What sort of schools do we need? Reflections on a debate at the Wellington College Festival of Education

What a stimulating day! It was a pleasure to discuss wide-ranging educational issues at the Wellington College Festival of Education; I sat on a panel debating the question: What sort of schools do we need? For me, the answer is simple – we need great schools. There are, I believe, three main elements to this greatness: schools need responsiveness, outstanding educators, and a strong social and moral purpose.

What do I mean when I say that schools must be responsive? In short, it is that they must recognise that they are educating unique individuals, and while they are right to focus on core skills, enabling all their students to access and operate in society, they also need to spend time identifying and releasing the potential of individuals. Schools in effect need the freedom to be able to create a radically different curriculum, and radically different working practices, to be able to inspire young people and tap into their potential. Schools need to be able to build meaningful relationships between teachers and students, which is an argument for small schools, or at least small units within larger schools; moreover, schools need to be able to offer real choice for parents and young people –different strands of education, multiple opportunities, with ease of movement between them – opportunities for gender-specific groups, and non-age-related groups, for instance – and all of these must be equally and genuinely valued.

Secondly, great schools will be run by outstanding educators. Educators and leaders need to be liberated to pursue their passion and vision for education for young people. How do you grow and develop outstanding educators? Well, you inspire them, you pay them really well, you give them autonomy, you value and you trust them. There is still far too much suspicion about the profession, and we need to move right beyond this.

Finally, schools need to have a strong social and moral purpose. Why else have we created a huge educational structure other than as because as a society we believe in schools? I think we often forget that schools have a community and social role, not just a role for individuals to develop themselves. When a child is born we – as a society – enter into a social contract with them which is actually lifelong, whereby we undertake to give them what they need to be successful in society, and they in turn will learn how to give back. All too often, we are afraid to state these expectations of our schools and young people. Schools are meant to educate to change the world for the better. They are meant to have a strong moral purpose

It  goes without saying, that schools also need to be well-funded and free of political interference … a whole other debate resides in this. Essentially, however, we are an intelligent people with the scope for great educators and great schools; let’s just find a way to let them be great.

A simple answer to a simple question … and while the solution will not be so simple to find, if we are strongly motivated by the kind of consensus and determination which I witnessed at the Festival, then we have a pretty good chance of getting there eventually.


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