Lead out, Mr Blunkett

8th August 1997 at 01:00
The White Paper does not go far enough in stressing the importance of self-esteem in learning, says Anita Roddick.

Do you remember To Sir With Love, that 60s film starring Sidney Poitier as the teacher, or even its 1970s TV equivalent, Please Sir, with John Alderton? You know the story - a set of unruly, street-wise kids who don't want to be in that classroom with that teacher. Yet he turns it around and gets the kids to recognise their responsibilities. How does he do it? He encourages them to find their power and strength. After that it's easy. More importantly, it's a pleasure.

It seems we have known for decades what lies at the root of proper education, yet how come no government has done anything about it until now? We have watched youth unemployment grow and moaned at the cost to the taxpayer. But nobody has been prepared to go that extra mile to tackle the root cause. Until now.

Labour has put education at the heart of government. But what sort of education, and who is it really for - the voters at the next general election or the children who need it now? These are the questions we must answer when assessing last month's White Paper Excellence in Schools.

However, first, as there's such a poverty of praise in this country, let's congratulate the Government on grasping this nettle. People are looking for quick solutions to problems that have been a long time in the making. The only useful change, however, is change for the long term. That means setting targets. The difficulty with targets lies in who sets them and who is ignored in the process. Educational development has been hampered by the struggle between governments' need to please voters and teachers' need to survive ill-considered changes to curriculum and teaching methods.

We need to dispense with educational institutions as knowledge factories and to develop them as wisdom schools. The word "education" comes from the Latin educere, meaning "to lead out". In this context it means we have to work on leading out the wisdom within us. It's a process of re-connecting with ourselves. Without this, education is trivial, dogmatic and doomed to failure. It certainly cannot lead to the sense of compassion, creativity and justice that we know is missing in society. If we want sensitivity to others, non-violent behaviour, respect, intuition, imagination and a sense of awe and wonderment about the world, why aren't we "leading it out"?

When I was a teacher I concentrated on getting my students to buy in to the education process. Without that, there's no point and no hope. Children either go through exams like zombies, processed as university fodder without any inkling of purpose, or, mostly, they are discarded as "no brainers", with their only tool for life a bad attitude. And who can blame them?

The White Paper recognises that young people need to feel that society cares about them. It talks about standards and responsibility but perhaps not enough about how self-esteem is at the root of all learning. No one is motivated to listen, learn and participate if they have not bought into the process. I got my students involved through a kind of experiential education, that had little to do with discipline and everything to do with expression. Okay, that was the 60s and people were loosening up for the first time. This is the 90s and different methods are required that involve both discipline and the opportunity for self-expression.

Always a seeker after new methods of solving old problems, I've been fascinated by the work of Jenny Mosley, a pioneer in raising children's self-esteem as part of the educational process. Jenny has scored successes in more than 750 schools with her programme, the Quality Circle Time Model for All Round Success, over the past decade. Despite this success she has experienced difficulty in getting her ideas accepted by policy-makers in education who spend too little time in classrooms. The Body Shop has supported her work with Wiltshire County Council and Bristol University, which are now examining her model with a view to authenticating it as a possible part of the curriculum.

The Circle Time Model focuses on building up self-esteem in the school community, transforming closed, negative cultures into something more open and positive. It is designed to help all the adults and children in schools confront bullying, disruptive behaviour and poor relationships, all of which alienate them from education.

Schools committing themselves to the programme have to keep to a timetabled process of circle meetings, for adults and children, whereby key interpersonal issues affecting school development are addressed. Everyone is supported and relationship skills are enhanced. All take an equal responsibility for solving their own problems and those of others.

This programme should be at the heart of the new national curriculum. So, please Sir, Mr Blunkett, before you get all worked up with targets and performance, can you investigate this model which is part of Bristol University's research programme, "Culture and Learning in Organisations". The final report of this study will be available in a year's time, but many Office for Standards in Education reports and hundreds of teachers could already be quoted on the practical outcomes.

My other concerns centre around education's stakeholder groups. We all have a stake in ensuring education does the job it needs to do. How do we interact with education - as parents, as employers - so that society gets what it needs from adults?

If the aim of this White Paper is to educate children for life's tasks, then the solutions which follow will have to include parents, teachers and the wider community. And it will need to include the children themselves as a stakeholder group. Has anybody asked them what they want from their education? Yes, I hear you say. But has anyone taken their thoughts seriously?

If the Government wants to change the culture of schools, of parents, of young people then it has to start in classrooms with children, exploring from an early age their daily problems. That way, education becomes a valuable tool for living their lives instead of a scam to select the few and discard the many. And when children begin to recognise their opportunities and understand their rights, they will begin to change the system themselves. They will see the sense of literacy and numeracy for themselves, because they will recognise their relevance to their lives.

David Blunkett talks about a "perpetual sneer" on the faces of young people when education is mentioned. That's not surprising. They can see through this process that emphasises structures, league tables and responsibilities, yet which leaves them with nothing to take into the world in which they'll be spending the rest of their lives.

Things will be different in 20 years' time when today's youngsters are in their prime. Of course they will need to be able to read, write, do maths, and be computer literate. But above all, they will need to be able to think for themselves, be creative, emotionally mature and be able to relate responsibly with others.

Anita Roddick is founder of The Body Shop and a former teacher.

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