Andy Kemp

What is the point of Schools?

By Andy | April 16, 2020 | 2 Comment

There has been so much talk online about how we must learn from these events, how education must change, and how things will never be the same again…

And of course we must learn from these tragic events, but the real question is what are we learning? Responses by schools up and down the country have inevitably been different depending on their individual circumstances and the age groups they are working with, but can be roughly grouped into two approaches:

  • Distance Learning
  • Remote Schooling

The Distance Learning approach seeks to ensure the delivery of knowledge, allowing flexibility over when work is completed, and attempting to replicate and build on the experience of the work done by institutions such as the OU.

The Remote Schooling approach instead attempts, as far as possible, to replicate the experience of being in school. It keeps to a timetable, it involves live teaching (by video conference), tutor meetings etc.

This raises the question of why we would choose one approach over another. Partly the answer to this comes back to the question of context. If your students are unlikely to have access to a device to engage with online work at a fixed time, then remote schooling is unlikely to be effective… If we are doing this for just a few weeks then pursuing distance learning approaches, which involve a significant reinvention of school life seems futile.

All of this brings me back to a scholarship question I have used on and off over the years: What is the point of schools?

The purpose of this question was always to tease out why we choose to educate people together in buildings, rather than individually.

Clearly the obvious answer is about economies of scale. We can’t afford to have one tutor per student teaching them at home, although there are clearly people who could afford to do this, but most don’t so there must be more to it than that…

The conversation at some point always comes round to the value of community. This is for me the true value of schools. Students can learn a lot studying by themselves, and independent study is an essential skill, but the thing that makes a school, a school, are the other people. The act of learning with others is much more powerful than learning alone, not only in terms of academic understanding, which is enhanced through the interplay of ideas and challenge, but also in terms of their wider education.

There has been a significant uptick in recent years in discussion about character education as if this were something new. However these discussions have been useful because they’ve attempted to remind us, as a sector, that education is about more than just preparing students for exams, an idea which seems to have been missed at some levels with the drive towards greater oversight, targets, and league tables – as these softer things are hard to measure.

So what does this mean for us all now in the middle of #COVID19? I don’t fundamentally think it matters what approach schools take in managing this crisis. But what we mustn’t lose is what makes schools important in the first place, particularly in these isolating times, that is our sense of community. When I think back on the best distance learning experiences I’ve had, they all involved building up a sense of relationship through live meetings, discussion forums, chat rooms, etc.

So when this does end, and it will, the outcome shouldn’t be that we continue as we currently are. This is clearly not the best way of doing school! But there are things we can and should learn from this experience, and I’ve oft argued that there is value in a blended learning approach… We have certainly learned that thanks to some relatively simple technologies the world is much smaller than we had already imagined, and therefore I hope we see an increase in virtual collaboration between schools. I’d also like to believe that in recognising what we have lost educationally through this crisis, we can look again at how we measure an education, as we reflect again on that crucial question – What is the point of schools?


25 April, 2020 Reply

Interesting thought piece .
I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from where we currently are until we learn if recent events have added a different attitude within society and our collective sociological perspective on the purpose of education .

28 April, 2020 Reply

[…] I indicated in my previous blog post, it is clear that a remote school isn’t the same as a physical school, and there are many areas […]

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