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Hope is such a vital, but fragile, force for good. In education we spend so much time working with individual young people and their families that the start of a new year is a good point at which to take a step back and look for signs of hope.

It was Professor Mary Beard who said, in 2016, that "A civilised society is, by definition, one that gets very worked up about how its young are educated." Today John Harris published a very timely article which refers, not without reason, to a "national educational catastrophe". There are many voices calling for alternatives to our current system of education. The fact that this is a lively and growing discussion is a real sign of hope.

We are always going to disagree about the best way to educate children and young people, but we are at a moment in the history of our country where we need to find some common ground between us. So much of our education system rests on unspoken assumptions and underlying contradictions - we need clarity and transparency about our priorities.

The question I am asking is simple to state and hard to answer: What are the principles that should now form the basis of our education of our children?

For example:

  • is social mobility important? If so, are we prepared, for example, to restrict parental choice in order to allow the least advantaged students access to our best schools?

  • is student mental health and wellbeing important? If so, are we prepared to reconsider our policies around school attendance, the nature of the school environment and our measures of student success?

  • how much emphasis should be given to needs of employers? In which case are we prepared to amend the current curriculum?

  • is equality of opportunity important? In which case are we prepared to look at the funding of schools so that the same opportunities can be given to each young person regardless of location, background or educational need?

  • is it important for a school to provide appropriate social and other care for children who need it? If so, are we prepared to consider school funding and accountability and access to appropriate professionals and services?

  • where does the balance lie between the responsibilities of parents/carers and those of schools? In which case are we prepared to look again at the structure of compulsory schooling and the provision safeguarding of children.

This is just a starting list!

This is important. If we are not clear about the principles that we agree on then we end up with contradictory priorities - for example

  • We want 100% physical attendance at school and we want improved child mental health;

  • We want all students to make national average levels of academic progress regardless of special educational need;

  • We want parents/carers to be able to send their child to a private school if they wish and we wish all children to have an equal quality of education.

We often end up with statements such as "world class education" which are too vague to be of practical use - to use that as an example, if we measure "world class" by our position in the PISA tables then we aren't doing too badly, but at what cost to mental health?

So, there are signs of hope! The fact that this is becoming a live debate is, in itself, hopeful!

So what would your priorities be? What should be a non-negotiable for everyone providing education to our children and young people - state-funded, private or home-educated? Please comment. or reply on whatever platform you access this post or get in touch directly (

Here's to a hopeful 2024!

James Harris

Please note... there are numerous references that could have been included in the post above, but it made it clumsy and obscured the key messages. It is worth looking at, for example (there are lots and lots more!)

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