The question in the headline is the title of a new book published by UCL IOE Press. It’s written by Doug Martin and based on research in four North of England schools and communities. But the question is also one that should be asked today, for it raises an issue at the very heart of education. What is the identity of the school? What is it for?
Education in England since the 1988 Education Reform Act has been dominated by four themes: governance, choice, regulation and performance. Local authority control has been replaced by self-government and, with the rise of academies and free schools, a direct contractual role for central government; parents have been given, at least on paper, increased say over which school their children attend; a national curriculum and national inspection agency have been introduced and endlessly wrangled over; while examinations have proliferated, with endless picking over schools’ performance. What has emerged is a particular idea of schools: as exam factories, judged on grade productivity; and as businesses competing in an education market place for the custom of parent-consumers.
But something happened for a few years at the start of the century that complicated this picture and had the potential to disturb and disrupt, to open up a democratic politics of education about the meaning and purpose of education and about our image of the school. This window of opportunity was opened by the Labour government’s espousal of the Extended School, culminating in a comprehensive policy commitment in 2005 that all publicly-funded schools would become extended schools with a ‘core offer’ – a minimum requirement for additional services: out-of-school hours activities for children, childcare provision, parenting support, adult learning opportunities, and swift and easy referral of children to more specialist services. Here was the possibility of schools whose explicit purpose was more than just exams and whose relationship extended beyond parents to the whole local community – schools as multi-purpose institutions for all citizens. All this was undertaken within the broader context of ‘Every Child Matters’, an ambitious policy initiative launched in 2003 that set broad aims for all children’s services, established new universal institutions (not only Extended Schools but Children’s Centres for younger children and their families), and placed responsibility for all children and families within a single government ministry, the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
For those working in the field of children, schools and families during these few years, there was always a strange mismatch between the broad sweep, huge ambitions and rapid momentum of government policy and apparent public unawareness, at least of the big picture. Parents may have used Children’s Centres or been aware that something was changing at their children’s schools, but few probably realised this was part of a far larger programme and most would have looked blank if asked about the ‘Every Child Matters agenda’. So while there was rapid growth in services and much activity by policy-makers and practitioners, the roots were shallow, unable to resist a new government in 2010, one of whose first acts was to replace the ‘Department for Children, Schools and Families’ with the ‘Department for Education’. The window of opportunity was closed, ‘Every Child Matters’ replaced by a different policy agenda, Extended Schools displaced by Free Schools.
It is, of course, possible to be too nostalgic about the Labour government’s burst of activity, and to get it out of perspective. New Labour may have espoused a new, broad policy agenda, including Extended Schools, but it did not abandon the themes of governance, choice, regulation and performance. In the new Extended Schools, the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda sat, perhaps uncomfortably, alongside a continuing standards agenda. Change was hurried and top down, swept along by a constant blizzard of Whitehall directives, and the desire to govern, regulate and control was always likely to overwhelm the possibilities for emancipation, participation and local experimentation. The opportunity to open up a democratic politics of education was eschewed. And yet, despite these caveats, something important was being attempted, something that might just have led to new thinking about education and schools, moving from narrower to broader understandings.
It is in this context that Doug Martin’s book is so important. At a time when memories of Every Child Matters and Extended Schools are fading fast, when the policy agenda has returned with a vengeance to an exclusive concern with governance, choice, regulation and performance, when the school seems more than ever to be viewed by government as primarily a business selling exam results – we should remember Extended Schools. And do more than remember: reflect upon their experience, appreciate the challenges they faced and what they achieved, and consider how, some day, we might build on this experience to create education-in-its-broadest-sense within schools that are public spaces in the public domain, public resources not only for children and parents, but for whole communities – genuinely public schools.
Peter Moss is Emeritus Professor, Thomas Coram Research Unit