Mention the word “porous” to contemporary politicians and the chances are they will tell you it is very important that our borders are anything but. They may not go so far as to suggest building walls, but the current rhetoric is certainly more about keeping out than letting in. Ask heads whether they would like a porous school and, again, the first reaction will probably be about child protection or the need to keep out surrounding bad influences and pressures.
There is much to be said for schools being safe havens, where the school gates protect the young and vulnerable from the turbulent world outside. For many young people, school provides the order and structure they lack at home.
Back in the ’60s, one of the 20th century’s more radical educational thinkers, the American Neil Postman, followed up his Teaching as a Subversive Activity with another book cheekily called Teaching as a Conserving Activity. Its argument was that schools should always provide an alternative space and environment to the prevailing world outside. So if the world outside is dominated by technologies, then schools should be the places that are technology-free.
It was offered back then as a provocative and somewhat cussed argument, yet think how schools respond today to using social media or how they try to ban mobile phones: we can see that schools are constantly caught in this dilemma of wanting to conserve and preserve as well as to expand horizons and prepare their students for life beyond the school gates.
For governments, too, there is a long-standing tension between the structures of schooling and the disruptive nature of education. The pursuit of “gold standard” qualifications and the endless rejigging of curricula to halt “declining standards” are part of that view that schools need to look backward to move forward.
Employers too often seem to blame schools for not preparing young people properly and for failing to equip them with either sufficient basic or relevant “soft” skills.
In this world, is it any wonder that the temptation is to hoist up the drawbridge and develop a siege mentality towards change and outside interference, whether from governments, employers or, indeed, parents?
Schools succeed, it could be argued, because within them lines of behaviours and communication are clear and appearances are precisely regulated through uniforms, and the best schools are those where students are constantly monitored and encouraged, within clear and tight structures and boundaries.
Talk of a porous school, therefore, could well conjure up images of a leaking sieve, where nothing is certain and no one is ever in control.
In truth, good schools are adept at both conservation and change. They are able to grow their internal strengths and values while nurturing and embracing the outside supporters and agencies that make educational and ethical sense. They know that neither they, their students nor their communities are islands.
And if they see the dangers of, say, social media, they will educate on how to use it positively. In the same way, they are able to recognise quality support and input from business and the world of work.
At the same time, many schools are engaging positively with external agencies and charities around issues of student wellbeing or social action. And on a daily basis, they are genuinely trying to work in partnership with their students’ families and communities.
They recognise that we all inhabit interconnected worlds and that students bring to school a wealth of personal experiences and identities. They understand that a vital part of a school’s role is to help its students navigate through these differing paths and pressures but that it would be a total dereliction of its duty to ignore the realities in which its students live today, and the world they will inhabit and shape tomorrow.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest the ways in which we could recognise and describe those schools that do this stuff really well. Ofsted talks about “outstanding” schools and, too often, it’s a given that this is something all schools should aspire to. I prefer instead to talk here about the characteristics and hallmarks of “great” schools.
Great schools, I’d suggest, take as a given their responsibility to ensure that every student receives the education they need to leave with the best possible qualifications and the best possible people skills that will equip them way beyond the school gates.
Great schools are confident about what they do, why they do it and who they are. They are aspirational about academic achievement, personal development and the wellbeing of students and staff.
But, at the same time, they are humble enough to realise that no school is an island, and so they are connected with the communities they serve and want to contribute positively to civic conversations.
Looking to the future
Great schools are both present- and future-focused, not just in terms of the next stage of academic progress but at a wider and deeper level. They see their students as they are now, but they also worry about how they will be and what will they be doing five, 10, 15 years later.
So great schools are reflective schools. They know their limitations. They know that in order to be a success they need to be part of wider and broader networks, not just for school improvement but for their students’ future careers. And they are generous schools; they want to give and share their ideas just as they want to receive ideas and input from others, because great schools are also constantly listening and learning.
In short, great schools are porous. They understand that closing the school gates is about providing safety and structure, but that those gates will open again at the end of every school day and that students will eventually have to leave them behind. They realise that in today’s world, boundaries need to be fluid and ideas need to flow freely from, to and between schools and the worlds they inhabit.
Great schools are porous, purposeful and powerful. The education they offer reflects their attitudes and values. Open, thoughtful, caring, fluid and constantly learning, great schools make sure that their students will know and care far more about building bridges than hiding behind impenetrable walls.
Alastair Falk is a former headteacher, an education consultant and secretary of the Association of Education Partnerships. He is writing in a personal capacity