The debate about Birmingham Schools shows us we need to rediscover the wider purpose of education

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Another education dispute is boiling over onto the front pages of newspapers. The debate is focussed on pre-leadership positioning and the fear of Islamic extremism in our schools. However, there is crucial educational issue that has not been addressed. Has the DfE policy of a narrow educational vision combined with a free market missed the vital purpose for schools in shaping the civic and moral cultures of our country?  In this article Dr Bob Bowie, Principal lecturer in Canterbury Christ Church’s Faculty of Education, considers the need for policy makers to revisit what schools and education are for.

message in a bottle in sandy beachEducation Secretary Michael Gove and Home Secretary Theresa May are embroiled in a debate over the apparent failure of the DfE to respond to concerns about the alleged Islamic plot to take over schools in Birmingham. Whilst this may be an example of pre-election leadership brouhaha, or a failure to respond on the part of the DfE to early warnings, there is a more serious concern. It fits a bigger issue of a failure of the DfE to appreciate the importance of the wider aims of education.

In its pursuit of better Maths, English and Science results, and improved international rankings, the DfE lost sight of the role of schools in nourishing communities. Schools have a social and moral purpose. They constitute a national network of community centres that bridge individual family groupings, crossing social and economic divides and act as the nurseries for society, centres that must both support the identities of pupils and cultivate shared values. This is something that schools should be encouraged to do. However, the league tables drive education values in schools and they have no space for civic and shared values. They are the overarching performance measure. They determine Ofsted gradings, they can lead to Headteachers losing their jobs and they determine the resource share of school budgets accordingly. They do not speak of school cultures as having shared or civic values. They offer nothing here.

Ofsted is another mechanism for monitoring how schools contribute to this community and civic aim. However, Ofsted has been directed away from community impact. In the schools inspection framework a serious focus on the community responsibilities of schools was removed and not replaced when community cohesion was dropped. Whatever the short comings of ideas like social or community cohesion, the unrelenting focus on grade improvement has come at the expense of prioritising a national discussion around the ethos of our schools, and the character of our children and how they might relate to others. Community cohesion was always difficult to assess because this is a complex aspect of education. However it is an important dimension of education and the evacuation of the community territory has left the inspectorate no clear purchase on making schools good for communities beyond the narrowest of definitions of educational achievement.

Having strong Citizenship Education and Religious Education teaching in schools are two ways of providing space and resource to respond to community concerns and challenges. PSHE is another possible resource. Having specialist educators who understand community aims of education with the confidence to explore diversity, community liaison, and issues of cultural and community sensitivity open up the educational vision and ambition of schools. Whilst Citizenship remains a secondary National Curriculum subject and RE remains a legal requirement, these curriculum areas have been effectively side-lined with little significance for league tables. They have undergone substantial reductions in allocations for Initial Teacher Education, and Schools Direct routes fail to recruit anything like the target figures for these subjects.

Under Gove these have become critically endangered subjects areas. The All Party Parliamentary Report, The Truth Unmasked exposed the reality of the impact of government policy on RE. PSHE is also a subject that does not feature in the policy framework for what really matters in terms of school performance. How can schools effectively challenge radical extremist discourses without teachers who have confidence in exploring issues of national identity and cultural diversity, shared values, human rights and democracy? To consider these soft or second order educational aims is to fail to recognise the role schools play as community institutions and it undermines community capital to challenge extremism.

Finally, the key initiative to support teachers in developing resilience against violent extremism was substantially cut by Gove at the beginning. In the bonfire of the quangos at the start of coalition government an initiative to strengthen teachers’ ability to develop resilience against radical extremism had its funding substantially reduced. The Resilience project was funded to develop resources and a mentoring structure to equip hundreds of schools to help teachers work effectively with sensitive issues that relate to extremism.  The money was substantively cut and the ability to implement and cascade the work into schools severely restricted.

The story alleging an Islamic plot involving Birmingham schools and their emerging Ofsted reports is not just about pre-election in-fighting or even about a tardy DfE response, but a much more important spotlight on an impoverished vision of education. The teacher is always a moral force in the classroom and the school a moral force in the community. Current point-by-point improvement indicators that dominate national and international league tables fail to capture constructive and proactive support for these complex community challenges. Inspection reports do not capture this.

We need to think longer and harder about the kind of ethos and culture we want in our schools, and how they are accountable to and enriching for the communities they serve. Civic, religious and moral education matter. Having well trained teachers in these areas, prepared to tackle difficult issues and ready to be a cultural force in schools matter. Having a qualitative focus on school ethos in Ofsted reports matters. The current discourse in education policy is dominated by freedom from regulation, curriculum independence, and markets measured by narrow progress indicators. The DfE needs more  imagination in its vision of educational aims, and it needs to start rebuilding capacity in the side-lined curriculum areas to leverage some solutions.

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