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Who wants to live in an institution?

I was interested in a comment made recently by Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. Referring to a trend in the independent sector to enrol children in baby units from three months, Mrs Gillespie warned that there was a danger of "institutionalising" children from too early an age. She linked this to the behavioural difficulties of some youngsters caused by lack of parental attention and observed: "When adults depend on institutions to bring up their children, they lose direct responsibility for their behaviour."

Advanced democracies are highly institutionalised and education is one area of civil society where this is particularly evident. Public institutions usually have a clear social purpose, providing structure and meaning to those who work in them or come under their influence. They operate through formal rules and routines, but also through informal codes and expectations.

When I used to visit schools to see students on teaching placement, I was often struck by the fact that, although all schools have certain things in common, the institutional climate could vary a great deal. The staff in each school tended to think that their practices were the norm and seemed surprised when any of the local conventions were questioned. "That's the way we've always done things here" was a common response. Students who were bold enough to challenge the established ways sometimes had a hard time.

This highlights a key feature of many institutions - their tendency to promote conformity and to marginalise (or even punish) those who are inclined to take issue with the dominant culture. Strongly hierarchical institutions, such as the army and the police, exhibit this most clearly, but it can also be seen at work in the professions. Medicine, the law and education all share the same tendency.

If the pressures to be compliant bear down heavily on the professionals themselves, they affect the patients, the clients, the pupils much more strongly. The smooth functioning of institutions seems to require that all forms of dissent are controlled, managed, seen as aberrant.

I would suggest that we need to be more alert to the ambivalent character of institutions. At their best, schools can be immensely supportive in all sorts of ways - intellectual, social, emotional, psychological, spiritual.

But at their worst they can be highly oppressive in their effects. They have been compared to prisons, factories and asylums, with all the negative associations that those institutions conjure up.

Universities too have their negative side. They can be intellectually exciting places in which to work, whether as a member of staff or as a student, but they can also be incredibly narrow in outlook, obsessed with status and blind to the presence of qualities within the institution which, in their research, they criticise in others. There is a further reason why we should be vigilant about the power that institutions exert. Lives can potentially be enriched by good institutional values but they should not be wholly determined by them.

I asked a teacher who is nearing the end of his career whether he was looking forward to his retirement. He replied: "I'm not sure." He had devoted so much of his life to the school that the loss of the structure it provided was a source of apprehension.

That cannot be entirely healthy. The spaces between institutions should provide scope for expressing individuality and freedom, and the kind of fulfilment that springs from personal interest rather than organisational culture.

In a highly institutionalised world, we need to protect those spaces. That is why Judith Gillespie is quite right to draw attention to the dangers of closing them off too soon.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Paisley University.

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