School and community - becoming together

This Christmas I was given a copy of Michelle Obama’s autobiography ‘Becoming’. I’m still only part way through, in fact I’ve just finished the first part, which is essentially about the influence of her family and childhood, school and college. But I’ve started to grow absorbed by the theme of becoming and the question of what it is that makes us who we are, including the contribution of schools to that.

This may be because I’m doing a lot of thinking at the moment for an upcoming book. At its heart lies a question. If, as we already know, most of the factors that influence educational success lie outside the direct control of a school, what is it that schools and school leaders can do better to help influence and shape those external factors more positively? That it seems increasingly clear to me lies at the heart of the next phase of school improvement.

Of course, many of those factors are not within the scope of a school’s influence either, and a school cannot and should not attempt to solve society’s deep economic and social problems. Nevertheless, it is also true that any school is one of the major influences on the social and economic prospects of its communities, both in terms of the school’s contribution to the development of each individual student but also as a tremendous physical, social and indeed economic resource. The improvement of a school and the improvement of its various communities thus seem inextricably intertwined.

Steve Munby often quotes a traditional Masai greeting ‘Kasserian Ingera’. It means ‘How goes it with our children?’. The word ‘our’ is powerful. It serves, on meeting anyone, even a stanger, as a forceful reminder of the role we both share as trustees and guardians of our collective futures. This greeting reflects the distinctive and deep-rooted African philosophy of Ubuntu, which is often summarised in translation as ‘I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am’. As Yusufu Turaki puts it: ‘People are not individuals, living in a state of independence, but part of a community, living in relationships and interdependence’.

So what consciously can school leaders do, at a time of financial constraint and harsh accountability, as well as a time of severe social fracture, to contribute to the wider renewal of their communities, in the expectation this will impact positively on the educational and life success of their students? I’m starting to wonder whether the first contribution schools can make may lie in their understanding of the relationship of individuality, independence and interdependence, and in being confident and comfortable with fostering all three. In this way schools model for their students, and the parents of their students, the nature of community, with all its rawness, untidiness, vitality and vibrancy, through exemplifying community in their daily lives.

There are some outstanding examples of how that can be done, perhaps especially in our primary schools. But as an education service we’ve never given it sufficient sustained focus. If we were to do that, who knows what schools, and their pupils, might become!

Yusufu Turaki, Foundations of African Traditional Religion and Worldview (Nairobi: WordAlive Publishers, 2006), p. 36.