As the impact of the pandemic strengthens its grip on the country, many schools are struggling to deal with its consequences. Scrambling to provide online provision and protecting students returning to school has been both expensive and time-consuming and, not surprisingly, governing bodies have found themselves under the cosh, their work often subsumed with a much simpler equation: how to survive until things get better. 

In the independent sector, governance has always been first and foremost about numbers and financial viability, with each school pitching its offering in the market place. Balancing budgets, compliancy, risk management, politics, providing economic value and meeting charitable obligations are the stuff of governor meetings, usually squeezing out discussion of learning and teaching.

With more schools falling under equity groups designed to generate a profit from their schools and with the sector increasingly driven by results, Oxbridge places or some tangible measure such as sporting excellence, there has been little room for innovation or anything that might be deemed a commercial risk. 

"Igniting the blue sky section of the brain can be restorative"

As a result, most schools became reluctant to be drawn into genuine educational debate or have responded only when pushed to do so by charitable law or public opinion. Yet governing bodies need to challenge management and staff to think more deeply about the future direction of education and, if appropriate, take a role in leading fundamental change to what and how we teach. It is not easy, acknowledging how busy they are in coping with everything being thrown at them, but igniting the blue sky section of the brain can be beneficial and restorative.

It wasn’t always thus. Before league tables were introduced in 1992 and the proliferation of university places, and when schools had more autonomy about what they taught, independent schools were at the forefront of curriculum change, notably in the sciences and languages. But all that changed with more top down direction from government and examination boards and with results being used by schools for marketing. This happened particularly after the Daily Telegraph started to rank schools by a process akin to naming and shaming without context or caveats, such as selection, off-rolling or the impact on students’ mental health. Today, it is the marketing department that lies at the core of schools, flagging their achievements and implicitly drawing comparisons with their competitors. It is a dog eat dog world.

Yet we should not accept that as an excuse for the failure to challenge our current paradigm of education – and I write this in the expectation that independent schools up and down the land will protest that they are doing truly innovative things with their curriculum.

But are they? Or are they just responding within the current paradigm of education, enshrined in the national curriculum and exam syllabi with gentle tweaking here and there (even noting the welcome calls from some heads to abolish GCSEs)?

"Where is the questioning of the validity of specific subjects and exclusion of others?"

For instance, where has been the lead in stripping down the curriculum to look at its utility and functionality and not just for those going to university? Where is the questioning of the validity of specific subjects and exclusion of others – for instance, the long-overdue revision of the teaching of history which would have avoided the knee-jerk revisionism we are currently experiencing?

Where are the moves to place environmental issues, climate change and ethics at the heart of education rather than just teaching them on the fringes? Why have we not looked at what children really need to know, especially in our primary schools? Why have so many schools remained selective based on academic potential/ ability when we know all children benefit from being in a wider pool of abilities and talents?

Why are more prep schools not looking at using their freedom to adopt broader courses in humanities or social sciences? Where do subjects like economics, psychology, sociology, ecology sit in this brave new world? Why is it that when Bedales School looks at the evidence of when children learn best before deciding to start formal lessons an hour later than normal, they are seen as being trendy?

Why have schools been so passive in criticising the content-heavy curriculum and the dangers of teaching to the test, instead of merely starting GCSE work ever earlier? Have we lost the will to keep asking how relevant is the education we give our children? Why do we think tinkering with lesson lengths and using blended technology in order to make learning more interactive, more interesting, is enough?

"One of governors’ core responsibilities is strategy and yet in many schools, it is the most neglected."

Why are schools so loathe to challenge the current paradigm and lead the way in fundamental change that would benefit all by being more relevant to the changing work place and society?  Schools are swimming against the tide, I hear heads say, and they are right. They are inordinately busy. Which is where governors come in. For in times of crisis, we need to be creating space, giving licence, involving more stakeholders and finding those creative minds to challenge an education curriculum that which is patently not working for all.

One of governors’ core responsibilities is strategy and yet in many schools, it is the most neglected. Few have bespoke strategy committees. Yet as governors we need to question what our schools are teaching and whether the pathways to a definition of success that has worked in the past is the best we can do for our children’s futures?  Whether the curriculum is as challenging and as relevant as it can be or is just focused on mark accumulation. 

We desperately need creative, strategic thinking from our leaders, teachers and our sector, and more deep thinking about the value of everything we teach and do. As governors, we need to free our teachers to think first and foremost about what is the best education we can give our children even if it means pushing out a few walls. It is not the time for schools to hunker down, I would suggest, but to be bold.