How a values-driven education can help us chart our way in uncertain times

Our eyes have been opened to the real purpose of education

Carolyn Laws

Headteacher, St James’ Catholic High School, London

School leaders are currently in the bizarre position of having to work simultaneously in parallel realities. Dealing with the situation on the ground right now – are all the hand sanitisers in place? Is that temperature gauge working? Planning forward to September and beyond – how will we organise the timetable? How will our kids cope after so long out of the school system? The changing landscape – how can we best adapt our curriculum, our assessment, our pastoral care, our policies? We’re developing the ability to hold three time frames in our heads at once as we plan – it’s challenging and exciting. 

In one way everything has changed and we need to change in response – we’re questioning our curriculum, the purpose of our policies and organisational structures and the nature and purpose of accountability measures. In light of the structural inequalities highlighted by the Black Lives Matters movement, we are looking at disadvantage in our schools and communities and figuring out how to do the best for our children. We are coming to a deep understanding of the role of school in the lives of families and the life of the nation.

What will education look like in a year’s time? In two years’ time? By the time our current Year 7 students are in Sixth form?

The most frequent answer I seem to be giving at the moment in response to questions from my colleagues, students, parents and governors is – “I don’t really know”. What I mean by that is, I don’t really know what the concrete practicalities might look like – I have about three different scenarios in my head so I can respond quickly to whatever the situation demands.

What I do really know and am becoming more convinced of as each day passes, is that we need to reframe our education system in the light of our values. Schools that have a strong ethos and are founded on unchanging human values are perfectly placed to drive forward change and innovation here, because our purpose has human flourishing at its heart. In this way, nothing has changed – and that is deeply important. 

I’m currently Head of a Catholic comprehensive situated in a part of North London with a high level of social deprivation and disadvantage relative to other parts of the borough. Our mission statement is a line from the Gospel of John: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full”, and that, with our core values, is our guide for everything we do. 

Guided by strong values

Our school values spell “Veritas” after the motto of our Dominican founders – Veritas, Excellence, Resilience, Integrity, Trust, Aspiration, and Service –this is our blueprint for planning the future. 

Take integrity. From this flows a commitment to racial justice and social equality; recognition that we need training to recognise and challenge unconscious bias; making connections across the community; using outside support effectively to support our students when they return. Integrity is about meaning what we say. It’s doing the right thing, whether it is part of the Ofsted framework or not.  It is going beyond the surface to look deeply at how our organisation can change but still hold true. We can’t say we are people of integrity and then do nothing to change the status quo. 

Being a values-driven school means that it doesn’t matter how much change you need to make, because you always have a set of guiding principles to shape that change. Our values drive everything– from planning our recovery curriculum to re-writing our behaviour policy (do we really still want children in detention after all this?) to re-thinking our parental and community engagement.

A balancing act

We’ve been running provision for our vulnerable children, aged 11-16, since March and it has opened our eyes to what school can be like when its purpose isn’t largely dictated by moving at pace through a content-driven curriculum. We’ve done music, art, drama or sport every day. Students have cooked meals with vegetables that they were grown in gardening club. We’ve put children and their needs right at the centre of what we do, untrammelled by constraints of all the various forms of accountability that put us all under so much pressure. Our children and staff have really enjoyed being together every day. I don’t think we can just go back to the way it was, and I think we need to engage properly in this discussion with those who shape our education policy. 

Schools have always had to operate within the tension of seemingly opposite ideas. We are supposed to help children pass exams, because attainment and progress are key measures by which we and they are judged – and we’re supposed to develop a love of learning for its own sake; we’re meant be nurturing and compassionate and have a zero-tolerance approach; teach kids to think for themselves and only teach them what’s in the national curriculum, tell them they can do anything and support those whose needs are so great that they will need society to support them into adulthood. Schools are complex institutions. We can work with these tensions – we are adaptable, flexible and resilient. We need to be – we are shaping the people who will be governing, leading, teaching and serving our communities in the future. We can and must change – but all change has to be deeply considered and underpinned by what is unchanging.

So, what will our schools look like by the time the current Year 7 are ready to leave?

I hope, by the time our eleven year olds are eighteen, they will have been through a school system that values equality of opportunity and challenges all forms of bias to make that opportunity happen.  I hope they will have experienced a curriculum that makes room for the uplifting effect of art and music on the human spirit, and helps them develop practical skills for living. I hope our Year 7 will leave school enriched by their time and ready to take their place in society and make the world better. 

I think we have a once in a generation chance to re-think the school system in this country. I hope people will listen.

Related post

Fresh insights from seeing some students thrive in an on-line environment

Andrea Silvain

Related programmes

Big Education's leadership programme

A big welcome from us

You’ve read a number of our blogs and we’re delighted you’re interested in our work.

Become a member for FREE and enjoy…

Discounts on CPD opportunities

Unlimited access to our blog library