Is the social role of schools undermining their educational role?

Princes Teaching Institute thinks so


It is accepted that what happens outside the school gates affects what happens in the classroom.

Schooling, particularly in our inner cities and in communities which have high indices of deprivation, is no longer seen by many educationalists as just an educational project but involves a social role, including children’s safeguarding, child and adolescent mental health, and parental engagement support and training.

The last Government was keen to make schools into community hubs, offering extended services to deliver joined up personalised support to pupils.

The consequence of this is that new demands are being made of schools and teachers. Not only must teachers be good at teaching and in ensuring a sound learning environment but they must also have skills to support the well-being of the pupils in their care and ensure that time is spent on these support activities.

But has this gone too far?

And is it affecting the educational offer? After all it is arguable that the purpose of schools is to enable pupils to acquire knowledge and the ability to apply it, which then enables them to reflect on their experience and beyond and helps them deal more responsibly with any personal issues they might have.

A recent Prince’s Teaching Institute  (PTI) Headteachers’ Seminar – ‘Academic rigour and accessibility – the challenge for subjects’ -concluded that it may well have gone too far  and that a focus on the  social agenda for schools  may be  harming the  education of children.

There was wide agreement that many issues that dominate current thinking about the function of schools are more concerned with a social rather than educational agenda, and that the dissemination of subject knowledge to the next generation is being diluted as a result.  The Heads felt that in the past 20 years, there has been too much encroachment of politics into education, with schools being asked to mop up all kinds of social problems.

Bernice McCabe, co-director of the PTI, said that the conference had highlighted how education is caught up in a conflict of many differing ideologies and how heads feel that they have to battle against the system to avoid disenfranchising their pupils.

‘The discussion highlighted a tension between the aspirations of headteachers to provide a challenging academic curriculum and the imperative to work within a culture of what was felt to be narrow accountability and compliance,’ she said. ‘There was wide agreement that many issues that dominate current thinking about the function of schools are more concerned with a social rather than education agenda, and that the dissemination of subject knowledge to the next generation is being diluted as a result.’

The Seminar concluded that, as a result of pressure from performance tables, traditional academic subjects like History and Modern Languages are becoming more and more the preserve of independent schools, with a potential detriment to social mobility.  The more rigorous inspection regime may have raised standards of teaching but has created an environment where all that matters is compliance with regulations.  The habit of personal reading can no longer be taken for granted – the comparative impoverishment of children’s language means that they find many forms of literature difficult to understand even at a basic level

‘Because of the emphasis on skills and techniques, like “Learning to Learn” and the inclusion in the curriculum of so many imperatives like health and social skills, children leave school knowing less and are less well prepared for the world of work and higher education.’  Mrs McCabe said that she hoped the views of the professional educators who had attended the seminar would give cause for reflection and provide food for thought for policy-makers.  It is true that policymakers are expecting schools to support the well-being agenda and there are just so many hours in the school day. Something has to give.  We haven’t really had a proper public debate about the implications of this changing role, the effects it has on the education and learning of children, its implications for resourcing and  how teachers are coping with it all . Indeed do teachers feel their training prepares them for this social role? And are they comfortable with it? And, most important,  have we got  this  right, for our children?



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