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Have schools lost their true purpose?

Schools have become too focussed on training talent in service of the economy to the detriment of individual and collective flourishing

What is school for? This was the question at the centre of a recent ResPublica panel which included Britain’s strictest headmistress and one of its most eminent philosophers last month. Titled “A new path for schooling in the UK”, the event addressed the fundamental question of whether or not schools are serving their true purpose.

The unanimous response was that they are not. Our schools, suggested Emeritus Professor John Milbank, currently serve two masters – the state and the individual – and each is as harmful as the other.

That schools should serve the state in some way was not at issue. But if their mission becomes subordinate to the demands of politics and economics, with no transcendent aim, its scope is narrowed to the utilitarian. Their role is limited to encouraging the latest political dogma (on race, gender and identity, for instance) and the dry task of spotting and training talent in service of the economy.

At the same time, their focus on promoting the autonomy of the individual has led to a septic form of meritocracy. Social mobility has become “credal”, in the words of executive head Michael Merrick, and is now “the UK’s version of the American Dream”. It is as close as our school system comes to having a transcendent mission, but its benign intent masks the fact that it forces those who succeed at school to leave the people and values of their upbringing behind. “Not being like your Mum or Dad is today’s definition of the good life,” in Merrick’s words.

“Credentialism” is another consequence of schools’ serving these two masters. It has led, in Merrick’s phrase, to a form of “grad-class protectionism” by which degrees are used to keep professional careers in the hands of the already privileged and powerful; even the police now has a graduate entry stream. By doing so, schools have helped to compound a lack of fellow feeling between those who succeed and those who fail, providing a fig leaf for inequality and a ready-made explanation as to why some people are not successful: it is down to their lack of effort or will. In this way schools have been accomplices in creating an ever more marked cleavage between the more and the less educated in the UK, with the latter feeling increasingly excluded.

Far from being hived off, ethical training should infuse every aspect of schooling

It is no surprise that a school system with such shallow aims offers little educational nourishment for humanity’s ultimate search for meaning. A thin and bland intellectual diet is all that is required to meet the system’s goals and all that is served up in a majority of schools. Its successful alumni pass through university and into life knowing far less than the educated of most other developed nations, and its failures, having been denied the means of opening doors to spiritual, intellectual and professional development, leave school with the added burden of a low morale. By failing to provide opportunities for students to learn about the nation – its tradition, myths, and history – and in some cases even to acquire knowledge itself, with ethics confined to one Physical, Social, Health and Economic class a week, schools are making many of their students ill, as can be seen by the runaway mental health crisis which afflicts young people today.

If this malady can be attributed to the excessive economic and cultural liberalism that has reigned unchallenged for the past forty years, then the medicine needed to cure it is a “post-liberal” school ethos. In principle this means giving school a new telos: a holistic vision of reality (possibly but not necessarily underpinned by religion) and a positive, re-vitalised worldview that finds room for many discrete subject areas within it. In Milbank’s view, this worldview should be inspired by the formational spirit inherent in the Greek word paideia, a system of training which embraces both education and culture. Education in this sense has a political dimension in that it teaches citizens to be virtuous; and it is always part and parcel of culture. Far from being hived off, ethical training should infuse every aspect of schooling.

What this looks like in practice was described by Katharine Birbalsingh CBE, founding head of Michaela Community School. The school has a moral confidence which has all but disappeared over the last generation in comparable institutions, prescribing the poetry that students should learn by heart (Kipling), the hymns they should sing (“I Vow to Thee, My Country”), even the topics they should discuss at lunch, not to mention outlawing mobile phones and insisting on there being silence in the corridors. For Birbalsingh, the transcendent goal of this type of schooling is to enable her students to feel they belong to the culture in which they were born. Her fear is that rival worldviews, particularly when they embrace an incoherent woke agenda, are in danger of turning students against the very culture in which they are going to lead their lives.

Every path in life should bestow a sense of worth beyond the transactional

Together, the panellists outlined a vision of education that is inclusive: that aspires to establish equality of dignity grounded in reality rather than equality of opportunity which is putatively rewarding but actually divisive. It is a vision which makes room for the notion of elitism but only when it is turned away from rewarding rampant individualism and directed towards the public good. And for those who are not suited to a university education, the vision calls for a re-invigorated vocational education which enjoys parity of esteem with academic education. Dr Dominic Burbidge, founder and director of the Canterbury Institute, showed how the notion of vocation itself has to be rescued: every path in life, whether it is an academic’s pursuit of truth or a delivery driver’s desire to do his job properly, should bestow a sense of worth beyond the transactional.

In all, it was a vision of a school system aimed at individual and collective flourishing rather than merely zero-sum success. As such, it showed the beginning of ResPublica’s effort, building on Birbalsingh’s own work and set to continue for the rest of this year, to present a theoretical underpinning for schools such as Michaela, and the means by which, rather than constituting isolated examples, they might become the norm.

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