Simply switch the culture

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Eric Midwinter and (below) Philippa Cordingley trace the links between stakeholding and local communities. A pithy, if unheralded, experiment took place some years ago in a Coventry school. An experienced, retired headteacher and convinced community educator established a weekly reading workshop for the parents of a group of primary children from one of the more impoverished parts of the city.

The workshop leader had no direct contact with the children, but, by providing their parents with skills and, not least, by boosting their confidence to become involved with reading on a daily basis, the children's reading ages improved dramatically.

That is but one example of hundreds where a recognition that family and neighbourhood background is a key to educational success has been acted upon gainfully. It is not so much that this important truth is denied by teachers and educationists, but that the reaction to it is often misdirected.

The attention is focused on the child, maybe with all manner of remedial approaches and techniques, whereas the capacity of the community, notably the home, to support the school, is left without assistance. The school, with teacher-time spread over many pupils for a few short hours a week, is a small-scale contributor compared with the other influences that are at work in the home and the neighbourhood. Overall, where children progress successfully, one finds that there is a similar culture bridging school and home, for instance, in conversation, in pastimes and so on. It is assuredly not a question of parental interest: the diffident parent may still, by social accident, offer the "right" kind of domestic environment, which matches and reinforces that of the school, while the encouraging parent may quite simply lack the acumen to do so.

These are truths which became apparent to the health and welfare industry, certainly as long ago as the beginning of the 20th century, when the health professionals attempted, with great profit, to convey to the laity, especially to young mothers through the health visiting and clinic apparatus, a practical knowledge. Parents were literally taught to prepare a healthy environment for their offspring, so much so that the knowledge became spontaneously acquired and passed from generation to generation.

On the whole, the teaching profession has been reluctant thus to take the laity into its confidence and share its mystiques with parents. Unluckily, wittingly or unwittingly, some parents have what London taxi-drivers call "the knowledge": they have the know-how to ensure that their children benefit from a mastery of what, in essence, is an artificially devised system of information and skills, but one which appears to bring rich rewards to its devotees.

It is certain that, unless and until teachers have the resources, techniques and, above all, the willingness and opportunity to educate the community, then no breakthrough in terms of educational standards and performance will be possible. Teachers must become the educational stewards of their communities, giving skills to parents and others to provide the necessary educative environment.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, pioneer work of this kind was successfully undertaken, but much, if not all, of this pilot activity has been swept away by the backward flight to the 1860s which has characterised the mournful saga of what has passed for state education over the past two decades in the UK. The acid-tongued Robert Lowe, perhaps Britain's most unpopular education politico, in a brisk competition, endorsed the Revised Code of 1862 with a text which has been exactly apt for these past years: "If it is not cheap, it shall be efficient; if it not efficient, it shall be cheap."

Is there a chance to regain some of this "community" initiative in the freshly aired "stakeholding" climate? Much of the "stakeholding" rhetoric has been about rights and control, in education, for example, about parents having more say in how schools are run or what use is made of them. That is all well and good, but the more effective partnership might be an educational one per se rather than a purely "democratic" or organisational one. It is the involvement of parents and others in the actual educational process which should be salient.

Therein lies the true empowerment. Community education is not just about having effective parent-governors or about the fuller communal utilisation of school buildings. It is, more centrally, about having a stake in the "educative community" and about the nurturing of a wholesome educational environment, not just in but around each school.

Happily, it is less about huge resources and cumbersome legislation than about a switch in the culture. Stakeholding in this communal sense would be less a matter of charters and contracts and more a matter of humane and generous co-operation, within a setting where school, home and neighbourhood would act in a constant and productive continuum.

The strictures of Henry Morris about "the insulated school" are, sadly, possibly more appropriate now than when he first made them some 70 years ago. The recent and barbaric triumph of Gradgrindery has, in spite of the heroic efforts of many teachers and education officers, ensured that a majority of schools have been cast as test-centred, cost-centred mechanical agencies, cut off from the vital ordinariness of their surrounding environs, neither gaining from nor, as sorrowfully, contributing to them.

If the latest glosses on "communitarianism" and "stakeholding" are to take on realistic meaning in and around our schools, then it is this revision of what teaching precisely means which must be to the fore. And, as a final enticement, it has always been my claim that an educational culture based on such a brokerage of educative skills would substantially enhance the tattered morale and conditions of the teaching profession.

Teachers would take their place in their communities like, on their better days, priests and doctors, not narrowly cast in the role of day-time child-minders but as the educational counsellors to complete communities.

Think of the several mundane tasks which teachers have failed to hand over to their clients; they are the equivalent of the doctor circling his or her domain four times a day personally to superintend the requisite swallowing of the spoonful of medicine or the periodic gulping down of the tablet.

It is a simple, but possibly breath-catching, thought. If schools are to serve our communities, then first they must become part of them.

Eric Midwinter is a visiting professor of education, University of Exeter, and chair of the Community Education Development Centre.


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