In his regular column, Dr Graham Haydon suggests that reflecting on your own school can be a good way into raising wider questions about communities and the values they share.

In the National Curriculum both the guidelines for PSHE and the programmes of study for citizenship see individuals as members of communities. To summarise, students should:

  • learn about themselves as members of their communities
  • look at the factors that influence their communities
  • take part in the affairs of their communities.

In doing all this, they will need to reflect from time-to-time on what a community is and why we should value it.

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What do we mean by ‘communities’?

Though we often speak loosely of ‘the community’, the NC documentation is right to speak of people being involved in their communities.  ‘Communities’ must at least be sets of people who share something in common. But what sorts of thing do people have to share in common if they are to count as a community? 

Sometimes by ‘the community’ we mean no more than the people who live in a certain area; these people will not necessarily share much more than that.  Other groups that we call communities may not live in the same area at all but be identified – at least by other people – as having something else in common: so we talk about, say, the Asian community, the Catholic community, the gay community, the scientific community, and so on.

Is it enough that people have something in common to make them a community, or must it be some sort of shared beliefs or values or commitments? Let’s try to test this by asking what it takes for a school to be a community.

Is your school a community?

Staff and students in a school come together in the same buildings to do certain tasks for part of the day, but that by itself would not make a community (unless every factory or office counts as a community). Over and above their being brought together in the same place of work, what could make a school into a community?

The American philosopher of education Kenneth Strike has outlined four models of community, based on what it is that people share that holds them together (their ‘social glue’).

  • The community as tribe. People in a small self-contained society may share their whole way of life, to the point that there is little room for privacy or individuality.
  • The community as family. What holds a family together, when things are going well, may be strong emotional bonds between a few particular people, though they won’t always see eye-to-eye on everything.
  • The community as congregation. People who come together to worship do not necessarily share a whole way of life: they may have very different occupations, interests and so on. But they share some underlying beliefs and values that make up a whole worldview.
  • The community as orchestra. Members of an orchestra may not share beliefs or way of life or anything else except one commitment that is important to them – to make music.

Which of these models could work for a school? Not the tribe (except, just possibly, in a rather isolated and exclusive boarding school). What about the family? This may sound attractive, but we must ask whether the close emotional bonds that may –  ideally – hold a family together are really possible or even desirable in a school.

The congregation is a possible model, but only for a school in which staff and students really do share a definite worldview. Paradoxically, not all faith schools would qualify, because some faith schools have it as part of their mission to welcome in people of different worldviews. The community as a congregation, by definition, is somewhat exclusive.

For schools that are more inclusive, the orchestra may be a possible model.  The shared commitment would be, not to music-making, but to education. The school that is a community in this way is one that people are involved in, not just for their own individual reasons, but because – in the current jargon – they are pursuing the same educational vision, a shared sense of what education is about and why it matters.

But we have to ask how realistic this model is for many of our schools.

What’s so good about communities?

Suppose that most schools don’t really share enough in their beliefs or values or educational commitments to really count as communities, except in some rather watered-down sense. Is that necessarily a bad thing? We haven’t yet asked what is meant to be so good about communities. Communities do bring with them lots of good things – friendship, a sense of belonging, a sense of identity – but sometimes they may go too far in seeing themselves as distinct from the wider society. They may even act directly against the interests of those who are not part of the community (think of the Mafia, or a racist community).  

A school that is not a community in any full-blooded sense may still have a lot going for it, because it may be more like the wider society outside. The political theorists called ‘communitarians’ may be right to stress what is good about communities, but they are wrong if they think that a whole nation can be one big community – this is not a realistic picture for a country like Britain. There are many communities, sometimes fairly distinct but mostly overlapping, and they don’t always find it easy to get along. Suppose a school is a microcosm of that kind of world. It will not be a cosy or comfortable place, but might it actually give people a more realistic preparation for their adult life and a better grounding for being active citizens in a plural society?