Just what are schools for?

It’s the kind of question that can get you thinking.

Depending on who’s standing on a soapbox, you could be led to think that schools are responsible for any number of different, and possibly contradictory, functions.

  • Schools should prepare students for science
  • Schools should prepare students for business
  • Schools should prepare students for the world of work
  • Schools should prepare students for the arts

and so on.

In the midst of all of this there is the juggernaut of assessment.  The cycle of PISA brings panic and hysteria to departments and newsrooms as whole countries try to reassess how they are doing in competition with their neighbours.

I have previously stated my reservations around the Narrow Focus on Assessment, but for a better reply to PISA than I could ever write, have a look at this piece written in the Guardian.

But schools are, I  believe, more than just about turning out utilitarian units destined to be productive members of the business community or of industry.

I think that the piece of Irish Legislation dealing with the running of schools (The Education Act, 1998) actually gives a good idea of what schools can be.  In Section 9, (d) the Act states that schools shall “promote the moral, spiritual, social and personal development of students, and provide health education for them

That really opens it up.

The children we take into schools will one day leave as adults ready to take their place in the world.

Yes, some will go on to be business leaders, and yes, some will go on to be innovators, entrepreneurs, productive employees.

But not all of them.

There will also students who will not find a job, there will be the students who may be too ill, or have too great a disability to work.

The students who leave our schools will go on to become parents, friends and neighbours.  They will be members of communities and clubs, they will be a part of society.  And how do our schools serve them?

Schools are not something that are separate, where students are trained.  Schools are a part of society.  They are places that children grow and develop.  They are messy complicated places full of little (and large) dramas.  Schools have got ranges of students of differing abilities, and differing personalities.  Schools are full of students fighting their own battles and still trying to do their best.

We already know this.  But in the face of the constant pressure of assessment, we sometimes forget it.

There is a great line in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’.  In a scene where a library is burning, some characters argue over which books to save.  As one fights for scrolls on maths and engineering, another fights for literature and philosophy “these teach us how to be human!” he cries.

I like that.

Schools are places full of humanity, and places where we learn to be human.

Maybe, ultimately, this is what schools are for.  Places where we learn to become human.

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