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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 February, 2005, 00:44 GMT
Schooling beyond the curriculum
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
What is school for? Is it just about teaching and learning or is it about preparing healthy, active, socially-aware young citizens?

In short, are schools just education establishments or are they also part of the welfare state?

Are teachers increasingly being asked to be more than educators and being urged to take on the role of surrogate parents?

I ask because this week the two main education news stories were both about aspects of schooling which broadly lie outside the curriculum - school dinners and school trips.

The history of school meals is an interesting one. In 1944, as World War II was coming to an end, national nutritional requirements were set out by law.

This was a response to a growing recognition of the effects of poverty and poor diet on children's health. A new sense of social responsibility and war-time central planning saw schools as vehicles of social change.

Nanny state?

In 1980, as Thatcherism limbered up and began the steady policy shift from collective state-run responsibility to individuals being given responsibility for themselves, the school meal nutritional requirements were dropped.

Although the new Labour government, elected in 1997, promised to restore nutritional requirements, it did so only half-heartedly, bringing in fairly weak measures in 2001.

In part, Labour held back from restricting the number of times children could be given chips and baked beans because ministers feared accusations of restoring the "nanny state".

In part, it was also because of the difficulty of enforcing anything in an era of choice - the fear was that if chips were not on offer in the canteen, pupils would simply head off to the neighbourhood chip shop.

Moreover they knew that many parents would let them do so.

So it was an interesting measure of the new Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, that she decided this week to speed up the return to tougher nutritional requirements.

Incidentally, it is still too early to know quite what sort of secretary of state she will prove to be, but this week one aide described her to me as a "liberal progressive" and a "reformer".

classroom  scene
Are schools being asked to do too much?

The real test will come soon when she gives the government's response to the Tomlinson proposals for examination reform, but the school dinners decision was an interesting pointer that she sees schools, at least in part, as being in the business of social reform.

The other news story this week was the call by the Parliamentary Education Select Committee for an end to the decline in school visits and trips.

The committee wants the government to produce a "manifesto for outdoor learning that will give children a right to learning outside the classroom".

It believes a push from government is required to overcome the many barriers that are now obstructing school visits - cost, bureaucracy and, above all, the fear of being prosecuted or sued if anything goes wrong.

The select committee does not see school visits as just fun but as central to the purposes of education, even when the activities go beyond curriculum-related fieldwork trips.
Where does the balance lie between the school as educator and the school as agent of social inclusion?

As they put it, outdoor education "has a key role to play in the social inclusion agenda, offering children who may not otherwise have the opportunity, the simple chance to experience the countryside, or other parts of our heritage that many others take for granted".

So, in the spheres of meals and visits, we are seeing a new push on the social inclusion agenda. Schools are urged to make up for the family background or poverty of pupils' homes.

This is very much the agenda for the government's Early Years and child-care strategies.

It is an interesting shift from the 1980s when it was considered that the ills of poverty and malnutrition were a thing of the past and the welfare state was being dismantled.

But is there a risk of asking schools to do too much? If schools take on the nutritional care, the moral and ethical education, and the social inclusion of children does that release parents from their responsibilities?

Does it detract in any way from the other purpose (some would say the only purpose) of schools - namely to teach knowledge and skills.


British schools and teachers have long taken a rather more inclusive role than their French counterparts.

In general, teachers in France see their role purely as educators or instructors. I oversimplify for effect, I know, but broadly they see their duties starting and ending in the classroom.

Although the practice is now declining, it was common for French schools to be closed on Wednesdays. It was just assumed that the parents would be around to look after them.

The French school is not "in loco parentis" in quite the way it has been in Britain.

Amid all the understandable concern about discipline in schools, it is perhaps worth asking whether the more the state, and the school, takes on the role of the parent, the more some parents may abdicate their responsibilities?

I don't know the answers, and which teacher would not wish to redress the balance when they see undernourished children who have never been on trips or holidays, but I think it is a question worth pondering.

Where does the balance lie between the school as educator and the school as agent of social inclusion?

New guidelines for school meals
10 Feb 05 |  Education
MPs urge 30m school trip boost
10 Feb 05 |  Education
Schools 'shying away from trips'
28 Sep 04 |  Education

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