We must be careful that our schools are not treated with less care than a sandwich

28th October 2011 at 01:00
Respect and trust are key to creating `protective atmospheres' for learning

Munching through a slightly musty corned beef sandwich, I was moved to check the "use by" date on the packaging. Thankfully I was within the recommended period. Just above the "batch number" of my "reformed" beef (everyone loves a repentant sinner), I noticed a peculiar claim: "Packed in Protective Atmosphere".

What exactly did that mean? It was clearly too late in the food process to refer to the cattle involved in supplying the raw material and I thought it unlikely to be referring to the company's policy towards its workers.

I liked the phrase, however - which was presumably the marketing intent. It certainly has a direct purchase on our work as educators. Without being overly insular, our school communities strive to be supportive, productive, challenging and protective environments. Outside, the spectre of poverty and a myriad of other dangers might cast long shadows on young lives, but in our schools we try to shed some light in our "protective atmosphere".

As an undergraduate in the 1970s, I was tasked with an assignment on David Hargreaves's Social Relations in a Secondary School (1967). The most vivid conclusion I remember drawing from my study was how absolutely key social relations were to how schools operated. And the same is undoubtedly true today.

Effective schools are ones where respect and trust, in all relationships, are hallmarks of the school ethos. I return to a point I have made elsewhere, however - too many of our schools are rooted in hierarchical, line-management approaches which militate against collegiate practice on the ground.

Political parties, and writers of government-sponsored reports, seem intent on arguing for greater delegation of decision making to headteachers, but that is not a cry being echoed loudly from the ranks of classroom teachers, too many of whom have been bruised by management styles that should have been discarded long before now.

There needs to be much greater debate about how decision making is practised at school level, with collective responsibility becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Local authorities have a strategic role to play in creating their own "protective atmospheres" in which schools are allowed to flourish. Such an approach requires directorates to trust schools more and to avoid imposing centralised models on how they function.

I suspect that unless councils start to re-assess their role, they may find themselves beyond their "best by" date.

Larry Flanagan, Educational Institute of Scotland

Larry Flanagan is education convener for the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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