What is the purpose of education?

ELC Uniting Voices Blog Series

Frederika Roberts, The Happiness Speaker

This age-old question has never been more poignant than during the Covid-19 crisis.  Over the past few months, I have heard teachers and school leaders talk about their concerns for vulnerable children and how to support them and their families, I have listened to teacher friends telling me how they’ve supported children and staff through bereavement and I have heard an incredible array of different parent concerns.

Some parents have worried about how to find the time and energy to home educate their children while doing their jobs from home, worried they’re not doing enough.  Some found schools sent too much work home, some said it was too little. While some desperately want their children to return to school, others are terrified that doing so places them in danger. My daughters’ younger friends who are still of school-age have been desperately upset over missing out on proms and saying goodbye to their friends. Some have been angry and upset about not getting a chance shine in exams and having to hope the grades they get reflect their hard work and allow them to do the things they want to do next.

Meanwhile, teachers and school leaders have been working flat out, most without a half term or an Easter break, and now worried they may not get a summer holiday, either.  They are at breaking point, while the government talks about the desperate need for children not to miss out on any more education – the need to “catch up”.

So what is education? What role do schools play?

I believe that one thing the Covid-19 crisis has shown us is something many of us have been saying for a long time – that schools are not just about exam grades and preparing children for work. Of course that matters.  Aspiration, challenge, and giving children every opportunity to learn and to demonstrate the application of their knowledge plays a huge part in giving them options in life.

But in listening to the worries of teachers and school leaders, parents and the children themselves, what we hear is that schools are so much more.  Schools are the places where children socialise.  They are the places where many children feel secure and for some children, the only place where they are safe, or where they can get a regular hot meal.  Schools are the places where children are supportively challenged, where they have fun, where they grow. 

Teachers – the good ones, of which I am fortunate to know many! – do so much more than teach them academic subjects.  They help guide children through this amazing life journey of growing up, helping them navigate emotions, character strengths, love, loss, joy, pain and so much more in-between. They do everything within their power to allow children to flourish while they’re at school and beyond. While I was writing my latest book, I had the pleasure of speaking to teachers, school leaders and wellbeing leads from a wide range of schools all over the world and the work they all do to support children’s wellbeing gives me immense hope for the future.

Positive Education – my passion and the area in which I speak, train and write – is about creating environments where children can develop their academic achievement while supporting their wellbeing and character development.  My greatest fear, now, is that as schools strive to “return to normal”, under immense pressure to “catch up”, they forget the role of education in underpinning character development and wellbeing.

More than ever, we need to take a moment and reflect on what truly matters and what we should be focusing on in schools. School leaders, under immense pressure from government (and in some cases parents) need to be brave, take a breath and re-focus.

Moments of crisis can lead to opportunity and plant the seed for individual and societal change and growth.  Many schools already did so many things well before Covid-19.  They must not lose sight of what matters now.  They need to be the ones that lead and show other schools the way.  Let’s keep the good, and let’s look at some of the things we can leave behind. 

Let’s take the opportunity to revisit whether we really need draconian inspections, testing to the nth degree from a very early age and a culture that feeds children through an education system designed to churn out numbers and pit schools against each other. Let’s focus on collaboration, support, growth and flourishing.  And let’s work together to support courageous teachers and school leaders.

Let’s ensure our focus is on whole school Positive Education, where the wellbeing of everyone in the school community is supported and everyone has the opportunity to flourish!

Frederika Roberts is a former secondary teacher and a positive psychology speaker and trainer.  She is the founder of Educate to Flourish CIC, author of Recipe for Happiness and For Flourishing’s Sake (out 18th June 2020) and co-author of Character Toolkit for Teachers. She tweets @Frederika_R

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