Learning service or Service-Learning?

The Duke of Wellington was famously credited with asserting that the Battle of Waterloo (1815) was won “on the playing fields of Eton”.  Well, in his own twenty first century way, Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, Old Etonian, and acquaintance of Johnson clan (various), has claimed another famous victory for his Alma Mater. Defending the preponderance of fellow Old Etonians in the government, Mr Norman declared that Eton uniquely promoted an ethos of commitment to public service:
“(Eton) is one of the few schools where the pupils really do run vast chunks of the school themselves. So they don’t defer in quite the same way; they do think there’s the possibility of making change through their own actions.”

Umm. Apart from smacking a little of “Lord of the Flies”, this highly personal view of Mr Norman’s own education does a great disservice to schools in both the maintained and independent sectors. Schools across the land may not all have the playing fields of Eton (probably been sold off), but they do have what matters more – a community. And the best school communities will have what can be simply described as a heart, promoting a sense of social responsibility and service within the school and beyond. Whilst the government metric for success in schools focuses on examination performance and league tables, much of the fantastic work of our young people goes under the radar. Schools value it because teachers working with young people understand that school is not just about examination success.

Interestingly governments in other countries share this belief. In the U.S. for example there is a commitment to what is described as Service-Learning:

“Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”

Underpinning this is a range of activities familiar to us yet valued in a way unfamiliar in our system. Service-Learning is not about short term volunteerism or extra curricular bolt ons. It is about integrating this approach into the curriculum:

“If school students collect trash from an urban stream bed, analyse their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in Service-Learning. In addition to providing an important service to the community, students are learning about water quality and laboratory analysis, developing an understanding of pollution issues, and practising communications skills. They may also reflect on their personal and career interests in science, the environment, public policy or other related areas. Both the students and the community have been involved in a transformative experience.” ( http://www.servicelearning.org )

Looking through the prism of this model it is striking that the desired learning outcomes are not subject to assessment in a sense we would understand. Service-Learning strives to promote a greater understanding and awareness of the place of a young person in their world and their own sense of responsibility.

If we insist on only valuing what we can measure in this country, let’s think about measurement in a way which takes account of our own version of Service-Learning. After all, Michael Gove believes teachers should create their own curriculum in the future. Surely this offers an opportunity to build on the excellent practice which already exists in our schools. Who knows? We may find future generations of young people from a range of backgrounds and schools aspiring to serve in government because they know through their experience that they can make a difference through learning  Service-Learning.

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