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The wee primary that has no rules

Faith schools are not the only way to instil wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, says Ewan Aitken

visited a primary school recently that is probably unique, for it operates with a complete absence of rules, yet everyone seems to know what to do or, more accurately, how to be. Anarchy does not reign. Chaos is absent.

Learning and teaching are excellent.

Of course, there is something in place of rules. The school doesn't get by on either authoritarian terror or placid obedience to some unspoken code of conduct. Instead, it has replaced the rule book with the four values found on the mace of the Scottish Parliament: wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, described by Donald Dewar in his address to the Queen thanking her for the mace as "timeless values, honourable aspirations for this new forum of democracy born on the cusp of a new century".

Instead of telling pupils what they should and shouldn't do, the staff ask them how they apply these four values, how they achieve them by their actions or their choices. Whether it's how they cope with conflict or deal with anger or face a challenge to what they feel is right, the values become the bedrock of the pupils' choices.

The staff also apply them in the way they relate to the children, not just in terms of issues of behaviour or organising the school but how learning and teaching are planned and outcomes communicated. This all might seem a little unrealistic. "Johnny, do you think hitting Jimmy is the best way to bring about justice?" probably isn't the first response that springs to mind when sorting out a playground problem. But the values have become embedded to such an extent that problems are far fewer in the first place.

These four values define the ethos of the place. They are the frame of reference by which the school decides what is important. The children know the values that underpin any decision, so they have a greater sense of understanding and ownership. It is citizenship in action, learning through experience. It's not all perfect. The school still faces challenges and difficulties like any other and sometimes staff or pupils make the wrong choices. That's just part of being human. But the aspirations of what is seen as truly valuable in human relationships are clear and understood.

What is key is that absolute transparency of a value system. I have written before about the edge enjoyed by Roman Catholic schools in having a clear, unambiguous value system, whether or not one agrees with the content.

Knowing the frame of reference for decisions about what should or shouldn't happen, knowing how and why lines are drawn and aspirations are set is a linchpin for creating the ethos of any school.

That is much more difficult in a non-denominational school. What values do you choose and why? How do you celebrate diversity and still have clarity? What are the reference points, the historical contexts, the cultural influences behind choosing one set of values over another in a non-denominational setting? It is not easy but I think I have now seen one learning community that has a way of achieving the same clarity and diversity.

Some argue that this means we should have more faith schools, not fewer.

The Archbishop of Canterbury argued only recently that church schools offered the possibility of a new level of "emotional literacy" through an understanding of how faith shapes life. The problem is that no matter how hard we try, if we create more faith schools we will compartmentalise that gift of diverse understandings of how the world is and not share it.

In Scotland, we have Catholic schools because of the choices of history and I would not advocate their removal. They are part of who we are. But to add more faith schools to the mix would, in my view, be a step back for us as a nation. I want education opportunities for our young people that are embedded in the very structures of a common life and shared values that feed on the history and faith of many. We should celebrate diversity in every classroom, not create many classrooms to acknowledge diversity.

Imagine where we would be if the Church of Scotland had kept its schools only for the faithful. Though the "school in every parish" model was begun as a new type of evangelism, it was the beginning of our journey as a nation to an enlightenment that was, literally, to change the world's view of itself.

Creating a coherent value statement is a huge task in a non-denominational setting, but I have begun to see how it can be achieved in that wee school without rules.

Ewan Aitken is education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council.

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