Schools with Soul: time to give SMSC its proper place at the heart of the school improvement and transformation agenda?

Wednesday 12th March 2014

Although attending to the “Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural” development of the pupils and students in their care has been a statutory responsibility for primary and secondary schools since 1944, what counts as ‘SMSC’ has had, as the Citizenship Education expert Ted Huddleston has noted, various iterations over the years.  At different points the initials and emphases have changed and in different periods the nuances and meanings ascribed to terms such as “social”, “moral”, “spiritual” and “cultural” have meant different things. In addition, particular themes have periodically emerged that might either be seen as a legitimate part of the wider terrain that SMSC occupies, or which have significant implications for those working on this terrain. For example, in recent years initiatives focused on Citizenship Education, Employability, Values Education, Resilience and Character Education have all come to the fore, and all have a contribution to make to the broader and evolving SMSC agenda. Whatever its precise articulation, though, SMSC has been viewed as a good thing. The challenge for policymakers, school leaders and practitioners – and all who work with them – has not been its ‘worthiness’; it has been the fact that it’s meaning has rarely been scrutinized or ‘nailed down’, either by schools or those charged with supporting or inspecting them.

This has been the concern of the authors of a new RSA report on this issue published this week, a team led by the RSA’s Director of Education Joe Hallgarten and which I have been proud to support as part of a broader advisory group, one that has included heads, middle leaders, classroom practitioners and others who have an engagement in the broader SMSC enterprise, including a range of national figures in the field.

Nobody would suggest running a school that does not attend to the social, moral, spiritual and cultural well-being of young people but giving SMSC its proper place in a culture dominated by ‘tests, targets and tables’ has proved especially difficult for school leaders and all who work with them.  Schools with Soul reminds us of the costs of failing to do so, as have the efforts of those concerned with what might be broadly termed the wider social curriculum over many years.  Schools with Soul calls into question not just the unintended consequences of the justified aspiration that every young person should achieve their full academic potential but the very way in which we organize schooling, and secondary schooling in particular.  You can read about Schools with Soul and download the full report and associated papers here: Schools with Soul

The dominance of the subject curriculum and of a very particular view of what constitutes a school ‘subject’ has continually marginalized (and sometimes ridiculed) so-called ‘newer’ subjects (think sociology, media studies, citizenship) while confining anything that cannot be packaged so neatly (think PSHE in its many iterations) to the often-lost world of cross-curricular themes or the margins of tutor time, in there with the register and the homework diaries – ‘everywhere but nowhere’ as I have been heard to claim on more than one occasion. So it has been for SMSC, and with the old hierarchy of knowledge firmly re-established in the new English Baccalaureate and a firm commitment to developing teachers’ subject knowledge (that’s certain teachers and particular subjects), the prospects might not look good for something as broad and apparently undefined as SMSC often has been.

That’s why this new report does three really important things: first, it makes us pause for thought about the purpose of education – grades are vital (I know, I went to a secondary school in the 1970s where four of us in my year group got five or more A-C grades) but so are the qualities and skills of confidence, character and resilience and dispositions that are pro-social, culturally-diverse and values-rich. Forget that and we end up with the ‘greed is good’ culture that has given us the banking crisis, the debacle of the MPs’ expenses scandal and the ‘have it all’ attitudes of celebrity culture, whatever the grades achieved by the protagonists.

Second, it proposes that we put the educational reform bandwagon on hold while we reflect on what the purpose of our educational endeavours might be. As Professor Richard Pring asked a few years ago in the report of the Nuffield Foundation’s Review of 14-19 Education, “what does it mean to be an educated 19 year old at the beginning of the 21st century?” Seventeen years ago I published a short chapter (in a book anticipating Labour’s 1997 landslide entitled Take Care, Mr Blunkett), that reflected on James Callaghan’s Ruskin Speech and carried the heading “25 years on: the great debate that never was”. Schools with Soul makes it clear that that debate remains to be had, and that it remains as important as ever; we should take the report as our starting point.

Third, it offers strategies that teachers and school leaders might use to bring the distinctly un-soft skills at the heart of the SMSC agenda to reality in our classrooms and our school communities. Everywhere but nowhere is not good enough; thankfully, the report offers some pointers that might be of benefit not just in addressing the ‘non-subject’ components of SMSC (and, yes, the subject curriculum can play its part here) but in supporting other areas afflicted by the curse of cross-curricularity: work-related learning, students’ physical and mental health, careers education and guidance, employability and so on.

The report’s deeper message is simple though: attending to the social development and personal wellbeing of students, which is what good SMSC does, should never be an after-thought or add-on from the ‘fluffy corner’, to be dealt with when we’ve met our targets numeracy and literacy, or whatever. It must sit at the heart of school improvement and transformation strategies designed to close the cap, raise attainment and build inclusion, especially in our most-challenged schools and our most deprived communities.

SMSC is not a distraction from the ‘standards’ agenda; it is the new standards agenda, the new standard by which we should judge the success of our educational efforts – attainment and achievement flow from inclusion and wellbeing; they do not precede it. Requires improvement is the report’s clarion call: without attending to their social, moral, spiritual and cultural development – and their physical and mental wellbeing – our attempts to ensure that all of the young people that we work with fulfill their potential are surely destined to failure.

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