Terror in Paris: what can schools do?

As I listen to the radio reports of the shootings in Paris, I can’t help the tears.  They are tears of sadness, of impotence and probably of fear.  The fear is less of the next attack, than of the impact of the attack on society, for if it helps to divide us, if it helps to fuel the suspicion of others who are different from ourselves, the terrorists have won.

At the primary school where I’m chair of governors we are planning to recruit a new headteacher.  As you might expect, governors started by clarifying where we want to take the school in the future.  With thanks to my friend and ex-colleague Jim Laing  who prompted this question, I asked: what is the greatest threat to society today?  There were many, so I asked ‘which of those can we address in school?’ I suspect, given long enough, we would have been able to tick them off one by one.  We talked about self-worth, relationships and respect, breakdown of faith, amongst other things.  We might have added critical faculty, confidence,  love of learning, commitment to values and values-based education.  As governors, we have the privilege and the responsibility of setting the strategic direction of the school. If we fulfil our role effectively, what matters to the school will matter to the children.  We talk about primary schools having a role in putting in place the foundations.  Do we know what happens when our children arrive in and leave secondary school?  Not enough, is my answer.  Governors could and should be asking that question.  As the national education agenda demands that we work more closely with other schools, we have the potential to grow that influence: we could work with other primary and secondary schools, so that children have a consistent message from the age of two to 18.

As is often pointed out, we have the children for a very short time, so we need also to work with parents and families.  More importantly, though ‘No-one spends longer with children than they spend with themselves’ was a chance remark by a friend, which has stayed with me.  The new national standards of excellence for headteachers   describe governors as ‘guardians of the nation’s schools’.  By implication then, we are guardians of the nation’s education.  As a board of governors, have you a corporate view of what education is for?

In every school there will be a different balance between the focus on academic results and the pressure to achieve them.  It’s relatively easy for me: it’s not my job on the line if our academic results are not where we expect them to be.  In holding our headteacher to account, perhaps we should also be holding ourselves to account for the impact we are having, not just on this generation of staff and students, but on their children, and their children’s children.

Last month I visited York Minster.  It took 250 years to build. Perhaps those who laid the foundation-stones feared that their work would be in vain. They could not know what their legacy would be.   All we can know today is that over five or six generations the vision was strong enough to overcome all the barriers they faced so that – despite the more recent challenges  – the building still stands.   If we as governors embrace the opportunity to shape a society based on acceptance of difference, perhaps not in my lifetime, nor in my children’s, nor possibly in their children’s, but before the end of time, love will overcome fear.

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