The RSA “Schools with Soul” report was published last week and is an interesting and stimulating document with a very succinct Executive Summary. This publication is part of a series of educational investigations that are currently being carried out by the RSA – RSA Investigate-Ed. We look forward to the subsequent reports.
However, the RSA is not alone in reviewing current education practice. We’re involved in the Compass/NUT inquiry into education whose interim report is out shortly. The ACSL union is also looking at accountability and other aspects of change needed in education. Other commentaries, such as “Making Education Work” and the CBI report “First Steps” have also been published.
All of this indicates that there’s a breadth of interest and alarm about the state of education in this country and those who have grave concerns are amalgamating their ideas – hopefully to the point of unity, that will bring forth a powerful lobbying group to strive for significant change in the coming years.
Our schools have been bombarded with “change” over the decades and many would see more change as damaging and unnecessary. However, there is so much dissent about what Gove et al have done to education that the status quo isn’t a viable option.
So to the report……….
“The league-table culture and compliance culture that Ofsted has brought into the system has taken the soul out of schools.”
– John McIntosh, London Oratory.
This is the first quote at the beginning of the RSA report and is an exemplary comment that gets to the heart of the problem. Our education system is dictated by accountability rather than that level of accountability being dictated by the purpose and aims of education. This is a fundamental error that has to be addressed at the earliest opportunity. Comments such as the one above are a damning indictment on what has been allowed to happen over the last few decades.
“Despite an apparent increase in school autonomy over the last few decades, the goals that used to define the purpose of schooling appear have moved to the periphery. They have been overwhelmed by attainment-related accountability pressures and reduced to a by-line in National Curricula and in the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted’s thinking. It has been increasingly difficult for schools to think about anything other than short-term gains to short-term outcomes.”
If the measures of a schools “success” are solely based on quantifiable data, and if schools are only held to account by this number crunching, then this is what they are will concentrate on, even if they disagree with the narrowed focus in principle. In relation to SMSC (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural), this is particularly pertinent. Whilst Ofsted do “assess” SMSC, there’s no numeric “value” or “level” given to this area (largely because many aspects of it aren’t quantifiable). This, sadly, undermines its importance and is only seen as significant if it impacts positively on “standards”.
As we’ve said on many occasions, neither Ofsted nor whichever political party is in power should be dictating our educational policy. What should always drive decisions in education are “values”. The aims of education need to be reviewed, with the wellbeing and the development of all the intelligences of our children and young people at the forefront of everything we do – and wellbeing is determined by developing all of the intelligences and not just the academic or intellectual capabilities. That is why aspects of SMSC are so important and why we applaud the “RSA Investigate Ed” for this report.
So what does the report offer in the way of findings and approaches to SMSC that is new?
In some ways, it offers nothing new to those who have always seen the central purpose of developing the whole child (and indeed, as in accordance with the 1944 Education Act, the whole community/society) as the mainstay of education.
However, there are some extremely useful points of reiteration in this document that are particularly pertinent in the light of the current situation, as evidenced by John McIntosh’s comment.
The report offers two key questions.
- How can we ensure that schools across the UK prioritise the spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development of their students, alongside their academic development?
- How can schools and other partners be supported to influence and impact on pupils’ SMSC development?
In our subsequent post tomorrow, we’ll explore these in greater detail. For now we offer a few short comments on the findings and recommendations.
- SMSC promotion is in danger of moving to the margins of all but the most confident schools
- The key reason for the marginalisation of pupils’ SMSC development is time – not so much time for provision, as time for reflection about purpose
- Currently, too much school provision has a scattergun approach, lacking an underpinning rationale – SMSC being “everywhere and nowhere”
- Of all the four aspects of SMSC, it is the spiritual which is most at risk of neglect
- The leadership and understanding of SMSC promotion is insufficiently distributed
- Governors, parents and the wider community are insufficiently connected to and supportive of SMSC provision
- SMSC development has been disrupted by the online world and internet-bearing devices, but this has yet to impact sufficiently and systematically on the requirements for SMSC provision
- Fear of controversy is leading to an unhelpful ‘sanitisation’ of schools’ SMSC provision and opportunities and superficial relationships between teacher and student
- SMSC engagement and opportunities decline markedly for post-14 pupils
- Schools are largely focused on provision over outcome (relating to SMSC)
- Accountability levers to improve and quality assure SMSC provision in schools are weak and inconsistent (relating to Ofsted)
3Di Associates comment: We would concur with these findings, particularly the underlying problem of the word “spiritual” that is too frequently associated with religion rather than its truest meaning. The penultimate finding is extremely worrying. It’s no surprise that schools concentrate on provision rather than outcome when considering SMSC – particularly as it is this Ofsted inspectors seem to report on, largely because of their reliance on data. (It’s easier to number-crunch the amount of out-of-school activities than assess the spiritual development of a given child.) Outcomes for SMSC should not be ephemeral but how do you quantify a longer term and possibly lifelong outcome?
