ASCL's annual conference in Brighton sparked debate about how well equipped schools and colleges are to deal with the issues faced by children today - and to what extend they should be expected to do so.
There is growing concern about the Teffect that changes in society - not least technology, family life and economic forces - are having on young people, and the extent to which schools and colleges are able to help young people deal with these.
This was a clear message that came out of the keynote sessions at ASCL's annual conference in Brighton on 7-9 March.
Further complicating the issue is the tension in society that on one hand portrays young people as out-ofcontrol hooligans, and on the other, gives children less freedom to take risks and assert their independence.
The impact this has had on schools and colleges is significant, said ASCL president Brian Lightman. "We know that some of school with an adult, who rarely sit down for a family meal, who are left in their free time to go where they like with no adult control, and who arrive in our schools crying for attention, all too often in ways which disrupt the learning of others."
However, it is not just family life that makes schools' and colleges' job harder, said John Dunford. "The media have a part to play too. Schools and wider children's services do their work in a social context that is often as unhelpful as it can be.
"News has too often become a form of entertainment, audiences are defrauded in the name of participation, the cult of celebrity is promoted in a base and distasteful way, and social advancement is presented as something best gained through the purchase of a lottery ticket. Never have the values of school been more important in children's lives."
In her address, Shami Chakrabarti (left) of the human rights group Liberty asked delegates to consider the wider implications on young people of the way that society perceives them. In particular, the actions of a minority should not justify the vilification of all, she said.
Shami, who called herself a "recovering lawyer", said it was "extraordinary and lamentable" that Liberty receives more hate mail when it speaks out for the rights of young people than it does when it speaks out on behalf of terrorists.
"I'm sure this has to do with people being fearful of children, perhaps from an experience they might have had with a group of young people acting up or from images in the media," she said.
She acknowledged that there were cases in which problems in the home spilled over into the streets or into the classroom. "I'm not trying to pretend that these young people are easy to deal with. That behaviour is challenging and must be addressed. However, young people have human rights as well."
She reminded delegates of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill that headteachers have powers with which prime ministers have not yet been invested. At the time, the quote ostensibly referred to powers of discipline; Shami gave it a meaning for the present, where the power of school and college leadership is to inspire, to care and to transform lives.
The "shifting sands on which education has been built" is how Matthew Taylor of the Royal Society for the students' altering expectations. For instance, he said: "Where we used to put up with it, young people today are more intolerant of mediocre teaching."
Schools and colleges must have the freedom to innovate, as well as keep an eye on standards, if they are to prepare students for tomorrow's world. There is no room for the model of 30 years ago, he said, when there was innovation but students weren't being taught to read and write.
"Every school should have a story about innovation. Every school is different and innovation responds to that uniqueness. It is frustrating how little is known outside of schools about the innovation that is taking place in schools."
This implies a change in the government's attitude to innovation, Matthew stated. Using the analogy of a parent and teenager and tidying the bedroom, he said that it is easier for a parent to keep a teenager's room clean than to negotiate up front the terms on which the teenager will take responsibility for it - or even to define what tidy is. However, if the parent does not relinquish responsibility and some control, s/he will still be tidying the room when the son/daughter is 25.
Schools need to have, and to give others, the space and time to innovate, he stressed.
Tests of life
Continuing this theme, author and professor Guy Claxton told delegates that "the current system prepares students for a life of tests, but not for the tests of life.
"Exam success is only valuable while it has currency in the market. We know that you can be a 'successful' student without being a robust, confident, capable learner."
He suggested that techniques for learning, organising and retrieving information - such as mind maps, learning styles and thinking skills - can be useful but often fall way short of what is needed. And if used improperly, they can stifle learning rather than stimulate it.
Instead, he said, schools and colleges should adopt an 'enculturation' model to learning, where every element is adjusted to send the signal that "we welcome learners and learning round here; not just knowing and achievement."
It would encompass everyday language as well as marking, reporting and planning; the environment, including displays, resources and spaces; activities like flexible timetables and extended inquiry; and creating role models of transparency and collaboration.
It was indicative of the mood of the conference, and of delegates, that each speaker, while acknowledging the challenges facing schools and colleges, young people and society, ended on a note of optimism and anticipation for the future.
As Secretary of State Ed Balls said in his speech: "Together, I believe we can achieve our ambition and make our country the best place in the world for children to grow up."
For copies of annual conference presentations and speeches from Brian Lightman, John Dunford, Guy Claxton and others, visit the ASCL website at www.ascl.org.uk and go to events. For an excerpt from the secretary of state's address to delegates, please see the 'Six of the best'.
© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders