A weekend in Copenhagen was perhaps the ideal way to prepare for a new term. It was a nation that seemed at ease with itself, confident in the future and in what it aimed to do well, trying hard to be fair to all, especially in the wake of increased immigration, and prepared to pay for a higher standard of contentment and education than most other countries. They have a serious military commitment but don’t seem to be the aggressive “Danes” of old.

Whilst there (and whilst flying there and back) I read Melissa Benn’s passionately argued School Wars, which really helped root me again in the comprehensive ideal of local schools, with wide and inclusive admissions policies, accepting children from across the range of abilities, social backgrounds, ethnic origins and expectations of school. Great to read and convincingly argued, even though she is no fan of faith schools. As a matter of fact, I am not a fan of them either when they deny their faith convictions with exclusive, faith-based admissions policies. Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, is absolutely on the money here. How many times do our slow-witted brethren need to be told that the Kingdom of God is for others, for the service of others? How can we be effective in the demonstration of the values of our kingdom if we pack the school full of people who (supposedly) already subscribe to them? Of course, there is an issue around critical mass, of having enough people who subscribe to the church school vision to make it effective, but the idea of church schools for christians is a long way from the original calling on church schools, which, and this needs to be said over and over and over again is for the education of the poor. I defy anyone in any borough, town, village or local community, not to find the poor among them.

The book is also timely in being one of the best broad-view descriptions of the current fragmentation of schooling anywhere to be found. It honours those who are honourable, and is fair to all in this debate, whilst coming down firmly on the side of exciting, well-resourced, partnered local schools for the people in the communities they serve, supported by local authorities of whatever type, that can ensure that all have access to a high quality education. It covers academies, both old and new, the free school model, and its more glorious predecessor (AS Neill, Alex Bloom, etc), the role (or not) of the private school system and the continued persistence of grammar schools and why the comprehensive ideal was never fully funded or fully subscribed to.

There are plenty of people ready to knock academies, plenty of people ready to take the money and bail out of a comprehensive ideal they never believed in anyway, and a whole shedload of people in between, wondering how to navigate the landscape. This book has enough information for the direction ahead. When Benn proposes principles for the navigation, especially towards an island called “public education”, they are definitely worth holding onto.

  • Firstly, we need to hold onto education for education’s sake, as meeting the needs of the whole person, not just their economic/skills usefulness to society.
  • Secondly, every child deserves a chance to flourish within a full and rich education. The only organ that can guarantee that is the state, so it should.
  • Thidrly, we must not prejudge our children’s ability. IQ tests tell us little, and tend to create (using Carol Dweck’s term) a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset”. Benn’s quote on this is “education…should not confirm a given truth, or generate a set of IQ-related numbers, but encourage the constant recreation of self through imagination and knowledge and effort” (my italics).
  •  Fourthly, in order to engender a true understanding of our society, schools must be comprehensive and local. We do not “migrate up” out of our society, but are educated to serve the society we are in. This emphasises all that is good and local, as well as environmental.
  • Fifthly, strong national provision and accountable local oversight is essential to prevent fragmentation of the educational landscape even further.
  • Sixthly, a strong element of choice is attainable within a strong local school system.  Both Alberta and Ontario provincial school systems in Canada have shown that this is possible, and have encouraged loyalty not just to the school but to the education system.
  • Seventhly, a system that encourages and engenders trust of teachers, and trains them properly, and gives them the status they should have as educators of our most precious possessions, is needed to make a local system work, so all can have confidence in the provision. Finland, despite not having a national inspection system, and subscribing strongly to a comprehensive ideal and having a large part of its GDP regularly devoted to education, succeeds because teachers are highly respected by the parent body, the press and the state.
  • A core (but reduced) national curriculum is a sensible eighth principle, so that everyone has an idea of the basic contenc of what schools are offering. However, this should be a matter of public debate in setting it up, and teacher debate as to the best way of applying it, without micro-managed prescription.

Although such a description would likely mortify Melissa Benn, these simple proposals strike me as quite a godly way of approaching education – they are full of peace, of imagination, of freedom, of respect for teacher, student and parent,  and humble in their admissions of what has failed in the past. They may not reflect our highly combative and instinctively class-driven national character and culture, but in their careful application, they might just help make us more like the nation we long to be.

Not that dissimilar to Denmark, perhaps. Once a Viking, always a Viking?

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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