Appreciation of another perspective

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Visits to school, expected or unexpected, create their own tension. No matter who the visitor may be or which organisation is represented, the school is under scrutiny. Impressions are improved or diminished on the basis of such fleeting occasions.

This thought was with me recently as I welcomed a cross-section of visitors from the world beyond St Paul's Secondary, representing business, banking and commerce, media, public services and university life.

The brief was simple: in 20 minutes outline the key issues facing secondary schools and colour the outline with reflections on my own school.

What would be your script for those 20 minutes? I chose two main elements, national priorities and perspectives, with sub-plots prepared if needed.

They weren't. What evolved was a fascinating sharing of views with the script torn up and time being immaterial.

On, then, to the national priorities. There are only five known to us in education, summarised as achievement and attainment, framework for learning, inclusion and equality, values and citizenship and learning for life. Our latest staff meeting had them at its core: they are useless if they remain as unread statements on school walls.

My guests had no knowledge of their existence and they represent the world for whom we prepare our pupils. Their first reaction, then, was surprise.

Their second slightly surprised me. They found the priorities provided strong and powerful structures for schools to succeed in the modern world.

They drew striking parallels with their own worlds of work, coming to a consensus that these priorities would fit comfortably into any aspiring organisation or corporate body.

Government bashing is easy, almost a national sport. But at that meeting some faceless policy makers were placed on a pedestal: they received genuine approbation for getting something right.

I am heartened also by a unanimous view that values and citizenship is the key priority. How refreshing to be in a group of thinking people who, reflecting their backgrounds and the different dynamics that drive them, identified that as being the true launch for success in other areas. They told me: "Succeed in this area and you build from real strength."

Perspectives intrigue me. What should my school be achieving and for whom?

In seeking the answer, I reflected on a recent addition to my office wall, a piece of art from a gifted senior pupil. It is striking and unfailingly gets a reaction from visitors. My head of art is tickled by my astonishment. In selecting it for the office, she clearly - but quietly - understood that any art that creates a reaction is successful art. My point is that it is all a question of perspective.

What should the school achieve? This too is a question of perspective.

The pupils - all of them, of every age and ability - will give an answer.

It will be enunciated in their own code and is surely the most powerful, demanding and challenging response for teachers to meet.

It will differ from the perspective that parents have, not widely or wildly but it will differ. Would parents expect schools to be focusing on the priority of raising attainment or is their child's safety and well-being enshrined in the values priority?

How closely do these perspectives coincide with the expectations the world of work has of schools? My visitors may have been particularly enlightened: they identified a soft indicator as the key to success. I feel there is still a journey to be made for many outside education to embrace such a stance.

My attending a leadership course raises no eyebrows. It is expected, indeed it is professionally mandatory. When it involves an aircraft flight and a foreign location it is seen so differently that even my ageing five-a-side football friends have ostracised me. Yet, on a weekly basis one or two of them is unavailable due to business commitments abroad. Their attitudes reflect a difference of perspective.

The 21st century is a time of international barriers coming down, communication on an ever changing global scale, common currency across nations I (Complete the list in your own time.) Yet, place educators on an international scale and they face cynicism, wrath and questions of value and cost.

In changing perspectives, perhaps we are still at the bus stop.

Rod O'Donnell is headteacher of St Paul's Secondary, GlasgowIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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