Schools should be... left alone

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

How many times have we seen organisations, charities and even ministers call for schools to be given a duty to tackle some societal problem or other? Enough is enough, says Geoff Barton

Amid the farewells, the events, and the sheer busyness, the end of an academic year is a moment for reflection. So, this is perhaps a good time to play a game of “Schools should...”

The rules are simple. Type “schools should” into a search engine and see what bright ideas have been doing the rounds. Here are a few...

“All schools should have a weekly meat-free day to help tackle climate change and obesity.” (Evening Standard, May 17)

“A music charity is calling for schools to exchange Mozart for Stormzy suggesting hip hop and grime need to be added to the curriculum.” (Metro, May 22)

“Sex education groups are calling on schools to teach pupils more about pornography.” (Tes, January 21)
“Children should be taught how to clean their teeth properly through supervised brushing in school.” (Evening Standard, June 5)

“Schools should teach a language to pupils from age five to 18 to reverse a ‘disastrous’ decline in language skills.” (BBC News, March 4)

You may think these suggestions are compelling ideas (or not, as the case may be). But that is not really my point. These are just illustrative of a common thread in public discourse about what various groups think that schools should do. In a way, we should be pleased. It shows the importance that people attach to schools – they are seen as an agent of social change and transformation, righting the wrongs of society.

But when you teach in a school and you are already working flat-out, it can seem a little wearisome to read the steady stream of observations about all the other various things people think you should be doing.

That is not to say that the way we do things in schools and what we teach are set in stone and can never change. On the contrary, the curriculum, in its widest sense, must be evolutionary. It has to reflect the changing needs of the economy, adapt to new technologies, and equip young people with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe and well in a fast-changing world.

Indeed, the current curriculum has arguably become too bogged down with the ideology that underpins the English Baccalaureate.

If we are to help young people thrive in the age of artificial intelligence and robots, we will surely need a more flexible, tailored approach geared around the aptitudes and interests of individual students.

But that is not a quick fix. Changes require careful planning and an appreciation of the overall impact on the school day and the resources available. You cannot just add things in to timetables already bursting at the seams, or ask schools to perform another duty on top of all the other duties placed on them.

This is particularly the case now when funding is under such enormous pressure and there are severe teacher shortages. It is a big deal just trying to keep the current set of plates spinning, without acquiring a few more.

I am sure all the suggestions that are put forward come with good intentions, but there does need to be a greater sense of realism. There are more than 24,000 schools in England teaching 8.7 million pupils. It is education on an industrial scale and changing such a massive system in any respect cannot be done in a piecemeal way; it needs careful planning and resourcing.

So, with all of this in mind, here is my end-of-term “Schools should...” – offered, I must admit, more in hope than expectation: schools should be... left alone.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.


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