It’s the weekend. Your teenage son has just spent five full days in school. In addition to those normal school days there have been rehearsals for an assessed drama performance and a mass of homework to do for other subjects being studied. Saturday morning is also spent in school. All work and no play?
It’s been raining for weeks, and finally the skies are completely clear. There’s warmth in the air.
However, another assignment has to be handed in on Monday morning and so work needs to be done on Sunday.
What does the responsible parent do?
a) Wake son up early in the morning, give him a decent breakfast and direct him to his desk to complete the homework at the earliest opportunity?
b) Wake son up early in the morning, jump in the car and drive to the Channel Tunnel for a day exploring another country in glorious sunshine?
This “responsible” parent decided on option B.
However, there’s still the pressing issue of an assignment that needs completing and a feeling of guilt hovers as we drive into the Eurotunnel terminal in order to get to France and Belgium.
In the Guardian this week there was an important, heart-warming and welcome article about a head teacher who is brave enough to speak the unspeakable – i.e. that it’s as important for a child to enjoy and experience life as it is to get good grades in exams.
Gary Lewis, “principal” (why have we adopted this Americanism?) of King’s Langley secondary school said, “I’m not telling parents I’d be happy with their child getting a B if they were predicted an A. But what I do say is, rather than your child slogging their heart out, I’d prefer it if he or she spent time developing leadership skills or doing charity work, even if that meant not getting a higher grade.”
We agree with his comments but would take it a step further. Whilst charity work or developing leadership skills is certainly commendable, there are other reasons why we might consider pressing assignments to be secondary to other activities that consider a child’s SMSC – spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. This isn’t to say the assignment is unimportant – far from it. However, the experiences of a day exploring new places, feeling the wind and sun on your face, spending time with a parent and taking some well-deserved rest from the stresses of work are also highly valuable.
Not only that, but also there’s the small issue of “learning” which is not restricted by the constraints of an imposed curriculum.
On a day in France and Belgium we had the opportunity to
- Visit a variety of walled towns and consider the history and purpose of those defences
- Stand in Flanders fields where countless young men – some only a year older than my son – gave their lives to resist invading armies in countries about which they knew very little
- Walk along a canalised river and consider the transportation systems of the country
- Observe ancient and modern windmills and their functions
- Climb a church tower to get a “bird’s eye” perspective on land use and town planning
- Watch a cargo ship entering into port and wonder what products were on board and where they were going
- Feel the energy of the sun and enjoy seeing and interacting with others – appreciating the warmth and exercise on a lengthy stretch of beach
- Listen to a range of different languages being spoken and look at books written in foreign languages
- Observe the contrasts between buildings, industry and landscape between two neighbouring countries
- Taste freshly made Belgian chocolate!
That’s a lot of informal learning objectives and outcomes! These are to name but a few instances of learning that occurred on Sunday. There was far more learning taking place than that listed here, including the creative thoughts that my son didn’t share with me but more than likely will return to in the privacy of his own home, with his own computer – when he can afford the time to do so. None of this learning was formally directed or imposed (other than my suggestion of a day in Belgium) but it most certainly was learning. None of it was restrictive either.
Isn’t he the lucky one – with day-trips abroad, a new tablet computer and a parent who says “enough!” when she knows he needs a break from the perpetual workload? Or am I a parent who’s taking risks with her child’s projected ‘A’ grade slipping to a ‘B’ because of her insistence that there’s more to life than the “perfect 10”?
Like Gary Lewis, quoted above, I wouldn’t want a child’s grades to slip if they’re capable of achieving a certain grade. However, if that grade is only to be achieved through narrowing their experiences to the confines of the examination syllabus, then as a responsible parent, I wouldn’t do anything different to what I did this weekend.
The spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of our children and young people is incredibly important – as important as exams, as important as the development of the key competences and life skills that we’ve referred to in recent posts about reports from the CBI, British Chamber of Commerce and Parliamentary Education Scrutiny committee.
We do need to do more to help children develop resilience, to enable them to innovate, to be creative, and to know how to work collegiately and competently, but in order to do this we also need to widen their horizons and experiences. We also need to help them to appreciate the value of time to themselves, time to be well and time to experience a healthy dose of awe and wonder – in other words to develop their spiritual, moral, social and cultural learning too.
In the article referred to above Gary Lewis continues, “I said to parents, what I want is for your child to leave this school feeling confident and being resilient . . . In our school we hammer home the importance of stickability, empathy and self-regulation . . . They are fundamental, and much more so than results.”
This is an essential part of the development of the whole child – what we would say was part of being socially and personally intelligent. However we also need to give children experiences of the first ‘S’ in SMSC – to develop their spiritual intelligence. A day such as the one I had with my son on Sunday is a good example of how this can be done – freeing them to think (and also not think i.e. feel) for themselves.
In the current Ofsted framework, schools are judged on how they develop SMSC in pupils. However, this isn’t graded. By default, this means that it is given less credence than the examination data and other quantifiable “evidence”. Yet we know how important it is to develop the spiritual and social dimensions of learning. We also know the value of developing shared values (moral education) and appreciation of our own culture and the cultures of others. So why is this still seen as a peripheral part of our children’s learning?
In future posts we will review the RSA report – “Schools with Soul” – which is also mentioned in the Guardian account – http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/learning,-cognition-and-creativity/education/reports-and-events/reports/schools-with-soul?_ga=1.99683806.1985247802.1394621369
One of the recommendations from this report is that in the academic year 2015/2016 we should have a “year of reflection” with no policy changes, no Ofsted inspections, and no political sound-bites. In our opinion, it couldn’t come soon enough. Another recommendation is that there should be an overhaul of SMSC – how it is developed, implemented and assessed in schools. Again, this couldn’t come soon enough.
Once an educational institution’s SMSC provision is carefully scrutinised, then surely the decisions of pupils and parents to take a day off in Belgium would be given as much value as the assessed assignment that was due to be handed in on Monday morning. Furthermore, the school itself might be more inclined to take children abroad or out of school for a day without fear of such an activity interrupting a child’s learning.
This isn’t a mere utopian hope – it’s a realistic possibility with a change of emphasis and a thorough re-evaluation of what we actually mean when we use the word “learning”.
A footnote: On returning from France, the assignment was completed on Sunday evening and handed in. This was done because my son felt replenished by having some quality time doing something fun and interesting. However, no parent or child should ever be faced with this sort of dilemma on a sunny day. The work is important but so too is time with the family, time to rest, time to feel. The school is tied by the examination system to impose these deadlines on young people without any opportunity for negotiation. This intransigence is then imposed on young people, who by default impose it on family life. Flexibility is the key – a key skill that our education system doesn’t consider, which is why we need to revisit the whole concept of SMSC and give it its rightful place in the development of our children and young people.