How does a school decide upon its ‘community values’?

Written by: John Rutter | Published:

How does a secondary school decide upon and embed a set of values when the school community is made up of so many different people from many different backgrounds and viewpoints? John Rutter gives us his reflections

A commotion in the social area was not unusual but today was a little exceptional. Alerted to the event by the running of sixth years past my door, I followed at a discrete pace to find at least half of our seniors gathered around the large television monitor following mid-morning break.

There on the screen – faced by a fairly hostile and incredulous studio audience – was one of our recent leavers.

The strapline underneath read: “I am sleeping with my best friend’s mum.” Sure enough, sitting alongside him was one of our more notorious parents. Ushering everybody back to classes with a rather tongue-in-cheek “move along folks, nothing to see here” was a difficult process.

The programme was, without doubt, the talk of the town for days. While many of our pupils and parents took it in their stride as an exciting but acceptable part of their cultural mix, some of our more middle class intake and the vast majority of our teachers looked on with a mix of horror and incredulity that such a thing could even happen in the 21st century.

For me, it gave a huge pause for thought as to whether we, as a teaching community bent on instilling values in our pupils, really reflect or understand the communities in which we serve.

And, if we do not, should we not be making more of an effort to do better – or should we just carry on promoting what we believe to be the moral high ground.

Under the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s (GTCS) Professional Standards one aspect of leadership is “the ability to develop a vision for change, which leads to improvements in outcomes for learners and is based on shared values and robust evaluation of evidence of current practice and outcomes”.

Other education systems have their own similar aspirations. But where do these shared values comes from? Although I have spent most of my adult life working in a variety of different contexts with disadvantaged communities from both the UK and around the world, my background is distinctly British middle class with the inherent confidence and superiority complex that brings.

How does that fit with the rest of the staff, all the pupils, parents and partners with whom I am supposed to engage in coming up with a shared vision and values for our school?

First, the staff are divided. Subject specialists who have come into teaching mainly, but not exclusively, because of a love of their subject and a desire to share that enthusiasm with young people are driven by an imperative to impart knowledge.

A number care exclusively about subject qualifications and may not be interested in the myriad other opportunities we offer in our quest to get pupils into a positive destination. Sometimes they are upset when pupils are removed from class for time spent improving employment and life-skills and miss periods in their own subject. They may not see the ultimate benefits and their values may be at odds with some of their colleagues and parents who just want to see their children get a good job.

What about the values of our pupils? Especially in the early years, I do wonder if they are really old enough to engage with discussions about vision and values with a sufficient level of maturity.

Like many schools, we try to get them to do so. We hold discussion sessions on values where we present them with a number of words – respect, resilience, optimism, etc – and ask them to rank the ones they think are most important. But some of our children have little knowledge of such concepts and have no context in which to apply them.

Obviously, as teachers, we work to teach them the meanings but in doing so it is more than likely we are applying our own spin and, through the things we say, giving guidance as to which they should be highlighting as the most important. Is this, then, engagement or is it an imposition of our own views on malleable young minds?

Parents are a different proposition. On more than one occasion I have sat down with a pupil and a parent following exclusion for fighting only to be told by the latter that: “I told him to retaliate if there was any further trouble.” This is a difficult one to reconcile.

On many occasions – and especially with boys – a pupil hitting out at a bully who has terrorised them for many weeks and who, despite numerous interventions from the school, has seen little change in their circumstances, may well see a completely different outcome after some physical force has been employed. Indeed, it may be the only way to put an end to the problem.

However, in my role as a school leader, there is no way I can condone such action and a hard line has to be struck. In this way, my own values (which are quite strictly anti-violence) are challenged by an alternative solution to a problem advocated by my parents. There are, undoubtedly, other instances where this is also true.

The most common form of parental engagement in the pursuit of determining school values is normally, of course, through a parent council (or similar organisation). Here, again, we may find values that are not necessarily representative of our wider parent body.

Even in areas of multiple deprivation I have found that the parent council will mainly be composed of middle class parents with a similar vision for education as the teachers and leaders in the school. Often, perhaps, they are even more concerned with academic success than the wider skills and achievement that many schools are trying to develop in their children.

On only one occasion have I seen attendance at council meetings by parents outside of this group when one former drug addict turned up by accident believing it to be a normal parents’ evening. He stayed for half an hour then made his apologies and left (and, even though I rang him to thank him for his attendance and invited him back, he never returned).

It is a constant problem for school leaders that the parents who they want to engage with, because they are the ones who face most problems, are the ones most difficult to reach.

Finally, we have the partner organisations who we want to work with. These are undoubtedly valuable and all have their own particular views on how a school’s values should be developed but whether, again, these are representative of the wider community is a different matter.

Employers will come and talk of developing skills for the workplace but may have little need for the development of subject-specific knowledge so beloved of teachers in secondary schools.

Other partners involved with vulnerable children and young adults may have a completely different view of the values which should permeate through the school, being determined to promote inclusion at all costs.

All of these ideas are obviously valid but may be difficult to reconcile. While most parents will cite wanting their children to be happy as an important part of their schooling, employers may not rate this highly as a pre-requisite for a life of work.

So how is it possible to bring all these disparate groups together to produce a coherent set of values and a vision for the education of all our children? Indeed, is such a thing possible without resorting to bland mission statements – Aim High, anyone? – or lists of values which have obviously been thought up by adults, for adults rather than for children.

How do we avoid just coming up with the words that we want our pupils to believe in then promoting them as a collaborative effort? I do not yet have any answers but I do have some plans.

Using the principles of youth work on empowerment, voluntary participation and starting from where the young people are we shall look to engage with them on their own turf using youth workers rather than teachers.

As we know, too often the influence of teachers leads to a little too much guidance and direction – perfectly correct in the context of developing subject knowledge but perhaps not so much when really wanting to get to the heart of what our children believe.

Once we have a clear set of values from our children we shall take them to the wider school community for further discussion. It may be that any list has to be rationalised by teachers in consultation with parents and the wider community.

How this can be done in a worthwhile manner with full engagement beyond our parent council and the other usual suspects is going to require some deep thought and innovative thinking. It will be interesting to see how we progress and if, given such a myriad community comprised of people from many different backgrounds with many complex needs, we can come to the kind of consensus that enables us to articulate what we believe and to help our children model their values in everyday life.

  • John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2oPn8oi

Further information

The GTCS’s Professional Standards can be found at www.gtcs.org.uk/professional-standards/professional-standards.aspx


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