Schools with Soul: defeating the data daleks

March 11, 2014 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

This blog is by David Kerr, Citizenship Foundation and University of Bristol, and one of the co-authors our  RSA Investigate-Ed report on the spiritual, moral, social and cultural education of young people in the UK, published today.

The RSA Investigate-Ed series provides structured spaces for policy makers, practitioners and other stakeholders to diagnose problems and generate solutions to key educational issues. The series strapline ‘inspiring debate, influencing policy, informing practice’ captures the essence.

The first Investigate-Ed is titled Schools with Soul: A new approach to Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education (SMSC). It focuses on the ugly duckling of education policy terms SMSC – spiritual, moral, social and cultural education – a phrase that hardly trips off the tongue or gives a clear sense of what it is about.  Indeed, as one of the co-authors of the investigation I freely admit in my brief biog that I have ‘always found it challenging to grasp what SMSC means in practice’: I’m sure I’m not alone.

So why has the RSA chosen to focus the first Investigate-Ed on SMSC? What is the key problem with SMSC and what are the suggested solutions? The answer lies in a conversation I had with an experienced teacher in school last week. He was bemoaning the fact that, as he put it, the ‘data Daleks and management geeks’ have increasingly taken over schools and are slowly suffocating the essence or purpose of what schools and education are about. They are replacing concern for students as individuals who require careful nurturing, with a fixation with data that processes them as numbers to be driven across grade boundaries and collectively up league tables. The Investigate-Ed report into SMSC confirms that there is more than an element of truth in my colleague’s concerns.

Schools with Soul highlights how the broader educational context in and beyond the UK is rapidly bringing SMSC up the agenda as a key education issue.

  • SMSC has been a policy imperative in the UK since 1944 and remains part of the Ofsted inspection framework for schools
  • Our competitor countries are increasingly turning to new learning approaches that promote SMSC competencies to enable their young people to live and work with confidence in a global context
  • Many academies and new free schools strongly emphasise SMSC qualities through their ethos and values
  • The new 2014 National Curriculum is reduced to a core canon of knowledge that gives more freedom to schools to decide how they should approach it.

Based on an analysis of a sample of Section 5 Ofsted reports, in-depth discussions with staff and pupils in a number of schools with excellent SMSC provision and outcomes and an underpinning historical analysis of SMSC in the UK, including current policy, Schools with Soul comes up with a series of outcomes that demand careful reading, reflection and considered action by all those who work in and are concerned about schools and education in the UK.

Above all, it concludes that the time has come to reflect anew on the ugly duckling of SMSC and to see it in a new light. That new light is the need to rediscover the purpose of schools and education – ‘the soul’ – which has been buried (or as my colleague put it ‘suffocated’) by the short-term orthodoxy of data goals – exam results, school performance league tables and the like. Unless we reclaim that purpose or ‘soul’ quickly then we will fall behind our competitors and put our young people at a disadvantage globally.

Schools with Soul backs up this conclusion with facts and figures, as well as practical tools and recommendations, to make the new approach to SMSC a reality in UK schools. These include:

  • A mapping exercise outlining how schools can practically break down and conceptualise SMSC provision in their daily practices through the school culture, curriculum and links with the community
  •  A set of design principles for prioritising SMSC going forward based around clarifying and engaging, planning and delivering and evaluating and measuring
  • Key findings and recommendations concerning SMSC across the UK including a call for the year 2015-16 to be designated a ‘year of reflection’ including on the purpose of schooling and also for Ofsted to be more consistent in its definition and inspection of SMSC.

As a result, the ugly duckling of education policy terms – SMSC – may turn out to be a beautiful swan in disguise all along. I shall certainly be drawing the outcomes of the first RSA Investigate-Ed to the attention of the experienced teacher I spoke with last week so that he and his colleagues, including the ‘data Daleks and management geeks’, can debate their approaches to SMSC and reflect on the actions that need to be taken to ensure that their school is a school with soul. Let’s hope it encourages further debate and reflection in schools across the UK.

Read the report and school case studies at www.thersa.org/smsc, and follow debates on twitter using #smsc and #schoolswithsoul

 

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