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.