It's still worth fighting for
never dim, says Andrew Gallacher
IN THE late 1970s, I taught in a school in the north of Glasgow. The headteacher, in his own flamboyant way, would often refer to himself as a "visionary" for the "community school". With effort and enthusiasm but with little external support he set out to realise his dream.
Sadly, he and his school are no longer with us, but the vision lives on in the Government's social inclusion strategy and new community schools, with pilots funded to a maximum of pound;200,000 a year.
In Glasgow's Easterhouse, Lochend Secondary will become the equivalent of what Americans call a full-service school, effectively a one-stop shop offering a range of services including social work, family support and health promotion as well as education.
So far so good, but what of schools outwith the pilot scheme which have none the less also attempted to address social inclusion through the Raising Attainment strategy?
There appear to be two approaches. One is to use part of any available extra cash to fund an assistant headteacher whose main task is to embed social inclusion in the school's development plan. The other is to use the money to upgrade a number of front-line troops to senior teachers who become the mentors of small groups of recalcitrants and recidivist truants.
The common threat is the notion that social inclusion can best be advanced through raising attainment and that this, in turn, can simply be achieved by improving attendance and investigating alternatives to exclusion. However, by concentrating on those issues alone and ignoring the irrelevance of much of the curriculum to many of the "socially excluded", schools are merely implementing policies of containment.
Curriculum Design for the Secondary Stages - Guidelines for Schools, published earlier this year, states that "the curriculum must motivate and enable all young people to aspire to and attain high standards of achievement". But does the present curriculum take account of different learning styles or recognise the concept of multi-intelligences? Does it meet the needs of the knowledge economy of the 21st century? How many of the "socially excluded" are motivated by Standard grade science, Foundation French or what passes for personal and social education in many schools?
Where are the "hot spts" in schools where most discipline problems occur, resulting in pupil exclusion? Pupils who cause mayhem in some of the subjects mentioned above show a better attitude in subjects like social and vocational studies. Many academically disaffected pupils are capable of producing excellent work in art or craft and design and can be stimulated by work experience, Youth Enterprise schemes and careers-oriented initiatives such as On Track.
Perhaps we should be reviving the Brunton report's notion of a curriculum based on the five core skills as well as addressing personal and social developmental needs. We should also make school more meaningful. Most young people will eventually become parents but where are parenting skills in the curriculum? Is the Treaty of Versailles more important than good citizenship? Of what relevance is algebra or Archimedes' principle to many pupils?
Let's be honest: what use have these and many other items that we were force fed at school been to our daily lives?
A good illustration comes from the biology teacher in a Harlem ghetto school trying in vain to interest a group of black youngsters by exclaiming enthusiastically: "I wonder how many legs a grasshopper has?" To which a youth replied: "Gee Ma'am, I wish I had your problems!"
In the end we can summon parents before attendance councils. We can fine them or even attempt to stop their family allowance as we become more draconian in the drive for improvement. We can banish pupils to sin bins or detain them after school.
We might meet our attendance and non-exclusion targets and keep youngsters off the streets to the delight of politicians, police and shopkeepers, but it is debatable whether we will have improved their learning experiences or equipped them for life.
Fullan and Hargreaves in their uplifting book What's Worth Fighting for in Your School argue that there is a growing sense of a need for fundamental change in teaching, curriculum and educational leadership at all levels.
More important, they suggest that curriculum reforms can be adapted to the needs of one's own school. Perhaps then, by making education more relevant and schools more interesting and fulfilling places, pupils (and teachers) will enjoy being at school and will actually want to attend. Is that not a worthwhile vision?
Andrew Gallacher is a principal teacher of guidance.