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Elizabeth Holmes

How good is your school at supporting pupils SMSC development?

The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live. Mortimer Adler

Developing understanding

I have a habit of doing unscientific surveys every time I’m talking to a group of teachers. They always offer insights worth listening to beyond some of the noise and blather the profession occasionally gets caught up in. A recent question I asked was ‘how good is your school at supporting pupil’s SMSC development?’ Once we had unpicked SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural – now referred to as the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils) the response from most was a disappointing ‘not very’.  It seems that while some schools have made this implicit in what they do, many skim over it, perhaps put off by the term ‘spiritual’, or unable to identify where this development occurs specifically in the school curriculum. Consensus seems to be that the SMSC waters are muddy and the commitment to professional development to equip teachers to tackle this requirement of the curriculum more effectively is rare. The biggest surprise to me is the view that SMSC is a relatively new development in education. In fact, it has been a part of education since 1944 and inspected since 1992. In March this year the RSA Action and Research Centre published a report on SMSC entitled ‘Schools with Soul: A new approach to Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education’. It is well worth reading, and highlights that a lack of time for reflection on the purpose of SMSC development means that it is in danger of being marginalised in all but the most confident schools. James Robson, Knowledge and Online Manager at Culham St Gabriel’s, an endowed charitable trust dedicated to educational work in support of religious education, has a professional interest in SMSC in schools. He too shares concerns about the way in which SMSC is sidelined in schools. ‘I believe SMSC in schools is largely misunderstood by the majority of teachers and managers in schools – not helped by muddy definitions of what SMSC actually means. While SMSC sits across the curriculum, frequently no one person takes a lead on it and so fulfilling requirements becomes a box ticking exercise with no strategic direction or picture of overall development in relation to students’ whole learning experience. I think people often get fixated on the word ‘spirituality’ and can’t see beyond that word to think about the other areas needing to be covered, and that’s why SMSC provision is often placed in the remit of RE teachers.”

Effective CPD for SMSC

While it is extremely difficult to locate effective CPD for SMSC, there are steps that schools can take to help rectify this. ‘Take SMSC seriously’, is the first point that James makes. ‘And appoint an SMSC lead who is actively engaged in it. Also, make a working definition that is appropriate for the context of the school.’ The potential for SMSC in schools is great. As James explains, ‘I’m interested in the links between students’ use of digital technologies, particularly social media, and SMSC. More work should be done on thinking about how students’ identities are constructed through engagement in online social spaces, and how such spaces are often used by children (and adults) to relate to their peers and to make sense of themselves and the world around them. This sort of self development is a key part of SMSC and so we need to look into how the two areas can be related. In the first instance it is important to change the discourses related to social media in school away from being fixated on the negative elements – disruption, bullying, safety concerns – and onto the more intangible but positive aspects of connectivity – social ties, creative and cultural expression, and identity development.’ It’s simple. Before we can prioritise SMSC in our schools and start exploring these possibilities, we have to prioritise staff development. Yet with fiercely competing demands on limited budgets, combined with time constraints, it’s hard to see how SMSC will be anything but the poor relation, impoverishing our schools considerably.

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