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School childrenCan schools really put values before data?

By Kate Hilpern

Headteachers increasingly talk about their schools being driven by values not data. But what does that mean in practice? And is it even possible in today’s educational landscape?

David Barrs, headmaster of the Anglo European School in Essex, recently told me how values – in their case, having a global outlook – was the raison d’etre for their school being set up and that every single piece of learning they provide has a global lens. ‘Our aim is to get young people moving beyond the boundaries of our communities – high and noble aspirations that are quite distinctive as far as state schools are concerned. Everything in our mission is enriched by an understanding of the way others communicate around the world,’ he said.

Meanwhile, Mike Fairclough, headteacher at West Rise Junior School, Eastbourne, is all about ‘exposing children to new experiences, especially outside their comfort zone’. This eccentric head believes children need to get dirty, learn how to build a camp fire, build dens, skin rabbits, make bows and arrows and even use a shotgun. ‘When children are exposed to new experiences, especially things outside their comfort zone, they expand,’ said Fairclough, whose curriculum is described by Ofsted as ‘outstandingly rich.’ Indeed, the children use these activities to enhance learning in subjects such as maths, science and ancient history in imaginative ways.

It’s convincing stuff, and that’s just the state sector. In the private sector, Summerhill in Suffolk is a good example. Headteacher Zoe Readhead believes most schools are push children to achieve ‘at the expense of social and emotional development’. ‘We come at it completely the other way round – my father [the school’s founder] said if you look after the emotions, the intellect will look after itself,’ she told me. Regularly labelled as Britain’s most unconventional private school, children here choose their own educational goals and take things at their own speed. If children decide to skip lessons, so be it. Play is considered as valid a part of their development as formal teaching.

Then there’s Sudbury schools (where students have complete responsibility for their own education, with the school run by a direct democracy in which students and staff are almost equals), Montessori schools (where mixed age classrooms, specialised educational materials, uninterrupted blocks of work time and student choice of activities from a prescribed range of options are among the key values) and Steiner schools (which the cultivation of pupils’ imagination and creativity is the central focus).

So the list goes on. But these undeniably values-driven schools are either unusual or even unique. What about the vast majority of schools across both sectors that claim to put values before league tables and/or before ticking the boxes for inspection bodies like Ofsted (one of whose boxes is, ironically, promoting British values)? The problem we’ve found is that all too often headteachers we meet reel off their core values – be they respect, thoughtfulness, courage etc – only to seamlessly move the conversation onto where their school sits in terms of competing against other local schools or, in some cases, nationally, whether that’s for overall results, value added or in specific areas such as modern languages or maths. No sooner have they shown you a display board with this week’s value of the week that they revert back to the hard data.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. State schools are under unprecedented pressure in an increasingly target-driven landscape, while in the independent sector, more and more schools are under pressure to do the hard sell to parents, many of whom would wince at the idea of a distraction from the school’s core business of churning out good exam results or (in the case of preps) guaranteeing entry into top secondary schools. The unfortunate consequence in so many cases is that claims around values feel like codswallop. Too many schools talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

At least we know that a character-based curriculum is both possible and achievable, and that values-based education is a growing phenomenon, with a growing body of research to back it up and help show schools how to implement it in cases where the school wasn’t founded on anything more than an opaque bunch of (often) Victorian-based principles. Key examples include creating a pedagogy around how young people can face and help resolve ethical dilemmas of the 21st century and explicitly rewarding examples of specific values.

There are increasing claims that values are the missing link in education and there has certainly never been a more important time to support children and young people to become values-led adults of the future.

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