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Schools have rarely been out of the spotlight during the past 12 months, but many of their problems long predate the pandemic. The inequality of provision; wrangles over the politics of class, race and identity; the tunnel vision of examination grades and university entrance as the sole arbiters of success: these and more have bedevilled UK education for decades.
Many of these problems are the result of the adoption into UK schools of ‘double-liberalism’. The creed of economic liberalism has turned school into a job training centre. What should be a public good has been twisted into a means of private advancement, with social mobility for the few prioritised over an education that delivers for the many. Meanwhile, social liberalism has done its best to hollow the school out as a potential site of meaning, tradition and community. The curriculum is at once too academic and yet delivers none of the benefits of a traditional academic education, even for its winners, leaving the majority of school leavers culturally adrift. Notions of the other goals of an education – of training the character in virtue; of presenting to the growing mind a world of coherence; of helping students to appreciate the true, the good and the beautiful – are lost. Meanwhile, elite families send their children to a separate school system, cutting their children off from the society of their compatriots, whilst at the same time feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of imbuing them with any sense of public service.
And yet all is not lost. Some schools and educational thinkers shine out, offering hope for how we can emerge from the pandemic with a school system that truly delivers for all.
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