“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
John F. Kennedy
I had cause to research school vision statements recently. We were refreshing ours and I wanted to get a sense of what other schools were saying about how they wanted their schools to be. Our suspicion was that they would all be fairly similar and contain the usual stock statements like ‘success for all’ and ‘academic excellence’. I found that many are quite generic and could apply to almost any school in the UK. However, as I looked beyond UK schools some fundamental differences became apparent.
The vision statements for many UK schools I came across focus on what the school will do for each child. They promise high grades, future career success, a fully developed character and an amazing experience along the way. This seems to be particularly pronounced for private schools where parents want to know what they are getting for the fees they pay. However, the state sector are not far behind in their promises, driven by the need to convince parents to send their children to the school. They too have an income dependent on the number of children they attract; in a marketized system their is a need for marketing. Education becomes a product.
Reading through numerous sales pitches became a little tedious, so I turned my attention to schools oversees, in particular international schools in parts of the world very different to the UK. The contrast with UK schools was fascinating, particularly where the politics, history and culture of the region differed most from our own. I found schools born out of conflict, hardship or chaos whose vision was not about what the school could do for the children attending it, but about what these young people would one day do for the world and the communities in which they lived. Here were schools whose mission was to heal conflict, alleviate hardship and bring order out of chaos by educating a generation with the social conscience, skills and passion to do what previous generations had failed to do. Now there, I thought, is a compelling vision for education.
Clearly schools are influenced by the society in which they exist. We could lay the blame for the narrow individualistic focus of many UK schools on consumerism, capitalism, Thatcher, etc. However, equally guilty in my view is the student-centred rhetoric which has dominated our education system for many years which comes not from the right, but the liberal left of politics. Being student-centred means organising schools around meeting the needs of the individual, nurturing their unique talents, being sensitive to their sensibilities and pushing them to achieve their potential.
Being student-centred is intuitively attractive. Indeed, to adopt the opposite position whereby young people are treated homogeneously, their opinions, hopes and talents ignored, would be extremely distasteful to any educationalist. However, unfettered, a student-centred ideology in schools feeds the cult of the individual.
Consider instead a community-centred approach. This would be a school in which each individuals’ energy and talents are harnessed for the greater good. A community-centred ethos would have students ask not what the school could do for them, but what they could do for the school community (to paraphrase Kennedy). In such a school, each child is treated as an individual, but their own needs are not raised above the needs of the whole community.
As I write, debate about exclusions rages as the Education Select Committee has come down hard on the apparently high rates of exclusions in this country’s schools. The argument focuses on the damage done to the individuals excluded. The student-centered ideology shines through this critique of schools; we should never give up on a child, no matter the cost. Schools must be inclusive, they argue, and any exclusion is evidence that they are not.
A community-centred approach would place the collective good above that of the individual. This does not mean we throw out the idea of inclusion. It also does not mean we stop having empathy for those who have had a difficult start in life, or give up on trying to help them overcome their difficulties. One of the reasons I support comprehensive education, and send my children to comprehensive schools, is that I want them to learn to be tolerant of people different to them and learn to deal with this. I want them to encounter the bully, the racist, the disrespectful and the naughty kids, as well as the talented, courteous, kind and courageous ones. Being inclusive has benefits for the community; it teaches students tolerance and empathy. However, this does not mean I want their education sacrificed because a school is unable to put boundaries in place and have the courage to say that enough is enough. There is a limit – a point at which the needs of the many must be placed above the needs of the few.
Growing up means understanding that you are not the centre of the universe. It means appreciating that your value as a human is in what you can do for others, not what you can achieve for yourself. We teach no-one that lesson if we endlessly tolerate anti-social behaviour. Our vision for education must be about our community, not the individual.