Change law with a mind to the future

14th April 2000 at 01:00
Teachers may become responsible in law for their pupils' personalities under new legislation, warns Gerard Keegan

"EX-PUPIL wins six-figure sum against council"; "Headteacher resigns as school blamed for personality disorder". Headlines like these might not be so far-fetched unless the education committee of the Parliament takes care over Section 2 of the Standards in Scottish Schools Bill.

It redefines the duty of a local authority towards education. But a minefield may lie therein. The wording reads: "It shall be the duty of the authority to ensure that education is directed to the development of the personality, talents, mental and physical ability of the child or young person to their fullest potential." For "personality" to appear in any legislation following the controversial Noel Ruddle case should ring alarm bells for all.

It was personality that got Ruddle released from Carstairs last year. He has a non-biological severe personality disorder, and cannot be treated by medical means as his disorder arose from environmental influences during childhood and adolescence.

So in referring to "personality" MSPs may hand local authorities, schools and teachers a poisoned chalice - acquiring a duty of care for the development of a pupil's personality. The environment, of which schools are a major part, influences three clusters of dysfunctional personality disorder within the psychiatrist's diagnostic tool, the International Classification of Disorders. ICD identifies another eight categories where the environment figures highly.

Without careful contemplation Section 2 could lead to hefty legal bills all round. "Is my client's recognised personality disorder a consequence of their biology or their experiences at school?" may well precis the law's consideration of the nature-nurture debate and the formation of personality - functional and dysfunctional.

Individual temperament is the first building block to personality and is nowadays thought to be influenced by genetics and foetal environment. Thereafter come many variables, including care-givers, gender, birth order, teachers, peer group, the media, the self - and the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

Luckily for local authorities, the causation of personality is muddied. But remember that in the pre- and primary-school years teachers do much to encourage society's rules and beliefs. They develop positive personal identity, or personality, by encouraging a child's association with a particular school. But by adolescence, teachers lose much direct influence in moulding identity.

Secondary schools - more by chance than circumstance - can affect personality in three ways. They may wish to avoid the first, pursue in part the second and encourage the third.

The first concerns labelling. This happens when teachrs come across a child whose sibling has been taught by them in the past. If the older brother or sister has been a high-flier, teachers expect the younger one to be at least equal. Labelling may be a contributory ingredient to the mental state of those pupils who annually attempt suicide when, for example, exam results arrive.

The second influence a teacher may have is through style of leadership. As far back as 1938 Lewin, Lippett and White observed that a democratic or authoritative leadership style more positively affected a pupil's personality than an authoritarian or laissez-faire style of classroom leadership.

Finally pupils' personality can be influenced by those teachers whom Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, would recognise as "scaffolders". He saw learners as apprentices who need help in mastering their trade. The quality of help given by teachers is central to cognitive, social and emotional growth. Teachers as scaffolders nourish the seeds of individual ability - and thus personality.

Through language, "scaffolder" teachers are able to make what they impart meaningful to their audience. A culture of teachers as scaffolders in Scottish classrooms is maybe not as obvious as once it was. And any direct general influence a teacher might have on a classroom of developing personalities diminishes as children grow.

Any indirect influence education may have on specific individual personality is incalculable in many respects. That said, personality will soon become an educational issue. The answer local authorities will give in response will be provided by the schools.

Primaries may have the easier job. Fostering inclusiveness and a safe happy environment will already figure in the school's development plan. Measures to indicate the development of primary pupils' personality should be relatively straightforward.

Not so in the secondary where teenagers' biological, cognitive, social and emotional development reins against even the best laid development plan. Secondaries could introduce psychology at Intermediate, Higher and Advanced Higher levels. Pupils would flock to the subject, as is already happening in schools in, for example, Stranraer, Stirling and Dumfries. Psychology has reinvigorated religious education, science and modern studies departments in a number of Scottish schools.

The reason is simple. pupils have seized on psychology to comprehend why they, and others, behave as they do. Introducing a subject which promotes the understanding of mind and behaviour may help resolve many future challenges and must ultimately help make Scotland a better place.

Gerard Keegan is subject group leader for psychology at Kilmarnock College and principal assessor in psychology for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. He writes in a personal capacity.

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