It's a family affair

THE national debate on education focused chiefly on academic standards. Little attention was paid to the socialising role of schools. This seems surprising given that society at large is worried by the unruly behaviour of a minority of youngsters and that the Scottish Executive urges schools to influence pupil behaviour in an increasing range of social and personal issues.

Primary schools are much better than secondary schools in this role. Their social structure is simple and strong. A child spends most of each day in the same class, in the same room, with the same teacher. Primary teachers accept and indeed cannot escape a responsibility for the whole development of their pupils: academic, social and personal. In secondary schools, a child will be taught by many teachers, in different classrooms and often with different groups of peers. This fragmented social structure encourages teachers to suppose that they are responsible only for academic development.

Secondary schools have responded by developing behaviour policies and syllabuses for personal and social development (PSD) classes. Unfortunately, even the brightest posters and most exciting teaching materials stand little chance against peer pressure and the media.

It is important to consider what other resources schools can deploy. There are at least six: ethos, social cohesion, teachers, pupils, the environment and parents. Ethos is the most elusive, for it is so difficult to identify a common purpose which can command the support of all members of a school community drawn from a wide area. Hence the current interest in faith and specialist schools. The purpose that perhaps fits best the comprehensive school is the realisation of each child's potential. This requires each child constantly to strive to improve on their personal best in all aspects of their life and allows schools to celebrate progress at all levels.

Given the current fragmentation of the curriculum among subject departments, social cohesion is virtually impossible. Indeed the organisation of S1-S2 practically amounts to institutional neglect. For them at least we need a new cadre of teachers who are qualified to teach 20-25 per cent of the curriculum and capable of knowing the individuals in a class and allowing for their differences.

Size is another factor. Most secondaries have many more than 400 pupils, the maximum within which every member of a school can know all the others at least by name. The solution is to create smaller units with space and teachers dedicated to each unit, difficult to achieve in the absence of a new design of school and a new structure for the teaching profession.

At present the teaching contract is defined largely in the narrow terms of subject teaching, while pastoral care is entrusted to guidance staff and supervision is left to senior management teams. It is a great mistake for subject teachers to be detached in this way from the personal and social development of pupils. All teachers should have a pastoral role and a duty to contribute to the communal life of the school, through supervision duties and extracurricular activities. Register or homeroom teachers should have pastoral responsibility for their class and be the first point of contact for parents.

We employ traffic wardens, park attendants, ticket inspectors, swimming pool attendants and other officials to maintain rules and regulations. Could we not appoint monitors to maintain order among their peers in corridors, playground, toilets and the local shops and to issue tickets for litter, painting graffiti, and eating outside permitted areas?

Extracurricular activities provide much the best medium for socialisation. Unfortunately only a small proportion of pupils are involved. Could we not include extracurricular activities in school reports and give homeroom teachers the task of ensuring that every pupil was engaged in a sport, a hobby and community work? And, like adults, children are influenced by their environment. What damage are the bleak and overcrowded playgrounds, mean entrances and disgusting toilets of inner city schools doing to them?

astly, parents and teachers should be allies. The present partnership is not working. Parents need much more information: advance notice of topics children will be studying, reports halfway through each term on progress in and out of class, a calendar of school events and reports on activities, concerns and achievements. The first steps might be to appoint a communications officer and the sending of all bulletins by post.

Teachers should host informal sessions at which parent year groups could discuss the issues they faced and ways of dealing with them. This would encourage more participation than is achieved through the present parent teacher associations and school boards. Indeed, I would like to see those bodies replaced by a new parent teacher board. Serviced from the school office and treated as an integral part of the school administration, it would monitor not just the academic experience the school offered but also the social environment.

There are two reasons for placing more emphasis on the socialising role of schools. First, policies to raise attainment will fall short unless they are accompanied by steps to make the total experience of school, social as well as academic, more attractive. Second, schools will never have the effect on young people's attitudes that society wants if they rely solely on policy statements pinned on noticeboards and one PSD class a week. Education is the process of leading the whole child out of childhood into adulthood, not just training the mind.

David R Hill chairs the school board at Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh.

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