We have a duty to the community beyond our walls

19th August 2011 at 01:00
As young people took to the streets and rioted, we were given a stark lesson on what happens when schools become detached

Broken society", "disconnected youth", "dysfunctional communities" have been just some of the headlines following the recent riots across the UK, and torrents of words have followed, but vital in all of this and little mentioned is the relationship between a school and its local community.

As society looks for explanations and solutions for the recent troubles, those of us in Scotland cannot be complacent. Gang violence, knife crime, and youth offending in some Scottish communities are among the highest levels in Europe. Yet in these communities, we have schools where these same young people conduct themselves in a very different manner. They are not perfect in any way, and statistics would suggest that far too many of our children are disengaged, excluded and failing to achieve. But it is a fact that our schools are essentially safe places where standards of behaviour are generally good.

So why do we see such a discrepancy between what happens in school and what happens in our communities?

I would suggest that for too long schools have seen themselves as islands within their communities. Too often, we have sought to create a school environment which sets itself outwith the local community. It creates its own ethos, values, and standards of behaviour, and as long as young people conform to these values in school, we feel that we've done our job. As educationists, we labour under the misapprehension that young people will be able to carry these values into their homes and communities - and in that way we've done the best we can.

The reality is that many of our young people don't see any connection between the school and their community, and perhaps that's where we need to focus our attention.

Seeking definitions of what we mean by "community" does not really help - at the last count, there were over 95 separate definitions. However, if we look for the common threads within these definitions, there begins to emerge a consensus around some key features.

A community usually has a number of characteristics, namely membership or belonging, influence, integration, fulfilment of needs and a shared emotional connection. I'm pleased to note that our schools fulfil these characteristics for many of our young people. But how many of our communities can claim any such fulfilment? Young people repeatedly claim to be excluded from their communities. They have no sense of membership - in fact, for some young people, they are explicitly excluded. The community certainly does not fulfil their needs, nor do they have any influence over community (at least in legitimate terms).

But above all, a significant minority of our young people have no emotional attachment or sense of belonging to their community, or the other people who share that community.

So what do they do instead? They create these attachments to geographical territory (not their communities). They seek approval for acts which reinforce their connection to their peers - these acts are often referred to as "anti-social" in our terms - but are highly social in terms of the young people themselves. Finally, they see their needs met by membership of a group that provides them with a sense of belonging.

Before those of us in schools become too comfortable with such an accusatory view of our local communities, I would suggest that some of the blame lies with ourselves. Of course, one might expect that - schools are often put down as the source of so many of society's ills. Yet I believe schools have retreated from their communities over the past 50 years. This is done partly to protect their own integrity, and partly because communities have not seen a part for themselves to play in the education of young people.

It was Morgan Scott Peck, the eminent American psychiatrist and author of The Road Less Travelled, who suggested that there were four stages of community building. The first of these was what he termed "pseudo- community". This is where we pretend to be a community but in actual fact we hide our differences for the sake of being able to claim community status. I would suggest that is where most of us reside in terms of relationships between schools and their local community - happy to use the terms of reference but, when examined in any real depth, failing to fulfil the characteristics of a true community.

Peck saw the second - and necessary - stage of community building to be chaos. That is, he thought the only way to break free from the comfortable phony community status was for some form of chaos to ensue which brought the community to confront the reality of the situation.

Perhaps that is what we have just experienced in the UK. The chaos has brought us to our senses. It has made us reflect upon the reality of the situation.

Peck's third phase is where most of us now are - a sense of emptiness and loss. But if we follow Peck's line of travel, there is a chance that we could see "true" communities emerging from this process.

For me - ever the optimist - I see this as an exciting opportunity to challenge the pseudo-community links that we often have between schools and communities and, instead, create something which conforms much more to the aspiration of "it takes a community to raise a child".

Don Ledingham, Director of education and children's services.

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