Although some readers of this blog might assume that I attended a fancy independent school in London, I am in fact the product of a rural comprehensive school on the Cornish coast. It is these roots which, I think, attract me to the idea that schools are vital hearts in any community. My experiences as a teacher reinforced this view. My first post was in Huntingdon, teaching at a large comprehensive, before I moved to teach at one of the Cambridge village colleges. The Cambridge village colleges are rightly well known for their community foundations: they were set up by Henry Morris in the mid-twentieth century to address an urgent need for educational institutions in rural areas that were facing economic decline as people moved into the cities. In the light of current government reforms to local education authorities, this is perhaps a good moment to reflect on what kind of role a school might play in a community.
For some a school is there to reflect the experiences, interests and world-views of the community it serves. Pupils might learn in such a school about their local history, the geography of their region, or perhaps the literature and art produced by people from that community. The best teachers of these things would of course be teachers who themselves were brought up in the community: the idea of “teaching other people’s children” has been roundly criticised as being elitist and ‘neo-liberal’.
Communities are, however, on the whole already quite good at replicating themselves with local knowledge and attitudes being passed on from one generation to another. Instead, I would rather see the role of a community school as being one that lifts children out of their community. A community school is one that opens the eyes of children to a wider world that goes beyond the local community. I do not see teachers being parachuted in to a school as a bad thing: to the contrary, we should relish the rich range of experiences that these teachers bring in to a community.
In some cases, teachers are there to lift children up into a global conversation about the reality in which we live. The academic disciplines are the manifestations of these great conversations: the discipline of chemistry, for example, has evolved over time to represent the collective knowledge that our species has built about the nature of the molecular world. The discipline of history has similarly evolved over time to guide us in our study of the human past and the different ways in which this past might (and might not) be interpreted. It is the job of the teacher of these subjects to challenge misconceptions with the shining light of truth, contested though this might be.
And teachers have a role to play in raising children out of their communities in other ways too. They can introduce children to a rich variety of music, art and performance. They can respectfully challenge religious belief and social norms. They can sow the seeds of doubt and play Devil’s Advocate to widely held views in a community. Respect and humility are important virtues in this, but a history teacher (for example) should not be afraid to challenge Holocaust denial, or simplistic interpretations of the Middle East, or conspiracy theories. Bringing the disciplinary spotlight onto folk knowledge is part of our purpose.
The very best community schools recognise that educating the whole community is an important component of educating children. Lessons for parents on physics, history and literature matter, not least because those parents are the most important allies we have in educating children. Recommending reading books for parents to read with their children, or newspaper articles to read, or television documentaries to watch, are also an important part of this.
The greatest challenge facing Britain educationally at the moment is the plight of children in rural, seaside and small-town schools. Some of the arguments that might work for inner city schools, such as regarding parental choice, simply do not apply if you have only one local school to attend. What matters is not whether those schools are overseen by local authorities or charitable trusts: what matters is the content that those schools provide. Curriculum is king, and if we are to see schools in rural areas taking their rightful role at the heart of communities, than we need to ensure that the curricula they offer provide the community as a whole with a wider knowledge of the world around them.