Must we tackle all society’s ills?


It takes a village to educate a child, and not just the school. Marion Gibbs despairs at the continuing tendency to ask schools to fix every societal problem going.

Things often seem quite surreal to me – perhaps it is just that I am getting older! I watched a snippet of BBC news early one morning recently. They were following up a story about a headteacher (of a primary school, I think) who had written to all parents requesting that they did not use bad language in front of their children.

The BBC reporter duly interviewed people in the street as to whether they thought that this was a good or bad thing and the general consensus was that children should never be exposed to bad language. 

The irony is that the language used in many television and radio programmes broadcast well before the so-called “watershed” is often littered with swearing and inappropriate expletives and sexual references. 

Not to mention the fact that children can now access broadcast programmes at any time of day or night through electronic devices, meaning the watershed has effectively ceased to exist.

Our society today suffers from many problems: high levels of obesity and depression, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, violence within relationships, the over-sexualisation of young girls, unemployment, poverty, racism, homophobia, financial illiteracy and many other issues.

And each time that these rise to prominence in the media, the commentators or government suggest (or even dictate) that schools should become involved and try to solve the problem through education. 

Headteachers and others in schools can feel completely overwhelmed by the weight of all this responsibility alongside the need to provide a rounded education for their pupils as well as the highest possible academic standards and pastoral care and guidance.

The PSHE agenda is definitely in danger of becoming overloaded and the more topics which have to be included the less time one can devote to any of them.

Our pupils do a huge amount of community action. The bottom line at JAGS is that you leave the school not just ready to fly independently, both academically and personally, as a student or worker, but ready to roll up your sleeves and make a real difference (however small it may seem to you) for the better for others.

Many other young people are deeply involved in volunteering and community action. Recently Prince Charles launched a new initiative to involve young people in volunteering entitled “Step Up 2 Serve”. In the publicity it was noted that only 29 per cent of those aged 10 to 20 are currently involved in volunteering – the aim is to increase this to 50 per cent. This is an excellent idea, but I found myself wondering what proportion of the over-20s – those aged 20 to 30, 30 to 40 or 40 to 50 – might be involved in any sort of volunteering or service to others.

It is true that the young are our future and that if they adopt lifelong good habits and strong morals the world may become a better place, but it is very hard for the young consistently to model such behaviours if most of the adults around them are leading less than exemplary lives.

No doubt the argument is that older people have to cope with jobs and family and maintaining their home and so they have no time for volunteering. Indeed, there was some mention in the media that volunteering would help to keep young people occupied and out of trouble on the streets. Yet surely there is more to helping others than that? It should not be seen as a remedy for lack of other opportunities. Moreover, is it just too difficult to try to change the habits of older people?

The old saying that “it takes a village to educate a child” is very true. At the moment here in England it feels more like “it takes a school not just to educate a child, but to address all society’s ills, too”. I am always ready to play my part in educating young people to be excellent citizens, but it would be wonderful if there was a similar focus on improving the rest of the population as well.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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