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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

It Takes a Village - The HCMI and the Problem of Socialisation

Today the Guardian published the thoughts of HMCI Amanda Spielman about the impact of the pandemic on children and education.

Amongst the eye-catching comments she makes in the interview are the following points:

  1. Pupils refusing to comply with rules, talking back to teachers and walking out of lessons.

  2. Increasing levels of suspension for physical assault, verbal abuse and threatening behaviour.

  3. Levels of defiance of basic rules by even primary-aged students.

  4. Students attending registration for school but truanting from lessons all day.

  5. High levels of absence linked to students anxious about high levels of poor behaviour.

Spielman is quoted as saying "this is across the system" based on findings from research into the views of survey participants which are due to be published next year. A loss of "socialisation" is identified by Spielman as a significant issue behind the challenges to school discipline, which the report links to the rise in fixed term exclusions based on most recent data. If anecdotal data from school leaders are accurate, these figures are almost certain to rise again in the data for 22/23.

Spielman challenges the notion of a mobile phone ban being a "magic bullet" and points instead to the importance of "clear rules and expectations, consistently applied" alongside the explicit teaching of these rules and time to practise them. So far, so good. School leaders will no doubt be happy to recognise this as being one of their main contributions to the secondary socialisation of children in order to facilitate learning.

This interview is important and it is clear that the HCMI is sending some messages to the DfE when she stresses that whilst not being apocalyptic, she sees the pressures schools being under as a "multi-year problem". Indeed, for schools, who have essentially been fully open since March 2021, we are already two and a half years into this problem and so it is a relief when others recognise it. There are similar important messages from Spielman to politicians about the DfE being responsible for the much-delayed transgender guidance and, correctly in spite of the criticism for Ofsted recently, for any significant and structural changes to inspection arrangements in the light of the death of Ruth Perry.

Without wishing to read too much into Spielman's analysis, it feels like there is a frustration with policymakers emerging as she nears the end of her time as HMCI. Alongside this is a feeling that she sympathises with the position in which school staff find themselves on an array of pressing issues which detract from the quality of education students receive.

Spielman's focus on within-school provision for tackling the "multi-year problem" is, though, illustrative of the increasing gap between what schools are having to do as a consequence of the decreased capacity of other sectors. Spielman does not or cannot comment on the disconnect between educators and social services, mental health support and safer schools (to cite just three examples), but those of us with recent experience of schools know that these factors are important contributors to the malaise she identifies. Schools are the agents of secondary socialisation, but it is wider societal structures that provides tertiary socialisation that is vital for young people being equipped for adult life.

As this sociological argument indicates, my view is that Spielman reflects the experience of schools in linking the issue of poor behaviour to socialisation. Again, though, she does not (or more likely, is not able within her remit) to go so far to talk about the increasing sense of disconnect between schools and families, but it feels like it is present through her comments (given that families are the agent of primary socialisation). Just recently the Guardian published a report into the "full blown national crisis" of school attendance which, in part, reflects increased parental views "across the socio-economic spectrum" that it is not their responsibility to ensure their child is in school every day.

This lack of primary socialisation into the most basic element of education - being there to be educated and secondarily socialised - has led to a 50% increase in pupil absence and a doubling of persistent absenteeism. The quotes from parents within the article are desperately sad and upsetting in equal measure, with one parent of primary age children saying "I’m not gonna lie to you, my take on attendance and absence now is like I don’t really care any more. Life’s too short."

If I'm right in detecting a note of frustration in the words of the Chief Inspector that the situation for children and school staff is more challenging than ever, with fewer resources to tackle those challenges, and less will-to-power on the part of those who could make a difference, where does that leave schools?

As Spielman indicates in the few positive suggestions she makes, it leaves school leaders more responsible than ever for making the difference that the children, and the staff working with those children, need. But schools cannot be the agents of primary, secondary and tertiary socialisation all at once. There is a limit to the capacity of schools and of their staff to fill the gaps that previously were limited to very few children because other agencies were able to play an appropriate and expected part in their socialisation.

At some point this government, or the next one, needs to wrestle with this problem until it finds a solution better than the one that places all of the onus on schools and their leaders. Inevitably, as Kevan Collins realised in the immediate aftermath of lockdowns, this will require significant levels of funding to be shifted in ways that schools can actually make use of for the benefit of their pupils. As much as the full gamut of socialisation cannot be done entirely by schools, it cannot either be done on the cheap.

In the meantime, though, it does fall to schools and their leaders to hold things together as best they can until the extra resource and capacity becomes available. One way in which they can do this is to take care of their own resources and capacity as best they can. Given that by far the most significant resource schools have is their staffing (usually three-quarters or more of income is spent on staffing), this means helping them to cope with the challenges whilst developing in their practice and meeting their role expectations.

If you want to know more about how can support you in making the most out of your staffing through reflective supervision, contact us using the contact form or email address on the website.

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