'Schools must remind us what it is to be human'

At a time of national division, it's up to schools to remind us of the value of working together, says David James

united front: schools show there is strength in making connections

Get ready for the most acrimonious and bitterly divisive six weeks we’ve known since, well, the past six weeks. 

A general election is coming, a blood-dimmed tide, and the country is viewing it like a domestic dispute between neighbours that has slouched on for three years, keeping us awake, collectively staring into the dawnless night, but has now reached the family court of public opinion. 

We’re all implicated, all dragged in as exhausted witnesses, begging for it to simply cease. Surely some revelation is at hand.


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Yet, no matter how much we have wanted it all to end – irrespective of how firmly we've put our hands over our ears, or banged the walls with our heads – the noise, bile, recriminations, and despair spill out from a yawning maw of anti-resolution. 

Yeats’ The Second Coming reads like a shopping list of current and future events. The darkness drops again. It’s not only the centre that cannot hold, but also the Left, the Right, and everything in between and beyond. 

Innately human places

Stop a minute. Think again. Does this chime with your everyday reality? Is this what you see in the supermarket? At work? Or do those quiet conversations that make time pass, forging and reinforcing understanding, continue with all the relentless optimism of a heart beating? 

And things get done. Lives are lived, free of all the detritus that is strewn across the saliva-flecked floors of Westminster and through the dark clouds of Twitter. 

Of course, if the spirit of the age is characterised by divorce, it’s tempting also to think that nobody says a civil word to each other any more, no partnerships form, no marriages endure.

The prosaic reality is, thankfully, upliftingly, different. And nowhere is this more evident than in schools. Despite the chaos that seems to swirl around us, teachers somehow teach and lessons get taught. 

Schools are incorrigibly plural, living parts of local and national communities. And, because they bring so many people into them, they cannot but reach out and connect with others. They are innately human and optimistic places. 

Simple arrangement

Connections are made in a multitude of formal and informal ways. For example, only last week, in my fee-charging independent school, members of a local comprehensive’s senior leadership team met with ours to discuss common bonds and projects. There was excitement about possibilities, and the common focus was on the problems shared, and how, by coming together, they could be resolved. Because sharing strengthens rather than dilutes. How often have we heard that over the past three years?

But it is there, you just have to look closely and listen carefully. With wonderful British understatement, there is the “simple arrangement” of creating a link between Bedales, an independent school, and the Key Education Centre, a pupil referral unit (PRU). This is a partnership described, rightly, by Leanne Forde-Nassey, the headteacher of the Key, as “a collaboration of equals”. 

Staff and pupils from vastly different backgrounds come together to live out the inevitable truth of cliché: namely, what is common to us is stronger than what separates us. Meanwhile, those destructive activists who seek to abolish and censure, who want to raze this complex educational ecosystem down to something resembling a monochrome lunar landscape, must look on, perplexed by optimism.

Schools from very different contexts, who are misrepresented as simply privileged and divisive institutions, continue to have that shared identity with every academy, PRU, comprehensive, primary and free school: they all educate students. This irreducible truth is the starting point for constructive activism, and at its centre is hope. When you see connections forming, you are reminded of that innate adult urge to protect children and to see them flourish. 

Light in the gloom

Look at the Schools Together website if you want to let a little more light into the pervasive, dichotomous, gloom. There you’ll learn that 1,142 independent schools partnered with state schools last year, including 929 in academic partnerships, 626 in music partnerships, and more than 1,000 in sports partnerships. But it is from these dry figures that warmer human stories emerge. 

When spheres connect, the results can be powerful. There are partnerships between state and independent schools that help students to become opera singers; there are football festivals organised by village schools; there are schools that come together to encourage girls to do physics, to help talented mathematicians, to support refugees, to promote teacher mentoring…the list goes on and on and on, with nearly 5,000 case studies. All are affirmative and determinedly, wonderfully, messy, noisy, tributes to the open minds that characterise the best teachers. 

Every partnership, modestly, challenges the cynicism of the time. A smile is always quieter than a shout. But, in this age of “No” each of these partnerships is an enormous “Yes”

The opportunities to create new professional friendships continue to present themselves, with meetings coming up that can provide answers for busy teachers who want to share ideas but don’t know where to begin. 

But money talks, too, and schools can bid for government grants of up to £20,000, which provide the necessary foundations for these bridges. Again, such announcements can get drowned out by the clamour for unceasing demands made by political opportunists who seek to represent the schools we work in as blunt extensions of their political dogma. They are not. They are face-to-face places of human endeavour and optimism. 

Today, and over the coming weeks, we will need to come together more than ever if we are to remind ourselves of what it means to be fully human. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of an independent school in the South of England. He tweets @drdavidajames

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