We also believe that it’s not good enough to say that “SMSC is everywhere” and hope that is enough. SMSC (in its broadest use of the phrase to include personal and social development) should be planned for, monitored and evaluated – qualitatively.
Nine design principles for a transformed approach to SMSC
- Make time for reflection to clarify meaning and create a coherent and robust vision and language for SMSC
- Make ‘real’ space for the spiritual
- Locate SMSC provision in multiple but specific areas of schooling, avoiding the ‘everywhere and nowhere’ dilemma and create ‘real opportunities’ for explicit student outcomes
- Nurture effective, creative leadership for SMSC at all levels
- Sustain provision for SMSC throughout the teenage years
- Understand the impact of and exploit the potential of new technologies, and embrace controversy and complexity
- Engage with resources and opportunities beyond the school gates
- Develop intelligent accountability and self-evaluation frameworks
- Retain a relentless focus on student learning and narrowing gaps in SMSC outcomes
3Di Associates comment: The principles of reflection are vital. This is something that the “Slow Education” philosophy has encouraged for a very long time. Education and schooling has to be meaningful to our children and young people. Without reflective practice, we end up following a set of imposed structures rather than remembering what (or rather who) is at the heart of our purpose for education. Leadership is vital as is the need for careful monitoring and tracking of the development of the whole child – again, something that we have been advocating for a long time, and have examples of how this can be done.
Also, in order to make real space for the spiritual, we need to define it carefully and appropriately. This is such a deeply personal issue. One person’s spiritual stimulation can come from an impetus that others find incomprehensible. Look at musical tastes, for example. One person’s spiritually uplifting sound is another’s torture! What we need is to have opportunities for every child to explore what their own spirituality is as well as their commitment to a set of virtuous values to which we should adhere.
- For everyone involved in education, 2015–16 (the academic year after the next general election) should be designated as a “year of reflection”.
- The DfE should set up a small expert working party to develop clearer guidelines for pupils’ SMSC development in all state-funded schools in England, including academies and Free Schools.
- Ofsted should develop a more consistent and rigorous approach to the inspection of schools’ SMSC provision and outcomes.
- The National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) should ensure that SMSC is more overtly built into any revisions made to the teachers’ standards.
- The NCTL and other providers of leadership programmes should develop methods for use with aspiring school leaders that develop their understanding of SMSC.
- School governing bodies should take full ownership of a school’s SMSC policy as a driver to consider and, where necessary, reshape a school’s overall purpose and ethos.
- School leaders should use the design principles above to rethink their approach to SMSC.
- External providers of education opportunities, including businesses and cultural organisations should attempt to identify, as specifically as possible, how their offer might support a school’s SMSC provision and outcomes, in addition to any subject-based curriculum links.
- Foundations and other funders should also consider supporting tough-minded, well-researched practical projects which seek to understand the impact of specific SMSC interventions on SMSC outcomes and attainment.
3Di Associates comment: We would agree with many of the recommendations here. SMSC has to be more integral to the main purpose of education. It should be led by shared values which we constantly and consistently reiterate to (and with) our children and young people.
However, there’s still a slight problem with the whole issue of SMSC.
It’s about the language and terminology – trying to be inclusive but omitting some significant points for learning and living.
Is it sufficient to hold onto this notion of the “spiritual, moral (who’s morals?), social and cultural” aspects of life purely because that is an historical acronym? As the report quite rightly points out “physical and mental” health and wellbeing was mentioned in the 1944 Education Act but isn’t truly reflected in this SMSC phrase. In reality, the SMSC acronym only came into being in 1988.
What of intellect? Isn’t that part of SMSC – not a separate entity?
It’s difficult to play about with words, but getting the words right is vital. That is why we would like to see the word “intelligences” used instead, for that is really what we are looking at – the development of the whole child with equity given to the development of all of the intelligences which encompasses SMSC (and beyond).
We will explore this in greater detail in the next post.