Help our children fulfil their potential
As I’m sure you know, there has been considerable attention given over recent weeks to the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ controversy and on Friday (28/3) the Leader of the Council, supported by Cllr Brigid Jones, Peter Hay and me, wrote out to all schools making a clear statement about the authority’s position on the matter and the action it is taking. You can read the letter here: http://cypfbirmingham.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/3042-letter-to-heads-re-trojan-horse.pdf
I don’t want to reprise the content or sentiment of the correspondence here as it speaks for itself.
Rather, what I do want to do is write with this matter in mind and share some reflections about the purpose of education from my own perspective as a former teacher, head teacher, as well as someone who has had, and continues to have, significant responsibilities for this area in my local government role.
Like the Leader I believe in fairness. In the context of education, I believe, first and foremost, that this is about ensuring that every single child and young person in this city has an equal opportunity to benefit from the highest quality learning and teaching in order that they can fulfil their potential and realise their ambitions and dreams. Anything less, as we know, sells them short and so achieving this ambition must be the shared objective for every teacher, governor, parent, community and, of course, the City Council, its partners and the Department for Education. And I know that there are many, many dedicated people out there in our schools committed to, and making this happen every day. I value highly the combination of vocation, enlightenment and courage that drives them; it needs to be universally recognised, prized and perpetuated.
But fairness is about more than this. A great education system is also a great leveller – and one that levels up. By this I mean that it will recognise all the different aspects of the society that it serves – the social, economic, cultural, religious and other features of our multi-faceted world – and allow none of them to get in the way of putting a child’s success front and centre. By exploring these differences it is possible to enrich and stimulate a child’s natural curiosity about the amazing world in which he or she lives. This knowledge and insight, in turn, ultimately empowers children and young people to make informed choices for themselves.
It is, of course, a school’s role to serve its local community (or communities) and even in areas of alleged uniformity there is always difference – so, in addition to our personal responsibilities as citizens, as parents, as friends and relations, as community leaders – these critically important institutions play a vital role in recognising, promoting and valuing this variety. I agree with John Donne that no man is an island; the same should apply to our schools. They should be open and outward looking institutions.
And recognising, promoting and valuing these differences is a reciprocal activity. If I am to be respectful of you and your values and beliefs, then so should I expect that you will be respectful of mine. To celebrate diversity is not to ask someone to believe what you believe and be the same as you; but it is to ask them to show understanding and empathy – and to offer likewise in return. Where there is not this reciprocity then indifference, intransigence or, most worryingly of all, disconnection, radicalisation and, ultimately, confrontation can occur. And it is this that we must guard against for we know where it can lead.
So, it is vital that our schools are, and are seen to be, places that can put the realisation of the aspirations and potential of our children first – without fear or favour. The laws and regulations that govern our education system are there to support this endeavour, and we have a collective responsibility to uphold them not just in the letter, but also in the spirit with which they have been enacted – that of securing the delivery of a broad, balanced and inclusive education that delivers skills, knowledge, understanding and – above all – tolerance. This is expected irrespective of the character and governance model of the school concerned.
As we know, Birmingham provides a wonderfully diverse range of individuals, groups and communities. For example, there are now more than 180 languages spoken across our city. With such a powerful mix of people, our collective mission – with the unparalleled transformative power of a great and open education system at its heart – must be to celebrate our differences, be richer for understanding them, and to work together to challenge and change the hearts of those who would see difference as a blight rather than a blessing.
To quote Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. So, let’s continue to be brave together in our pursuit of realising the dreams of our children and young people.