his personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the view or position of Minds Ahead.
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