The future of community schools

28th February 2003 at 00:00
It is perhaps time to ask whether the latest educational initiative, that of new community schools, is likely to represent something innovative, fresh, and new.

Or will they be the same huge, old, tired, secondary schools peddling the same old subject-centred, externally examined curriculum, but with psychological services, social services, careers officers and community education staff permanently on the premises, and the buildings open until 10pm?

If so, this will be yet another attempt to impose external values on the community, to swamp it with "stripey jumpers" and (like Matthew Arnold in the 19th century) to re-create it in a manner more pleasing to the middling classes.

Past experience might suggest that there is little hope of radical change.

When one looks at the educational system, it is striking how much the present system is an accumulation of past short-term expediencies.

So how about some attempt to re-design the community school from scratch? If we are only a little more than one generation away from a time of small, local secondary schools, rather than the interpersonal nightmare of a high school of 1,500 pupils, then surely a return to a more local and intimate model is possible.

A curriculum derived from the immediate environment could involve all ages in the community, strengthening intergenerational links and tying together the past and present. Such a local focus would serve to generate the outlines of a possible future for the community. Above all, it would open up an education beyond the classroom. Educational activity could take place, in part at least, within local agriculture, commerce and industry.

The current, rigid, bizarre and unnatural grouping of pupils by age could be confined to the dustbin of history, to be replaced by groupings and collaborations across age-bandings, where students can learn from others more experienced or more knowledgeable or more innovative.

And our baroque external examination system, designed to motivate students by the award of meaningless certification of bodies of knowledge, could be replaced by harnessing students' intrinsic motivation to master complex skills.

Our current obsession with limiting pupils' direct experience of life in the name of "child protection" could be replaced by very real "child development", with an emphasis on personal growth, responsibility, competence, confidence and inventiveness.

The present model of secondary education has been under-conceptualised from the start. Catastrophe theory would predict that more and more incremental bolt-on attempts at revision or amelioration will compound the problem, accelerating the crisis to the point of breakdown. It is time to try some root and branch reform.

Ian Swanson (chartered psychologist) School Brae Letham Fife

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