As most readers will know, until Michael Gove came along, government policy was to make schools more explicitly responsible for tackling a range of social issues under the two umbrella strategies of Every Child Matters and Community Cohesion.
As a reminder, the five strands of Every Child Matters were:
Be healthy; Stay safe; Enjoy and achieve; Make a positive contribution; Achieve economic well-being
This was a policy that aimed to co-ordinate activities across all the relevant services to prevent cases such as the Victoria Climbié case in 2000. It forced schools to initiate a range of activities and generate channels of communication to tackle each strand in partnership with local agencies.
In parallel with ECM, the Community Cohesion agenda was also developed. OfSTED had a responsibility to inspect schools on:
the extent to which the school has developed an understanding of the religious, ethnic and socio-economic characteristics of its community in a local, national and global context
This three-by-three matrix presented schools with a challenge to reach out to the community in a pro-active fashion, educating students explicitly about a range of issues. Isn’t this what ‘teaching British values’ should look like, at least in part?
When Michael Gove came to power, he decided to dispense with these strategies. There was an attempt to slim down OfSTED’s remit but also these ‘nanny state’ initiatives ran counter to his philosophy. Some schools would have been relieved. Some Heads argued that it took up time and energy; it felt like a lot of hoops to jump through to satisfy the criteria and it was a distraction from the main agenda of improving standards of teaching and learning. I had mixed feelings when they were scrapped. We’d just undertaken a major community cohesion audit and felt that it helped to identify areas of activity where we were lacking. We’d done a great deal of work on the ECM agenda and it meant something to us. However, for sure, the scrutiny and inspection aspect was intimidating and overwhelming; we’d question whether we were doing things because we believed in them or because we had to. In some ways, removing the frameworks allowed to focus more fully on Child Protection procedures and training – the single most important aspect of ECM.
As I’m looking ahead to my new job at Highbury Grove, I’ve been thinking about these issues a great deal. As an educationalist, my expertise lies in my knowledge of teaching and learning and in working with teachers, students and parents on the core business of raising standards. But I am deeply aware that my responsibility as a Head goes far beyond that. Community Cohesion is still critical and my school has a vital role to play in serving a phenomenally diverse community in holistic manner. And, of course, Every Child Still Matters! We’ve got a student body that encompasses every conceivable issue – health, economic deprivation, social fragmentation – and my school is the focal point for much of what goes on in their lives; we have a role to play.
I understand the argument that the best thing schools can do is to simply ensure that every child is as well educated as possible; a strong education with a broad curriculum is what every child needs most and, perhaps, if schools just focused on that, the rest would follow. In fact, if there is one single priority, it is literacy. Above all else, I want to establish what ever is the state-of-the-art practice in this area, whatever it takes. However, even exemplary work on literacy won’t be quite enough. There is still plenty more we can and should be doing. Without the frameworks of ECM and Community Cohesion to work with, beyond the imperative to put Child Protection front and centre, we have plenty of freedom to select our other priorities (arguably too much freedom). Here are some of mine:
Equalities: Despite legislation designed to protect staff and students from a range of minority groups from prejudice and discrimination, there remains a major challenge in changing attitudes at a fundamental level. Racism, sexism and homophobia need to be tackled continually. I’m going to be raising the profile of LGBT rights very early on, following some of the advice from Stonewall as profiled in this post.
Sex and Relationships: I don’t know how well this is delivered at my new school but I’m aware that, in general, SRE is delivered badly across the country. I want to explore this and make sure that all SRE is delivered by people with the confidence and skill to do it well; it should be a strength of what we do. We need to look at behaviours around internet pornography, peer pressure and consent as well as the routine business of answering young people’s questions about how it all works and what is appropriate and normal at any given stage in their lives. I’m keen to find out how different cultural sensitivities play out in this area – but I’m not one to go easy on the opt-out clause.
Health: Healthy Schools is another of the strategies that helped to make things happen; now we need to do this more or less under our own steam. Headline issues are around obesity and mental health – both of which can be addressed to an extent through school ethos and provision, working with families and other agencies. I want to explore participation in sport, curriculum provision for PE and the food we serve in the canteen. I also want to look at the PSHE programme to see what the content is and how well we deliver it. There are other areas that concern me; the whole issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) is one I know we need to be pro-active about but, as yet, I don’t know what we can or should do in practice.
Special Needs: In July the new SEND Code of Practice was published. I’ve got a 280 page document to absorb and act on – and of course this isn’t optional; it is statutory. It’s a big issue that will take some time to fully implement across the school as we put new Education, Health and Care plans in place. The question is how big a profile this gets relative to other agenda issues and to what extent we can take it in our stride.
International Dimension: I’ll be looking to insert a very explicit ethos statement around developing students as Principled Global Citizens just as we did at KEGS. In practice this means looking at things like Model United Nations and the British Council International Schools Award alongside assemblies and other activities that give international current affairs and global poverty issues a high profile. It’s a long haul to really embed this kind of thinking but we’ll need to persist, building on what has been successful in the school already.
Information, Advice and Guidance. This is another important area that can be given low or high priority, and done well or badly depending on how a school functions. With a mixed cohort, universal messages won’t work so the trick will be to give multiple messages about opportunities for college, university and employment that combine raising aspirations with realism and practicality. No easy task. Again, it’s got to be on the agenda.
I’ll stop there. If it didn’t make it onto that list, we are unlike to go far with it early on. The fact remains that Every Child Matters and Community Cohesion are still important aspects of school life. Even if the frameworks have fallen away, the issues remain as important as ever.