It's not so rosy in the garden

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Neil Munro reports from this year's conference, organised by Edinburgh City Council and The TES Scotland

The future of the school as a "learning garden", which should look after its weeds as well as its "tall poppies", emerged as the most striking image of the day at the Edinburgh conference last Friday.

Delegates, invited to cast their minds forward to 2020, heard from Rowena Arshad, director of the Centre for Education and Racial Equality at Edinburgh University, who introduced the analogy of the garden where some plants are kept in and others shut out, some nurtured and others left to grow like weeds.

The future, Ms Arshad said, must involve cutting down hedges so people can see in and out, building pathways to allow different connections to be made, loosening structures (particularly in secondary schools), developing mature relationships, removing territorialisms.

"We should also be clear who owns the garden," Ms Arshad said. "It is owned by all."

Her theme was picked up by a series of other speakers, including Peter Peacock, Education Minister, who, for the second time at a major national conference, remained to listen to and take part in the debate.

Richard Holloway, former head of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, warned:

"We might create systems so that people are allowed into the garden only if they stick to the rules." There should be room for the "oddball non-conformists".

"My advice to teachers is to spot the creative subversives in your midst and encourage them," Bishop Holloway said. "I am not interested just in tall poppies. I want to see a lot of weeds out there as well."

Kathleen Long, a GP and consultant who has worked in education, the health service, business and athletics, agreed. "We don't want a society in which people only obey the rules and never challenge them," Dr Long said.

None-the-less, there are in Scotland the "ah buts", who challenge the visionaries. "They tend to get dismissed in the world of blue skies thinking, but they are the ones who have the experience and to ignore their experience would be wrong as well," she said.

Returning to Ms Arshad's theme, Marion MacLeod, manager of the changing children's service fund in Edinburgh Council, said the learning garden required fertilisers and canes to support children.

"Integration will only be about tinkering around the bureaucratic edges if we don't make the fundamental changes for those young people who need our help most," Ms MacLeod said.

Elizabeth Morris, a psychotherapist who founded the School of Emotional Literacy, suggested that real integration was not just about structures but about individuals co-ordinating their hearts and their heads and their hands - "getting from inside ourselves to out there".

The realities of integration on the ground, in the form of integrated community schools, were highlighted by Neal McGowan, head of Larbert High, who said there were not enough teachers and resources.

But Mr Peacock said the Scottish Executive had already put in pound;78 million to lift integrated community schools off the ground. He said he had been to schools that were not yet integrated in that way but fulfilled in every respect his view of what a community school should be. He had visited others which professed to be community schools but which were miles away from it.

"So it's not just a question of resources," Mr Peacock said.

The corollary of integration, breaking down professional barriers, was also well-aired, led by a call from Ms Arshad for barriers to be lowered between subjects and specialists in secondary schools. The inflexibility of 45-minute timetabled slots was unnecessary, she said. During her schooling in Malaysia, she had no more than about four teachers which meant they got to know each other better.

Alex Wood, headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh, called on specialist teachers to break out of the confines of their subject.

Dr Long argued that the drive to break down professional barriers and integrate services for children, in health as in education, often focused on the wrong things: "what we want to retain rather than what we want to achieve."

Bishop Holloway said the problem with all human institutions is that they lose sight of the purposes for which they were established and become ends in themselves. "So we get schools for schools' sake, churches for churches'

sake and politics for politics' sake. We therefore need a state of permanent revolution in all our institutions so they don't continue in a state of inertness."

Judith McClure, head of St George's School for Girls in Edinburgh, entered a plea for partnerships to make sure everyone is in step. "We don't want charismatic people going it alone," she said. "It is OK to think out of the box. The problem is that there are still lots of people in the box and we need leadership to help them get out."

Mr Peacock acknowledged the tension between schools' entreaties for stability and the demands for change - and noted the Executive's promises in the past of pledging stability and then embarking on change. The reason, he said, is that "the world out there is changing".

The seven Rs

The 3Rs should be replaced by the 7Rs, according to one of the workshop groups:

* resources

* recruitment

* reduce barriers

* retain integrity

* respect others

* real commitment to working together

* recreation

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