How to get the schools we need? Rethink their purpose

blog | Words Valerie Hannon | 12 Mar 2021

We need an overarching goal for schools that is aligned to the new reality we are in.

In December 2020, the Chief Inspector of Schools for England Amanda Spielman remarked that she thought there were increasing efforts to “commandeer” schools and the curriculum in support of worthy social issues and campaigns, including environmental causes and tackling racism. She said “I think my message would be don’t revise the curriculum in the context of a single issue or purpose – make sure that periodic reviews take all purposes into account.”

No-one would seriously contend that school curricula should be determined by a single social issue. However, the acknowledgement that schools serve many “purposes” brings into question just what, in this time, these purposes are.

Since they were invented, schools have fulfilled a variety of purposes, some of them explicitly intentional, others less so. These include: myth-transmission; protecting and spreading religions; providing the skills that the prevailing economy required; cultural transmission of “the best that has been thought and said”; disciplinary scholarship; providing safe care and custody of children during the working day; socialising students into prevailing norms; sorting students into vocational pathways; and a vehicle for social mobility, or equity.

During the pandemic, the less examined functions of schools as needed social centres and as safe childcare providers assumed a much higher – and re-valued – profile. What is now overdue is a thoughtful reappraisal about the job we need schools to do for us in the age we now are in: The Age of Disruption.

With a Fourth Industrial Revolution well underway, the impact of technology on jobs (both their nature, availability and distribution) is only too apparent. But it is also an age full of opportunities to learn not just “the best” from the past but to break from the past; where will we address racism and create foundations for better societies if not in schools?

Meanwhile, we face ecological and biological crises. The predicament of humanity is now such that we urgently need schools that are designed to equip all our young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values to shape the future. In short: the job of schools needs to be about learning how to thrive in a transforming world.

“Thriving” means replacing the old ideas about success – acquiring handfuls of qualifications, getting access to better jobs – with something new. Perhaps even the idea of “happiness” needs to be reappraised. What will it mean to live a meaningful, satisfying and valued life? In some demographics, suicide is the greatest cause of death. There is certainly a well-documented other pandemic – of stress and depression.

The climate emergency, and the destruction of bio-diversity, will, if unaddressed by us all, lead to direct impacts on human life – including further zoogenic pandemics. Old ideas about a “successful” life have led directly to a profoundly dysfunctional relationship between humans and the natural world, and between ourselves.

In our new book THRIVE: new purposes for schools in a changed world we argue that we need an overarching goal for schools that is aligned to the new reality we are in. We suggest that schools should be deliberately designed to address the four – utterly connected – levels at which humans need to thrive. These are:

  • globally – our place on the planet
  • societally – communities, economies
  • interpersonally – our relationships
  • intrapersonally – the self.

If we accept that premise, it forms a strong basis on which to make choices about the curriculum. This is not a sterile re-run of the tired old skills vs knowledge debate. Rather it proposes that we take seriously the reasons why so many kids are disengaged from learning. If they do buy into the “work hard, snaffle some credentials and all will be well” narrative, they are often ultimately stressed, unfulfilled and disappointed.

Thrive argues for placing some very different learning goals at the heart of schooling – goals that honour and enable academic excellence, for sure; but which also recognise fully the need for everyone to learn in different domains. These include learning how to live sustainably and in harmony with your natural environment; learning how to contribute to creating equitable democratic societies; learning how to make and sustain great relationships; learning how to take care of yourself and your mental well-being. These need to be at the very heart of what schools are about – not in the periphery.

Immediately post-pandemic, leaders will be preoccupied with “getting back” and with the “learning loss” – understandably so. In a sense this is a Great Pause. There is no better time at which to start thinking long term about the new possibilities.

This is not an idealistic wish-list. Schools across the world and from some of the highest achieving systems (where they are unencumbered by an OFSTED) are moving down this path – with remarkable success. We describe their work in THRIVE. Rather than being “commandeered” by social issues, these institutions have recognised that schools are in the world and are a critical element in remaking it. Doing nothing means we simply proceed with the status quo, and unquestioned sets of assumptions and processes. They are now insufficient.

As Joe Biden remarked in his 2021 inaugural address: “Our blunders will be their burdens”.

Valerie Hannon and Dr Amelia Peterson.

THRIVE: new purposes for schools in a changing world was published by Cambridge University Press in Feb 2021.