What are schools not responsible for?

At some point I shall get around to writing a more detailed critique of the British Educational Research Association’s manifesto for education. One of the biggest problems with it, however, is the sheer breadth of what it wants of schools. It includes so many aims related to the intellectual, social, emotional, cultural, health and economic development of children that just about anything that someone might reasonably ask a school to do is covered in some way by the manifesto.

It is a glib point often forgotten that schooling and education are not the same thing. Education, in the broad sense, is something that people receive and seek out throughout their lives from a wide range of sources. Schooling, on the other hand, is more limited. The single most precious resource a school has is time. A school cannot provide the whole education of a child, nor perhaps even the majority of it.

This means that we need to have clear rationales for deciding what is and is not within the remit of a school. This point has been made before, particularly by Andrew Old (here, here and here), who has argued that various international curricula are so broad in their aims that those aims are wholly unhelpful for making difficult decisions about what ought and ought not to be the responsibility of schools. Schools have seen their responsibilities grow and grow to the point where most schools have an official and unofficial curriculum bloated to the point of lethargy.

This is why responsible debate is needed, not just about what schools need to be responsible for, but also about what they are not expected to do. This is something I have tried to do on this blog recently where I argued that schools ought not to have any responsibility for vocational education. It is just too easy to keep piling things on to the remit of schools, and just as easy, too, to blame schools for when those wider aims of education are not achieved. I believe in holding schools to account, but this has to be done in the context of a limited set of aims that are actually achievable.

The corollary argument, of course, is that we then need to start asking who else in society has responsibility for children’s education. The list is quite extensive: parents, other family members, youth groups, the media, businesses, universities, libraries, museums, religious organisations, and so on. Part of the debate about education ought to involve asking which of these people and organisations do have responsibility for particular components of education: is it, for example, the responsibility of businesses to provide vocational education? Should it be parents who have responsibility for teaching children how to cook, sew and put up shelves?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but it is a cop-out to lumber all of this onto schools. Any sensible debate about education has to as to ask the question ‘what are schools not responsible for?’ As an election comes around, and various manifestos get released, I would strongly encourage everyone to hold these people to account: what are they arguing should be excluded from the responsibility of schools? If this cannot be answered, then no serious contribution is being made to the debate.

10 Comments on What are schools not responsible for?

  1. Tom Burkard // 20 March 2015 at 11:56 // Reply

    There’s actually something a bit sinister at work with the ‘whole child’ view of education. If you go back to 1971, Basil Bernstein wrote:

    “We can also see that the pre-school/infant school movement from one point of view is a progressive, revolutionary, colonizing movement in its relationships to parents, and its relationships to educational levels above itself. It is antagonistic for different reasons to middle-class and working-class families, for both create a deformation of the child. It is antagonistic to educational levels above itself, because of its fundamental opposition to their concepts of learning and social relationships. We can note here that as a result the child is abstracted from his family and his future educational contexts.”

    For those who view education in instrumental terms, nothing is more dangerous than a curriculum which introduces children to the great debates that have shaped modernity.

  2. Ian Phillips // 21 March 2015 at 16:20 // Reply

    An interesting perspective on vocational education from the other side of the desk. A very personal view of the point, purpose and value of school, schooling and education.


  3. Indeed. People tend to forget that 75-80% of children’s waking hours are spent outside of school. For nearly half of the days in the year, they never set foot in school at all.

  4. Very much enjoyed Terry Wrigley’s “Schools of Hope” on this issue, in which he argues that education has been wrongly tasked with solving all societal ills. I am sure there is much you would disagree with him on, but the whole book is available online here (with permission from the publisher) and is worth a read: http://www.changingschools.org.uk/SoH.html

  5. Sorry Michael, have to pull you up on one very important point here. From page 2 of the manifesto:

    “We need to recognise that children and young people’s entitlement to good quality education extends beyond school to include early childhood, further education, higher education, work-based and vocational learning, informal learning and out-of-school activities.”

    Education in this manifesto is conceived broadly, so it’s not fair to say “One of the biggest problems with it, however, is the sheer breadth of what it wants of schools.” And I’ll also refer you to Geoff Whitty’s foundational post on our blog: https://berarespectingchildren.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/schools-society-and-social-justice/

    • I don’t think I found a reference in the manifesto to what lies outside the responsibility of schools, so can you help here? For the purposes of the BERA manifesto, what is *not* the responsibility of school? If it doesn’t specify this, it’s not a helpful document, as per the argument in the post.

      • You’re doing an excellent job here of helping to define that responsibility – as Ian Menter says in his foreward the manifesto identifies key issues for debate. I just didn’t want to leave unchallenged the implication that the manifesto advocates schools undertake all of its recommendations.

  6. Socrates // 29 March 2015 at 15:27 // Reply

    Tom Burkard vey interesting could you send me a link where I could find the quote in context and / or more about him Thank you

  7. Socrates // 29 March 2015 at 15:30 // Reply

    When schools try and be all things to all people then workload explodes to insane levels and the profession disintigrates see this TES article here, read the comments and weep.

    (sorry my previous comment had a typo and this is corrected above)

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