It seems that overall educational achievement is being increasingly threatened in the UK by external factors, ranging from lack of family support, poverty and health.
Politicians find it easy to blame schools for the apparent drop in standards of literacy and numeracy – this is no help. The real answer lies in providing greater support for families. Schools have the capability to do this but lack the capacity. They are shackled to a unforgiving performance regime.
If we could free up schools and fund them to support families, we could make a difference. Schools could co-ordinate local care and health services to provide guidance and support for parents. If we can no longer rely on families to fully support the development of children, then schools, with the help of the community, will have to fill the void.
Amidst the churn and chaos of the current school system, with the shrinking Local Authorities, the growth of Academy Chains and Free Schools, there is a ray of hope. Any school that wishes to bind itself to others, for the sake of security from predators and for the sake of achieving a little of a collaborative’s political and economic power, might consder the Schools Co-operative Society (SCS) Multi Academy model. This model provides the philosophy and the framework for schools to collaborate on secure and equal terms.
The SCS structure enables schools to link together, either on the basis of needing to receive or wanting to provide support, without losing identity and without being seen as predatory. The structure also provides a distinct role for the Community and where possible for the Local Authority. The model probably provides the best chance that some of the Every Child Matters mechanisms and Community Leadership philosophy, will survive.
The Academy Trust is established around a series of representational forums for staff, parents, pupils and the community. Each group has equal voting powers. The Trust is also built on the tenets of the Co-operative ethos (self responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, ethical values) which, in the developing ‘fighting for a place in the lifeboat’ atmosphere, is a true ‘beacon’.
If we are to compete with the world and find some growth in the teeth of the economic gale , we will need to encourage innovation. In effect, we need to equip young people to exploit the digital age. This will mean that digital devices will need to become the medium for learning. We shall need to have a curriculum that teaches enough about coding and applications to support the sort of creative thinking that we can, as a country, be so good at. The one glimmer of light in this age of unemployment and a rapidly ageing population is the availability and ease of access to the web.
A couple of hurdles, which can be overcome. The practical, digital expertise in schools often resides with the pupils – we need to support the ‘flipping’ of the curriculum so that teachers can support and learn with the students in school. A second problem is the rigidity of the national curriculum and the conservative, lethargic processes that hinder change – we need to quickly cut schools some slack.
David Miliband has recently argued for the concept of Community Leadership. The reform of the curriculum I am suggesting, could be closely linked to the community, as many of the innovatory applications of new technologies will need to relate to energy, the environment, the elderly, health and social care. Miliband also argues for a counter balancing cohort of comprehensive school headteachers who will challenge the elitist notions that accompany the free school and academy chain models. This group of heads would be the best advocates of an inclusive and enabling new curriculum for the rising generation, a generation who will need to rescue the rest of us.
I will try not to succumb to a knee jerk reaction but there are a number of thoughts that spring to mind. The now infamous 120,000 families targeted by the government in a ‘see to them before the next election’ claim, do of course contain some of school age. In the short term, making better use of the fact that many teachers and schools have built up good relationships with some of these young people and their families, ought to be a priority – if only to listen. This age group will need EMA, help with finding a job as well as the support of youth and community groups. Expensive – yes, but cheaper than rebuilding city centres.
For the younger age groups, changes to the curriculum should surely be a priority. This will probably need a loosening of the current straightjacket on schools of ‘exam results accountability’ and a restoration of the funding that was deployed in the most recent attempt, now strangled, to provide a decent vocational curriculum. Parenting will also need to be a focus and the spirit of Every Child Matters, and a locally co-ordinated approach, needs resurrecting.
The problem always seems to be one of amnesia on the part of politicians looking for easy wins and the rest of society, who look the other way. We know that this challenging group exists. We have been trying to do something about it and this has probably prevented previous riots. Recently, the volatile mix of student fee protests, phone hacking scandals, cuts, unemployment, banking bonus excess etc has tipped things over the edge.We forget that we cannot afford to stop trying and that we have not, as yet, exhausted all the different approaches. The big challenge, as we see the lurch to the right, is to have the courage to make the arguments about the need for ‘tough love’. Schools are pretty good at this and in the best ones, as in the best families, a recognition that there is the need both for the tough and for the love.
Ambitious plans to support families and provide greater opportunities are all very well, but will miss the mark if we dont apply them to the challenges of our age. These challenges are, to all of our cost, subjects our politicians shy away from. This, the so called democracy trap – ‘there are no votes to be had (perhaps the opposite) so we will not address these things’. These things being the two great elephants in the room these days – the threat of global warming and the rapidly ageing population.
