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What is Education for Social Responsibility?

A moment that will always stick in my memory was when I sat with 500 other head teachers at conference and the keynote speaker asked us the question, “what is education all about?” The funny thing was that out of 500 head teachers I was the only one to raise my hand.

Now I’m sure that every one of those head teachers has a pretty good idea why they run a school, so it could have been a fear of failure (we will talk about growth mindset another time) which prevented them from raising their hands, not wanting to get it wrong and be embarrassed in front of colleagues. Or it might have been because this is a really significant question in our world today and one which many people are now asking.

The world is changing so rapidly and there is recognition of the fact that our industrial model of schooling is no longer fit for purpose.

Most people would describe the purpose of education as helping young people to acquire the skills to succeed in life. But this begs the question what does it mean to succeed? What success looked like for my father’s generation is very different from my own. And my own children’s will be even further from that picture, the picture/model around which our education system is built.

Whenever I speak on the subject of education for social responsibility (ESR) I like to quote one of my favourite sayings. It goes like this. “Today we seem to value what we measure, rather than measuring what we value.” I would suggest that we all value mental and physical health, fairness, stable societies, community, a sense of fulfilment and purpose in life, equality etc. etc. These are all areas I would think everyone would agree that our children need to understand. Why?

Because we all value them. Yet our education system seems to be so focused on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ so we constantly reinvent ways to clear the old hurdles that we have been telling children they need to leap over for decades, rather than asking ourselves “what do our children need to know and be prepared for in the coming years?”

In the words of renowned educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, “Humanity faces existential challenges and radically transforming our dominant systems of education is essential to meet them.” Therefore, re-writing schemes of work to ensure that children understand what a fronted adverbial is may have some value, but it pales into insignificance beside some of the challenges facing humanity, challenges which our children’s generation will need to tackle head-on.

You may not have ever heard of Dr James Martin, but he was a leading mind in the world of computer technology and he also established a faculty at Oxford University looking into the challenges and possible solutions for problems which my generation and our economic systems have created as we roll on through the 21st-century. He also wrote a book called ‘The Meaning of the 21st-Century’ which makes for an interesting and, if I’m honest, a scary read. In his book he made the statement that the “public in general is spectacularly ignorant about major scientific issues.” As a head teacher with a science background I was almost offended by this statement, but having read the book I realised that James Martin was absolutely correct. It struck me that if I was oblivious to some of the serious issues that our children need to be learning about, most of the head teachers and others who mould our education system will probably be just as ignorant.

In a nutshell, many of the ways in which we live are completely unsustainable. Socially there are major changes afoot. Economic shifts in the next few decades will be massive and need to be managed very carefully. And the environmental degradation, which is now becoming better understood, will require a seismic shift in the way we manage our planet if it is to feed and meet the needs of 9 billion people by 2050. I don’t need to explain why these topics need to be taught to our children and personally I think these issues leave fronted adverbials looking a little trivial.

So, what is this ‘education for social responsibility’? Maybe the best way to answer that is by saying what social irresponsibility looks like. It looks like a society in which the rich get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer. It looks like a society which upsets the natural balance of gases in the atmosphere to the point where extremes of weather make food security in the coming decades questionable, leading to mass migration and all of the socio-economic and geopolitical problems that this would bring. It looks like a social system where ‘standard of living’ is held up as the purpose of our existence, while people’s quality of life and health are often on the decline. It looks like a society which does not understand the key principles of eco-system services; the services which provide us with the most basic elements for our existence and these are being sacrificed on the altar of an ever-increasing GDP. This is social irresponsibility, and we have to educate our young people to be ‘responsible’ in all of the areas where we have not been, to help them create a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable future because at the moment this is not the trajectory we are on.

Within the IAPS (Independent Association of Prep Schools) we have been working with PlanBee (a primary age group resource development company) to create resources which educate children about these vitally important issues. The IAPS has made these resources available to every school in the Association and the resources are also available online for any primary school that would like to use them. I would certainly encourage parents to speak to their schools, or even go directly to the head teachers, to make sure that in-depth teaching about fulfilled lives, ethical trade, eco-system services, food security, water security, biodiversity and climate stability are firmly in the curriculum – alongside fronted adverbials of course!

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