Society got a problem? Get a teacher to fix it

4th September 2009 at 01:00

As the principal of a school that we chose to rename as a community college, the new duty to promote "community cohesion" holds no fears. We are the only school in a market town and it has always felt completely natural to make our boundaries as permeable as possible.

What irritates me, though, is that this is yet another social issue for schools to solve. Voters becoming apathetic and not turning out at elections? Put citizenship on the curriculum. The country's industrial base has fallen into a mine shaft? Make schools teach economic awareness. The social fabric is tearing under the weight of so many cultural, ethnic and class groups? Give schools community cohesion to work out.

I guess it's a compliment. Whatever the problem, schools are the answer. We are the ones who have contact with children and therefore, potentially, with parents. Our networks encompass higher education, businesses and charities. Why bother with elected mayors? Give the local headteacher the gold chain and let him get on with it.

On the other hand, the extent of our power and influence is sometimes less that of the mayor and more that of the newspaper delivery boy. Children are in lessons for 950 hours a year - about 11 per cent of their time. Increase it for the time they spend on other school activities, decrease it for the time they are in school but turned off. Like the newspaper delivery boy, we can put things in front of them but cannot guarantee whether they will engage with it.

Our core business is still maximising exam success. If you doubt that, try convincing Ofsted to give you more than a satisfactory rating if your exam results are "only" average. We can build community cohesion, economic awareness and citizenship into the ethos of schools but our ability to take significant action is limited by resources of both time and money.

Community cohesion as a term shows that New Labour is still alive and kicking. It is a putty phrase that can be moulded, shaped and spun to mean whatever you want it to mean.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families guidance talks about creating "a more tolerant, more understanding and fair and transparent society, in which all members share a common sense of belonging that overcomes their differences". Fine words! This would be a good strapline for a government to guide its entire legislative programme and as a justification for a transformation of the complete taxation system. I just hope that Ofsted is not going to judge our success in this area on whether we meet the target.

The whole notion of community is complex. Tim Smit, the founder of the Eden Project, has writen in the RSA Journal about his efforts to build community. He points out the root of the word community from the Latin com, meaning "together", and munos, which means "in gift". Many of our relationships with others are purely transactional. Mr Plumber does two hours' work for the school and I pay him #163;100. The relative value is clear and so no social meaning is created.

However, in a "gift relationship", the relative values are not clear. Someone asks my advice on which guidebook to buy for Spain. I say, "It's OK, borrow mine." The two people involved are now beholden to each other because they are not quite sure of the value of the gift and, says Smit, it is the inexactitude that creates the cohesion.

It is why I have battled to maintain our PTA even though the money it raises is tiny in comparison with our budget. The parents appreciate what the school does for their children, so they get involved "in gift" in return.

It is also why I regret the increasing tendency for both staff and students to do only that for which they are paid. When staff and students give freely of their time to collaborate in an extracurricular activity, it has a different quality than if it is a paid part of employment.

Our sixth-formers lead increasingly busy lives, juggling social activity and academic and work lives. In order to persuade them to help with clubs and the supervision of lunchtimes we are increasingly tempted to pay them. By doing so we solve the problem of manpower but lose the opportunity of building community through gift relationships. Hoorah for prefects!

If you look at the aims of any school, creating a strong community and preparing students for life as citizens are writ large. Talk to any headteacher and the moral imperative underlying this shines through.

The danger of making contributions to community cohesion obligatory is that it is turned into a box-ticking exercise for schools. This is a fundamental issue that needs the creative thinking of a Tim Smit more than a big pot of glue.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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