Part 2 – Who and what are schools for?

So just what are schools for and who should be in them?


In the first part of this speculation about future paradigm shifts in education (which I believe will emerge in the same three strands as we have seen such a lot of evolutionary change over the last twenty years: accountability, participation and IT) I argued for increased professionalisation, more trust and longer timescales for educational policy planning, separated from the timespan of elected Governments. Like a pendulum swing, the system went from far too much autonomy and lack of accountability, to far too little autonomy and far too much, arguably unproductive, accountability. It needs to settle somewhere in the middle. Interestingly, this is where independent schools have often been – very accountable to their parents and a ‘market place’ of expectations, but very autonomous as well to act as they see fit to meet that accountability.

It is clear that an important backdrop to that strand will be a focused discussion on what and who schools are for. Zooming out, and looking at the last few decades from a distance, two clear trends emerge.

The first is who is in our schools. In terms of societal change it is not too many generations since there was no concept of universal education (with education being for a particular class or even particular gender). The leaving age has risen so that now, effectively, it is at 18, up from 12 within the memory of living generations. Patterns of education that used to educate a good many people to 12 and very few beyond that have evolved, but not radically transformed, to accommodate pretty much everyone for much longer. This at a time when young people mature much earlier in their sense of rights, although arguable slower than their working forebears in terms of their responsibilities. Hard thinking and a paradigm shift about what our schools do, based on the acceptance that everyone is in them for much longer is needed and will come. It may be that the middle schools (or prep schools) educating 7 to 13 that existed once and still do around the country might be the right way, with choices of path at 14 into secondary education. That would allow a universal and standard basic education followed by a secondary school experience, selected on aptitude, much more individually tailored. The UTC movement, which have their first intake at 14, may be the first shoots of this trend.

The second is what role schools play in our society. One evolutionary trend is as the place where children are, from the ages of 5 to 18, from 7.30 to 6pm, whilst both adults in a family work. This ‘school as child care’ model reflects a need in modern society where both adults in a family expect and should be able to have careers as well as a family. It also carries great risks of perception of the role of schools if the ‘wrap around care’ aspect is not carefully separated in purpose and intent from the schooling. Another is that schools are seen, understandably as a practical and effective way of reaching everyone, as the place to make up for any perceived deficits in upbringing, learning parents have been unable or unwilling to provide at home. In the last few years schools have been ‘called on’ to teach about everything from teeth cleaning, to the need for exercise and British values. They can play their part but they cannot replace the responsibilities of parents at home for setting the context young people grow up in. The ‘school as replacement parent’ model also has great risks, if there is not a clear focus on working with parents rather than seeking to make their engagement unnecessary. Those parental responsibilities cannot be replaced by schools.

Schools can and should be central to their communities. They can work in partnership with parents, both in helping young people grow up with good values and also providing a place for them to be when they cannot be at home. They can educate, instil values and help provide an ‘holistic’ education. Indeed, this is what Bolton School has done for many years and one of its aims is to ‘send young men out into the world to make a difference for good’. That implies a strong education and much else besides in terms of character development. In the wider educational world once again the pendulum needs to settle – it has swung from child centred views with little focus on quality outcomes, through to an obsession with measurable results to the exclusion of anything that cannot be enumerated. It needs to come back to the central focus on the development of the child, with a model of schooling that provides useful and productive pathways in education for those very different children all the way to 18. A good ‘all round holistic education’.


Next time ……   the potentially ‘game changing’ influence of IT in education.

About Philip Britton

Philip Britton is Headmaster of Bolton School Boys’ Division. He was brought up on Tyneside, took a first in physics at Oxford and did teacher training at Cambridge. He worked as physics teacher, Head of Physics and Deputy Head at Leeds Grammar School before moving to Bolton in 2008. In 2010 he was awarded an MBE for services to physics and is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics where he has been much involved in physics education, encouraging teachers to encourage the next generation of physicists.