Education policy around the world is seldom linked to rigorous evaluations of what actually brings benefits to pupils, according to a recent report by the OECD. It highlighted how education initiatives can drift out of touch with the best interests of children.
It can certainly seem this way to children going through the UK education system. We are often told that school doesn’t do enough to prepare them for life – the focus on academic attainment leaves little space for wider social issues, careers advice or practical support in coping with the outside world. In a climate of curriculum, assessment and league tables, schools can struggle to address these wider, but equally important, aspects of a child’s preparation for adulthood.
With this in mind, a group of leading thinkers have outlined in a series of essays how schools can be inspired to bridge the gap between educators and their students. The Connected School argues that schools that recognise the importance of relationships and seek to build a sense of wellbeing alongside academic achievement will see their students flourishing. A key aspect of the “connected” school is that people matter. The relationship between the school and the community, integrated working between professionals inside and outside of schools, the ways staff and pupils interact with each other, all make a big difference.
Happy and healthy teachers are the greatest asset children can have in school. Yet time and time again, surveys show that unsustainable workloads are leading to stress. As well as making sure that education reforms are good for pupils, we need to be certain they are good for teachers too. Their wellbeing is so fundamental to the wellbeing of their students that this relationship should be a priority.
A connected school also recognises the effect of poverty on a child’s attainment. We have long known that children from poor backgrounds struggle to match the achievements of their more advantaged peers. The risk is that the disadvantages faced by children because of their family’s circumstances, will be further compounded by underperforming schools and services, and a lack of community cohesion. Schools must connect with children and communities to develop responses to match the underlying factors and processes in the community.
To be able respond appropriately, the authors argue that schools should be given the greatest freedom possible to use the curriculum innovatively, listening to the views of pupils, families, and teachers, and give an equal weighting towards pupils’ intellectual, physical, social and emotional development.
An integral part of that social education needs to be around the preparation of young people to play a meaningful part in democracy. One great example of how this can be nurtured is the move away from sterile parents’ evenings, to student-led reviews in which young people themselves take on the responsibility for preparing an annual review of their work.
The authors argue that education policy must recognise that there is increasing fragmentation and disconnectedness in children’s lives, and that schools have a legitimate and necessary function in putting this right. Education reforms must be demonstrably in the best interests of children and young people and support schools to be bold, brave and ambitious in what they can contribute to the wellbeing of students and their communities. Policy-makers should position schools as the primary location for prevention and early intervention in children’s lives.
The essays in The Connected School present ideas about how education can be transformed and not the finished translation of these ideas into practice. However, the principles that the authors suggest could inform how education is provided, offering substantial food for thought for everyone in education.