“I’m a teacher, not a…”: the problem of mission creep in schools

It is a well-known problem that schools suffer from ‘mission-creep’. It is common these days for just about every problem in society to be placed at the door of education: crime, social and economic inequality, health (including mental health), radicalisation, and so on. Lobby groups fall over themselves to tell politicians what ought to be taught in schools. It has become an easy way for politicians to show that they are making a difference: “because of problem x, we shall introduce y in schools”.

This is why perhaps one of the most important ethical questions in education is not what should be taught in schools, but rather but what should not be taught in schools. I no longer take seriously anyone who has a view about the school curriculum unless their argument is accompanied by an associated argument for what schools ought not to be responsible for.

The central distinction that needs to be made here is between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. While schooling is clearly an important component of a person’s education, it is not the same thing. A person’s education begins at birth and continues throughout life, and that education is provided by a whole range of individuals and institutions. Schools provide just one part of that education.

There are many things that a child needs to learn that could be taught by a school: take cooking, for example. But, one might argue, is it not actually the job of parents to ensure that children learn to cook? Of course, one might counter this point by arguing that not all parents do teach children to cook and that, in order to provide a safety net, we need to teach this at school. The problem with this line of argument is that it applies to just about everything that a parent might be expected to do: for any aspect of a child’s upbringing, there will always be some parents who do not teach the children those things. Does this mean that schools have to teach children just about everything that a parent might reasonably be expected to teach their children, just to be on the safe side? There is a further risk that stems from this which is that parents who might otherwise have taught something to their children might think ‘well, they do that at school’, and therefore think it is not too important to do that at home.

I do not wish to paint too black and white a picture here. My point is simple: we ought to be having conversations in society about who is responsible for different aspects of a child’s education. It is rare indeed for the government to step forwards and to say to parents ‘these are the kinds of things that your children ought to be learning at home’. At a more local level, schools could do this much better in on-going conversations with parents, setting out what the basic expectations and assumptions are in terms of who is providing which components of a child’s education.

Mission creep in schools needs to stop: schools cannot do everything, and the more plates they spin, the less likely they are to do any particular thing well. The first step that needs to be taken in breaking away from this problem is to recognise (in actions rather than just in theory) that schooling and education are not the same thing.

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3 Comments on “I’m a teacher, not a…”: the problem of mission creep in schools

  1. Tom Burkard // 5 July 2015 at 12:06 // Reply

    Every time a public figure demands that schools should take on yet another function, they should be asked what should be abandoned. Unfortunately, our unions (including my own) are far more interested in political posturing than protecting their members from the exploitation involved in this mission creep.

  2. Ye-e-es, but… The trouble is that this can end up at the other end of the pendulum swing with teachers taking a silo approach. I am always taken aback by an attitude I have met with more frequently than I might have imagined, whereby teachers want to teach their subject and do nothing else: no form tutoring or pastoral work at all. And if anyone says anything about it, you get the “We’re not social workers” line. No, indeed, but “teaching” is more than classroom teaching and it is right that it should be so.

    We can also end up with an abdication of responsibility towards society as a whole. Schools are parts of society and of communities and should engage with them. For example, because many teachers live outside the community of the school, it can lead to a situation where they have relatively little involvement in it (or none at all); I think this a very regrettable situation, but even more so is the view I have encountered whereby teachers don’t see why they should.

    The most serious example, however, is the recent government announcement that schools should play their part in combating radicalisation of Muslim students. I thought the NUT’s reaction deplorable, if predictable: this is not what teachers should be doing, we don’t want spies in the classroom, and so on. Yet, we have had schoolchildren making their way to Syria, we have had attempts to take over the running of schools, and one of the 7/7 bombers was a classroom assistant in a primary school. This is an area where schools are involved whether they like it or not, and it is both right and essential to ask teachers to play their part.

    So, while I sympathise with the call to establish what schools can reasonably be expected to teach or deal with, I don’t think it’s a practicable suggestion and I think it encourages a disengagement of teachers from the wider world, from their students’ lives and, I think, from their (ie teachers’) wider responsibilities.

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