Prison for parents? If 1 in 50 pupils are missing from half the lessons, it’s time to think again about what school is for

Throughout the world, education is seen as the route to progress. If children can be educated, they may find a route out of poverty. If girls can be educated, there is hope that they may escape from the burdens of unwanted pregnancy and domestic enslavement.

Benjamin Disraeli. a famous UK Prime minister of the nineteenth century and father of ‘One Nation’ Conservatism, saw compulsory primary education as the foundation of democracy, saying ‘We must educate our masters’.

What then, might Disraeli make if he were to revisit the UK in 2024 and read this recent headline

Schools in England send police to homes of absent pupils with threats to jail their parents

And, reading on

Ellie Costello, co-founder of Square Peg, a lobbying and support group for children who don’t fit into the conventional schools model, said: “Parents have told us about very strict schools actually forcing entry to their homes. Schools are turning up with community police. They are shouting up the stairs to highly anxious children, demanding they come into school now.”

Headteachers interviewed by The Guardian have said that they are now under intense pressure from the government to turn around the crisis in attendance, with a record 150,000 children at state schools classed as severely absent in 2022-23. From September, all state schools in England will have to share their attendance records every day with the Department for Education.

The Number of severely absent children was 150% higher last year than pre-Covid, with one in 50 children missing at least half of lessons.

But, reports the paper, ‘child psychologists and parent groups are warning that the push for full attendance is driving “heavy-handed” crackdowns at some schools, and ignores the issues that often lie behind school refusal, including mental health problems, unmet special educational needs, bereavement or the child being a carer.

These are all real reasons for absence, to which any reasonable government would want to show sensitivity.

Yet, since Tomorrow’s Company started working with school and university students other reasons for absence have become clear. Jon Maguire, our programme Director, runs our Future Skills programmes, mentoring and coaching 14- 16 year olds. Last month he spoke at the closing conference of the Applied Business programme which Tomorrow’s Company runs for first year business students at UEA. He asked the students in groups to name one thing that they would have liked to be different about their experience of secondary education.

Here are some of their answers.

School is a way to suppress creativity – creating more sheep. That should be reversed.

There should be more choice by students on how things are run, and what they have to do.

There should be 360 degree feedback for teachers.

Teach confidence, effective communication, and language skills

More active styles of learning, instead of just one.

Teach First Aid and Survival Skills

Teach critical thinking. Teach creativity – with action. Get students to manage their own time. 

What is school for? Has the government and the education profession considered the possibility that much of the absence from school, especially of older children, has come because of weaknesses in what is taught, and the way it is taught?

Whatever became of that saying ‘It takes a whole village to educate a child?’

One place where that is still alive is the Mechai Pattana School in Thailand, which was featured recently in an episode of the BBC World Service’s brilliant series ‘People Fixing the World’. This school was founded by the campaigner Mechai Viravaidiya in 2008. On principles of charity and leadership. The pupils are responsible for every aspect of running the school, from buying food for the kitchen to disciplining fellow students and even recruiting new staff. The children also run their own businesses perform several hours of community service every week. Most of the students come from underprivileged background, but their school fees are ‘paid’ by in-kind contributions of various forms of service including, together with their families, planting 800 trees a year.

The Thai example is exceptional. Our circumstances may be different. We have to start with what we have – which is what Tomorrow’s Company is doing, successfully, in the Academies where it now works. And, surprise surprise, when you start engaging pupils in learning about the skills that they will need in their adult lives, and challenging them to think hard about their particular talents and how they might shape them, pupils who have been long absent from classes seem to reappear, because they see the relevance of what they are learning.

The assumptions which dictate the secondary school experience are still stuck in the age of Disraeli. It is time we moved on.

Mark Goyder is the Founder of Tomorrow’s Company. He is the co-author of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation and Senior Advisor to the Board Intelligence Think Tank.

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