Makeover a must for our image problem

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Lindy Barclay is deputy head at Redbridge community school, Southampton

In a recent Guardian poll, it was revealed that 78 per cent of the British public believe the rise in gun crime is partly due to the failure of schools to set clear boundaries. To be fair, the breakdown of family life was first in the firing line. Even so, the survey reported that the public believes that schools do not do enough to teach the difference between right and wrong.

What? Run that past me again. Schools spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that, day after day, week after week. It's the cauliflower pattern running through every school in the country. It's simply outrageous to blame schools.

But, whoa! Hang on here, before our knees jerk so hard that we kick over a truth or two. This was not some right-wing report, leading the public by the nose to conclude that the ills of society are due to slackness in schools. This is what the public thinks; this is all about perception.

So how on earth did "the public" arrive at this conclusion? After the initial rage dies down, could it be that there is a shard of truth in the public view? Government targets, aimed at drastically reducing exclusions, have filtered through every local authority into schools. The impact has been profound. The power to take action on pupils who offend has been drastically eroded. Many schools have simply become holding centres for miscreants, young people who can't or won't abide by the rules. So can we really blame the public for seeing schools as places that tolerate appalling behaviour? Because, in truth, we do. We have to.

The perception that schools do not teach right from wrong is perhaps uncomfortably close to the truth. We teach it, but there is no system to support it. Heads and governors are often in the intolerable position of issuing "final warnings" that have little hope of being carried out. What the public don't see is the daily struggle to maintain high standards of behaviour when the battle is already lost on several fronts: no weaponry, no back-up. Schools without "teeth", disabled from doing their best.

Perhaps the best schools can do is to operate at a local level and "manage"

the perception of parents and the local community. Improving exam results goes a long way, but it is often just as much to do with the basics - uniform, homework, the way pupils arrive and leave school premises, celebration of success via newsletters and, if you're lucky, reports of good deeds in the local press. Drip-feeding the inclusion message to individual parents is worthy, but probably a lost cause in altering the wider perception.

Or maybe the teaching profession could follow the lead of political parties at election time and educate the public with a poster campaign. I can see it now: "Schools aren't working... because they aren't allowed to." Eat your heart out Saatchi and Saatchi... Well, maybe not quite yet.

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