When is a school not a school?

Perhaps nothing has provoked teachers more than the phrase ‘schools are closed’ over the last year. This is mainly because of the lazy journalistic slur that teachers are getting paid for doing nothing at home. Whilst schools are definitely ‘open’ to at least some pupils, teachers will be keen to point out that those at home are still receiving an education and, in this sense at least, schools are still open for business.

But can turning up for online lessons really be claimed as an equivalent to ‘going to school’? Clearly no, and were it equivalent then we could happily sell off school sites and having everyone ‘working from home’. We know that school isn’t merely the act of teaching and of being taught.

There is a raised eyebrow when I hear that the person in charge of overseeing looked-after children’s education in a local authority is called the ‘Head of the Virtual School’. What school? Then there is criticism of those who adopt the title headteacher when they are CEO of an educational service provider rather than actually running a school. Personally, I am not that bothered by the semantics, but it is discordant with what we intuitively know a school to be.

So, does a school need a building? I would argue that it does, and that this building is the gathering place for all those who work at or attend the school. A school building, and all the grounds and facilities that come with it, not only provide the physical environment for activities which cannot be done remotely (like sport), or would be difficult to do so without the right resources (like design and technology), but they bring people physically together. It is the physical proximity which we perhaps under-estimated the importance of pre-pandemic. Being together in physical space supports nuance in teaching, fosters personal and professional relationships, and makes it far easier to carry out the pastoral and safeguarding role that schools play in society. A school is not a school without a school building.

However, clearly the school building is not what we mean when we think of a school. It is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, after all people come together in all sorts of communal spaces – supermarkets, youth clubs, sports centres, work places – but these are not schools. Neither is the act of coming together and interacting socially unique to schools.

To make a school a school, we need young people to come together for a particular form of social interaction, which we recognise as ‘teaching and learning’. This activity will include knowledgeable adults who facilitate the process.

And yet, not all types of instruction pass as schooling. Personal tutoring, whereby one adult teaches one child, is not a schooling model. School requires children to be grouped: the creation of classes. It is this economy that makes it possible to educate all children, not just an elite few. Classes are a key feature of schools and, whether they are organised by age, aptitude, or discipline, are the organisational building block which makes schools possible.

We are getting closer to what makes a school a school, but there is one vital ingredient missing. To be a school, the intention must be for pupils to learn something; but not just anything. We can (and will continue to) argue about what the curriculum should be, but we can say that there would be no purpose for schools if the proposed curriculum could be just as easily learnt through a child’s everyday experience. Therefore, the school curriculum must be distinctive, valuable and privileged (in the sense that only by attending school can this knowledge be satisfactorily acquired by everyone). It would be wrong, however, to think of this curriculum as merely the subjects to be taught. The act of coming together itself provides valuable socialisation and inculcation into society. It is the totality of experience, and how this changes the child, that makes school worthwhile. In this way, we move beyond the physical, beyond the social, and introduce a moral purpose to our definition. School is an intentional, and political, act. Its purpose and method are inextricably linked.

School is a human creation and both its wonder and its frustrations are baked-in. They are configured to continually confound. The reason all schools appear, at least on the surface, to be similar is that the regularities – the invisible train tracks along which schools run – arise from the way be conceive of and design modern schooling. Although ‘design’ is not the right word. Schooling is no more designed than the universe. There is no watchmaker, only a gradual, evolutionary process which has resulted in the phenomenon of mass schooling which we see today. Schools are schools because they serve a purpose that society needs them to serve. They will cease to be when they no longer fulfil that purpose, or something comes along that does it better. It is difficult for our tiny minds, trapped in the present and the past, to conceive of when that might be. For now, we have schools and they will have to do.

Schooling is imperfect; perhaps deeply flawed. We don’t really know how well schools work, or why they work, and therefore we aren’t always clear on what would improve them. We don’t even agree on what they are for, beyond the broad definition provided above. Even this is contestable.

But I cannot think of anything better than school and it is the place we would all like to go back to.

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