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What are schools for?

During 6 years at Birkdale I have interviewed well over 100 candidates for teaching jobs. After exchanging pleasantries I usually ask the victim what they think schools are for.  Few candidates are untroubled by this far-reaching question: this is, of course, partly the idea. 


Occasionally I encounter someone who has clearly never thought about the question: an omission that will inevitably disadvantage them. Humorous or ironic contentions such as child-minding, learning to become a consumer or providing employment for teachers are welcome but not without a more serious complement.  (I am aware that future interview candidates will probably read some of these blog entries as part of their interview preparation and I will have to find a different opening question).

I am less interested in the precise answers than in whether the respondent can construct some sort of intellectually coherent argument reflecting on many hours of training and classroom practice. Equally the priorities that the candidate indicates may cast some light on the emphasis that they will bring to the classroom and to the wider life of the school. 

I summarise the answers below, hopefully without inadvertently identifying any particular candidates, some of whom are now colleagues.


1.  To allow students to obtain excellent examination results. This is not a bad opening sentiment: clearly examination results are linked to a student’s future opportunities in education and employment.  Additionally, excellent examination results must validate something about the learning process and no school is going to be unhappy if the results are great.  Equally, stopping here shows a paucity of ambition: surely 7 or even 14 years of education are about more than just a line of A level grades and a university place?


2.  To prepare students for life. This is a popular response with the candidate trying hard to get beyond the exam results answer and think about the skills, knowledge and characteristics that might be needed.  Sadly I think that pursuing this too far drives education towards the entirely vocational.  At best we try to guess what training will be needed for employment and at worst we begin to allot future roles to pupils.  Employer surveys suggest that the desired skills are largely around literacy and numeracy and a few other technical skills: the required character traits of punctuality, determination, communication skills, being decisive, taking responsibility, being able to solve problems through logic and creativity and so on are probably by-products of education rather than overt goals. 

More positively, this response might also cover thoughts about instilling a sense of hope and ambition in young people, of broadening horizons, persuading them to look up and understand the possibilities and opportunities. It might also cover challenging poor attitudes such as racism or sexism although few would want to see schools as the enforcement officers for government views on how citizens should think and behave.


3.  To improve the well-being of the students. This has grown in popularity recently with the concerns about the (possibly real) increase in mental health difficulties suffered by teenagers.  Clearly no-one is going to object to the idea that schools should enhance rather than reduce, for example, the happiness of students.  The difficulty comes when schools embrace this as a curriculum aim and results in ‘happiness’ lessons of questionable effectiveness which remove curriculum time from other subjects.  I think that it is unlikely that teachers would be qualified or able to influence the emotions of their pupils: if pupils do gain in happiness from school then it is probably because they enjoy learning things and have good friends around them.  (Note however that schools do have a duty to try to spot pupils who really are in difficulties and help or refer them but this is not the same as deliberately setting out to increase the happiness of all those who darken the door).


4.  To develop character. This was popular a couple of years ago but is already now largely absent from the educational agenda.  The government spent a great deal of money, particularly on military style training course for disadvantaged students, without much discernible effect.  I have written about character education before (True Grit): essentially a school that places emphasis on being a community and developing good relationships between students and teachers and provides plenty of extra-curricular activities is likely to turn out well-rounded students.  The impressively long list of such activities at Birkdale and of the students choosing to engage with them underscores their importance. 

There is some evidence from the US, and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), that talking about and explicitly identifying particular character strengths boosts academic outcomes, at least for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.  However, trying to directly teach such virtues as perseverance or resilience is doomed to failure: again these are important by-products of education rather than its objective.


Despite the obligatory ‘do you have any questions for me?’ enquiry at the end of the interview no candidate has ever had the courage or perhaps the presence of mind to throw my question back to me. If asked I would probably say that the principal aim of education is to strengthen the intellect, in the same way that a gym strengthens the muscles or develops fitness, before introducing the other points above in the order of 1, 4, 2, 3. 

Schools have the privilege of introducing their pupils to some of the best products of human thought and endeavour: not only are these ideas useful and amazing but their study will inevitably equip the pupils with a large set of skills which will be useful in navigating the unknown future world of employment and indeed personal life.



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