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Schools Might Get a “Year Off” for Soul Searching

Gary Lewis, the principal of Kings Langley secondary school in Hertfordshire told parents in a PTA meeting earlier this month that they shouldn’t be worried about their children getting Bs instead of As. This, he says is because grades aren’t everything: the principal says that he would rather students get a B but be well-rounded in terms of co-curricular activities, extra-curricular activities and charity. He goes onto say that the real trouble with education in the UK is the absolute focus on academic grading. Oddly enough, none of the parents in the room objected to Lewis’s statement: Lewis says that this is because they know that he’s right—the focus on grades, he says, is a result of environmental pressure which the educational community has cultivated for itself; deep down all educators know it’s isn’t just grades that matter.

This week, a report was published as a collaborative effort by various educators to help get the Department of Education to encourage schools to go soul-searching—in short, to focus on more just the academic aspect of the students’ development.

Joe Hallgarten, who is one of the report’s co-authors and the head of education at the Royal Society of the Arts says that the government’s constant prying into students’ academic achievements with their tests and inspections have made the focus on SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) education impossible. He clarifies that he is by no means saying that it is a bad thing to ensure that students are doing well academically—on the contrary, he thinks that the severe focus on “making the score” is what hinders education in the UK the most. He says that focusing on SMSC gives the curriculum soul: it makes the pupils remember why education is important, why they want to do the best job that they can do on their schoolwork, why it’s important to learn. He insists that a curriculum which focuses the SMSC can mean nothing but good things for the educational community.

Gary Lewis can’t agree more—he cites Kings Langley as an example: when Lewis arrived at the school in 2002, it was in the last 3% of schools in the nation. He said this owed to the lack of any real concentration on the development of students as people: when Lewis arrived, he made sure that the focus of the school was on teaching the students empathy, resilience and self-regulation. Upon his arrival, he talked to the parents of the children and explained this proposal: he emphasized that what he wanted to teach the kids was beyond academic—he wanted to teach them how to survive once they got out there. Kings Langley is now one of the most sought-after schools in Hertfordshire. The waiting list for admission is currently twice the number of the school’s population.

He also criticizes Ofsted for labeling certain skills as “soft skills” when these might be the things that students need to be able to survive in life such as personality, sociability. He goes onto say that in an attempt to raise their standards, Ofsted has “lost the plot along the way”.

Lewis is also one of the co-writers of the report entitled Schools with Soul: A New Approach to Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education. This report suggests that 2015-2016 be deemed a “year off”—not meaning that the school year will be put to a halt but that Ofsted will not be making any invasive inspections or any big changes in the educational system, allowing educators and students to focus on developing the school’s soul. It also includes a provision for the close monitoring of schools’ SMSC progress, putting it on a plane equal with academic performance.

Another contributor, Guy Shears, who is the principal of the Arrow Vale academy in Redditch says that Ofsted’s insistence on changing things up every year is meddling with the progress of education throughout the UK. He cites the recent change to the GSCEs and how in their quest for improvement, all they’ve done is make things confusing and interrupt progress which was already in order as per previous programs. “It’s impossible to keep up,” Shears says.

All the co-authors of the SMSC report concur that planning is very important, should this move forward—there have to be set parameters and policies protecting the students’ welfare. Shears cites the rise in depression cases throughout the country and how it correlates to the steepness of academic pressures, without the corresponding attention to emotional, social and psychological well-being.

One of the biggest comments on the report so far have been that of “spirituality” which is difficult to define within the parameters of non-faith schools. However, Patrick Garton, assistant head at Cherton School in Oxford, says that spirituality doesn’t necessarily equate to religion. At Cherton, for example, students are made to visit several different places of worship every year so that they’re better able to understand other people’s beliefs. Sixth-graders also make a field trip to Auschwitz as a means of developing their cultural and historical awareness as well as cultivating in them emphathy. Garton says that nothing bad can come from this decision—students have been reduced to spreadsheets and statistics for long enough.



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