Just breathe deeply and count to 10

31st March 2000 at 01:00
I NEARLY gave birth to my daughter Amy by the roadside but I managed to wait until the ambulance deposited me in a tiny cottage hospital somewhere between Elgin and Aberdeen. It was 2.30am and we were amazed after the delivery when the midwife said the other mothers wanted to come and say hello. Why were they all awake? In reply to my puzzled question the midwife cautiously murmured that the soundproofing in the labour ward was non-existent.

Aaaaaagh! But actually I wasn't embarrassed. In trooped my nocturnal visitors for a celebratory cup of tea and it was fine. So, why no blushes? Well, there were so many positive features about that hospital. Did that come from a textbook on management? It did not: it developed from people working closely together for the benefit of the patients.

If I had to label "that atmosphere" now I would plagiarise the word ethos from the performance indicator section in How Good Is Our School? This is fresh in my mind because I have been swotting up on miscellaneous bumf for a recent interview. By the time I had read through this and that I had collected a fair rattle of bones for picking. Not that I hadn't realised it before but, somehow, seeing in print the pointers to a good school reminded me of what goes wrong when the culture of a place is negative.

It is easy enough to reel off examples from the distant past. My mother who is 75 years of age still quakes when she speaks about standing in the corner wearing the dunce's cap. That was only part of it. A great deal of what she remembers suggests a school which was a terrifying experience for its pupils.

Failure was at the top of the agenda then, with "can't do" being the ruling principle. Yet we are fooling ourselves if we believe that all of that is safely locked away in another age. The creation of a "can do" culture of achievement in our schools is not always the priority it should be.

But just ticking boxes to confirm "been there done that" an never be enough. St Paul was spot on when he stressed the importance of the inner life above all else. Just as good works without charity don't add up, so the heart of a school is demonstrated by the nature of the relationships within it. Nothing demonstrates the health of these relationships more than the extent to which mutual respect is the crucial factor.

This means that there must be clearly defined democratic channels of communication so that staff and pupils can operate as equals. No one - not even the headteacher - should demand respect simply by virtue of their status but must earn it. Any teacher who thinks otherwise is using their position to flex muscles which would be more appropriate in the boxing ring.

You have to be prepared for risks and some schools are too afraid to take the necessary steps to give the pupils a real say in what is going on in their schools. The best-run schools are the ones that set up pupil councils with elected representatives from each class. This is particularly necessary in secondary schools where many children are in the throes of adolescence with all its recognised difficulties of establishing autonomy from the adult world. That process will be less painful if teachers can allow teenagers the space to challenge the perceived wisdom of " this is how we always do it". Schools that do so are happier places for everyone.

You still hear the horror stories of intimidation and humiliation. Lately I was told about a young man - he is 17 - who was berated venomously in front of his classmates for having a tutor to help with his Higher courses. Mutual respect?

No way. Not with such predatory behaviour in the classroom. Fifteen years ago I felt the positive ethos in that maternity hospital. Similarly, ask our pupils what they feel. They'll tell you.

And, if you are a teacher and reading this has delivered you into a fizzing rage, I'd have that looked at - you could be dangerous.

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