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Affiliation can be a force for good or evil

The need to belong is inherent in all of us, but don't alienate people simply because they are non-academic, writes Ian Smith

It was good to listen recently to Keir Bloomer, one of the architects of A Curriculum for Excellence, talking about it. He confessed that the European Commission had devised a more elegant description of what we are looking for from education than ACfE's four capacities - namely to learn, to be, to do and to live with others.

I want to concentrate this month on the "responsible citizens" capacity.

The European version of this, "to live with others", is much better. It goes well beyond citizenship and gets to one of the fundamental things that drive us as human beings.

We are social animals. We yearn to belong, to feel connected, to be accepted by other human beings. Glasgow psychologist Alan McLean calls this "affiliation", and he points out that it is one of the internal drivers that motivate us all. We see affiliation at work and at every level. We identify not only with our country but with our team, our religion, our race, our neighbourhood, our class, our family, our friends, our gang, our school, our trade, our department. Or we do not.

Open your eyes and you will see our need for affiliation everywhere. It's why in the classroom or the training room people feel comfortable when allowed to sit where they like, and challenged when they are not. It's why many people like to sit in the same place in the staffroom and to have their own mug.

But affiliation is complicated. We can have conflicting loyalties with our race, our religion and our country. Affiliation can be a force for good or for evil. It can be used to manipulate us, to label us and to diminish us as human beings. It causes conflict.

The opposite of affiliation, as Mr McLean points out, is alienation, and some of the most close-knit, extreme groups in our society (witness the young men who carried out the London bombings) are those who have been alienated from the mainstream. Alienation is usually caused by rejection.

It leads to a loss of self-focus - you either shut down or you get angry to protect yourself.

Schools work hard to make sure that both staff and pupils are affiliated, that they feel a part of the school, that they feel included, accepted, respected and supported by each other. Try one of Mr McLean's activities right now. How high would you rate your affiliation to the organisation in which you work on a scale of one to 10?

Now reflect on the reasons behind your score. A genuine sense of belonging is not necessarily brought about by a rigid regime, where everyone is pressurised to be a team player, wear the same clothes, think the same things. It requires a recognition that each teacher and each pupil is an individual, and will be part of many disparate groups both in school and out of it.

How affiliated are your pupils to the school? Some are more affiliated than others, I suspect. I sat in on a lesson with a group of S3 Foundation pupils recently where you would not have needed to ask. Their behaviour spoke for them.

They are part of the 15 per cent of pupils who, according to statistics quoted by Mr Bloomer, have remained steadfastly alienated from secondary schools, despite all the efforts of governments, teachers and schools over the past 20 years to find solutions.

John Dewey said it many years ago: "Schools can't put right what society gets wrong." Good teaching alone is not the answer. The force of the teacher or the headteacher's personality alone is not the answer.

Skills academies are not the answer either. The students I saw are just the ones Jack McConnell has in mind for these schools in his latest vote-winning attempt to fix secondary education. I would like to ask Mr McConnell to think back to his days teaching non-certificate classes, and ask himself if the young people who are currently labelled "foundies" and know they are thought of as non-academic will be conned by the word "academy"?

They are not stupid people, or bad people - just angry and alienated. So would most of us be if the system treated us in that way.

If Mr McConnell is not convinced by the psychology, then I hope someone has shown him a letter, published in the Herald on September 27, on the idea of skills academies entitled "Getting the very best out of tradesmen".

It was written by a joiner who trains joiners and who is obviously proud to be a joiner (highly affiliated to his trade). He rages at the idea that skills academies might be filled with "disenfranchised truants" from secondary schools.

He wants to work with skilled and motivated people, and he points out that most of us would like that kind of tradesperson to work for us. The idea that if you are no good at academia you can become a tradesperson, he sees as deeply insulting and "the road to ruin".

Ian Smith is founder and director of Learning Unlimited

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