There seems to be some current interest in localism and society, but I suspect this is more about cuts in services and how this is such a great opportunity for you all! Sadly, all it seems to be doing is damaging the brand just when we need it. If we are to tackle the big issues we will need community action. We are back to the village – or orbits around market towns, urban neighbourhoods.
I suspect the best response to global warming needs a community by community strategy, to reduce energy consumption (and material consumption), to develop alternative sources of energy and more home grown, recyled, resources. The Chord Centre could be the source of information and a focus for leadership – all under the same banner as ‘for our childrens’ futures’. Coping with an ageing population is another potential ‘village’ project. We need community care residences (where we shall all live one day) and where we can all be involved in looking after the elderly. For resourcing, there could be an element of central support, supplemented by local contributions.
The school’s curriculum could be greatly enhanced (as some are already) by a practical focus and engagement on Energy and Care. Chord Centre expertise could become truly ‘cradle to the grave’. However, it is important to tread carefully and to pilot the ideas. Leadership and governance models exist in the schools and this is the obvious place to begin. Another pre requisite is for politicians to properly address the issues and please, for once, to look beyond the next election.
I think we need to reinforce and extend the bold vision for child welfare and education (expressed before in various intervention programmes, in this country and abroad) to counter the current market and laissez faire approach to schools, with its inherent risk of ‘the devil take the hindmost’.
The Chord vision entails a degree of ‘all through schooling’ – we certainly need to remove the transition risks, particularly between early years, primary and secondary schooling. Parents would need to begin contact with the Chord Centre during pregnancy. The school should be the location for the Chord Centre and source for advice and teaching on health care and early development – in particular, on how to establish guidelines for behaviour, a balanced diet and the stimulation of language development and cognitive skills. It would offer Integrated Services/Multi Agency access as well as contact with Voluntary and Community support groups.
Pragmatically, there would need to be some linkage between receipt of benefits or tax breaks and attendance at the school centre, or some field work capacity for parents who cannot get to the school. All parents would be offered advice on parenting and the consequences for all parties of either failing to support the child or of creating too much pressure on the child (and pressures on parents themselves). The aim would be to develop a lifelong, supportive relationship between the family and centre/school. Another focus would be on early intervention strategies.
Idealistic? Yes. Achievable? Possibly, and given the high stakes involved, where the consequences of failure and the fruits of success have such a huge economic and social impact, vital to try. Costs? Not necessarily huge in finance terms but large in terms of a political investment. Discrimminatory, Big Brother? Potentially so, but this is why it would need to involve every parent (as all of us can learn) and why it would need to be a system that integrates both the independent and state school sectors. We need to make the argument, that the fate of this country rests on this form of collective effort – probably best to avoid the war time comparisons but when you look at the risks and challenges we face…
Schools are currently judged and managed by a performance data approach that concentrates on the input and output of the school. This is surely an unhelpful convenience, as the more significant and difficult educational parameters relate to and involve family and community. We need to see the whole process of schooling as a shared endeavour and make it work, so that the damaging processes of judgement, competition and political interference can be suspended. As the African proverb has it: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.
The obvious place to look are at any current arrangements for things like sharing facilities, transition arrangements, any collaborations with training for staff or parents. These areas could be developed so as to build closer links on existing foundations and established records of trust. Another place to look is at the current list of problems and challenges to see if these could be better faced together. Groups of schools can commission (or bargain) for goods and services with much more success than an individual school. The partnership can identify someone with the best negotiating skills and give them time to lok for good deals for ICT support, paper purchasing etc. This could extend to recruitment with use of shared advertising. Working with the comunity and with parents is another fetile area – these are shared and vital groups and providing a combined study support for parents, or training opportunities for the community, are other proven partnership activities.
The bigger steps are also well sign posted. Some degree of federation – one bursar, one SENCO, one CPD co-ordinator, one Social Worker or even one Headteacher. Areas that can really create an joint identity, which begin to reap the benefits of using local resources and realising economies of scale, include ideas such as a CPD bank – credits gained from offering skills and capacity, credit which can be drawn upon for identified needs. The bank can take a levvy and use this to provide common services or urgent responses. I am working on a more detailed version of this. One single and local ITT consortium is a good move in this period of instability with ITT – a block approach to the largest or preferred local ITT Provider will appeal, if it allows for stability and planning, guarantees of quality placements, proposals for closer partnership moving towards a greater local, school focus for operations. Working together to raise standards through a project such as In School Variation is another possibility.
Schools will need identified benefits with which to motivate themselves. Schools will also need guidance and support, with an accurate assessment of the risks of going it alone. Schools will also need reassurance that the partnership is democratic and here the Co-operative Trust can provide an excellent service and support for the eventual steps towards Academy or Trust status, the logical and probably inevitable outcomes of the current policies.