Respect the difference

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Politicians can learn from schools, which have thrived on a sense of community but tolerate the needs of outsiders, says Gordon Cairns.

I have never been comfortable with the thinking behind the phrase "the nanny state", as if helping the more vulnerable in society is uncalled-for interference. However, I fear that recent statements by ministers at the Labour Party conference in Brighton on the intangible concepts of community and respect are not only state interference too far but, judging by the experience of schools across the country, doomed to failure.

In the wake of the London bombings, politicians of all sides have been talking about how a greater sense of community can stop these horrific events happening again. Tony Blair spoke of making young British Muslims feel more included in society, as a stronger sense of community will stop them feeling alienated.

Michael Howard has called for a stronger sense of "Britishness" to stop feelings of division within the country, and Norman Tebbit has even brought up his cricket test of nationality again to sift out the potential terrorists.

The Government has also established a respect task force to look to reintroduce the concept back into Britain, with Home Secretary Charles Clarke vowing to eliminate disrespect by the next general election. Just as you can't make someone feel they belong to something, you can't make someone respect something because you want them to. You only need to look in any school to realise this.

While calling a school a microcosm of society is a hoary old cliche, that doesn't make it any less true. And it is a little Britain where those in control have a great desire, as well as a great deal of influence, to create an ideal set of circumstances where a sense of community and respect will flourish. Schools have been trying to do it since the concept of schools was first established, probably before the term "community" was even thought of. Think of all the elements that we associate with school - the uniform, the badge, the assembly, representing the school in competition or belonging to a smaller unit within the larger body. All of these components have been instigated to create a tangible sense of unity among the school's population where respect should be felt for those further up the hierarchy.

The children get a visual reminder that they belong every morning when they put on their uniform and see the school colours and badge. When they meet their friends in the playground, they will see their uniform and feel part of the group. If the school has an assembly, they will see the head of their community speaking to them directly about the organisation.

Many students will represent their school in sporting or academic competition against others, or will go along and support their school against the challenge from outsiders. When they speak to someone further up the chain of command, they must show due deference by addressing them properly, and certainly not by their first name.

So, in theory, everyone should feel they belong to the school. The fact that children don't is not necessarily because of the colour of their skin or religion or their choice of being a Goth. In every society, there will always be those who desire the status of an outsider. Even in the staffroom, one thing sure to get quite a few teachers' backs up, is some pro-school cheerleading orchestrated by the headteacher.

It is the same with respect: you can't make someone feel deference. Society has changed from the days when a teacher would gain automatic respect wherever he went because of their role. This perhaps makes it harder for some teachers who wonder why they are not respected automatically, but it has to be mutual and slowly built up over time.

Even with the best classes, where the children are on side, want to learn and everyone is working towards the same goals, there will still be one outsider looking and sneering at everyone else. Some choose the role of the outcast, which doesn't make them a potential terrorist.

If a school can't create a complete sense of community with automatic respect to all within its all-pervading organisation, what chance has a Government got - unless Tony Blair starts insisting we all start wearing Union Jack-patterned blazers?

Gordon Cairns is a supply teacher.

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