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What’s the point of school? Kids are socialites at 7, adults at 12 and doubting everything the teacher and the school stands for. Behaviour is questionable, deference is a quaint notion of a rose tinted past when teachers were head of the classroom and everyone knew and welcomed their places. Curriculum is irrelevant and has been superseded by the Internet where children work out of their own curriculum and syllabus, perhaps blindly, perhaps intuitively, perhaps guided by who knows what – certainly things we parents and teachers know nothing or little about.

These are desperate times when all our educational purposes, reasons and rationales have been thrown up into the air and scrutinised like never before. So what place the curriculum? The school? The teacher even?

These existential questions are common to teachers across the world; from urban comprehensives in inner city Liverpool, to rural schools across India to schools in the outback in furthest Australia. No matter where you look, the central questions are the same: how should schools respond to the rapidly changing nature of the world we live in? How can they prepare children for an uncertain today and an unknown tomorrow?

How should we envisage school change?

Changing schools is a problematic concept – some might say conceit – not least because of the hugely complex contexts that schools are part of. Changing a particular element of pedagogy, school management or children’s behaviour is not like changing a set of variables in a laboratory experiment. Schools are not slabs of complex industrial machinery which operate on the basis of ‘x’ inputs producing ‘y’ outputs in a methodological and predictable fashion. The problem, from a managerial perspective which likes control, predictability and accountability, is that people aren’t rationale, schools are not like factories and students frequently don’t necessarily behave the way the planners would like.

“There’ll no shouting in the new school!”

In the UK we saw a huge programme of building modernisation upto the most recent election in 2010. Entitled Building Schools for the Future, the programme was the largest capital investment programme for 50 years in England. Whilst there were undoubted improvements to many English schools, the changes the programme introduced had a number of startling unexpected consequences.

At the opening of a local new centre for learning near Liverpool (note how the language has changed from ‘school’ to ‘centre for learning’) the principal chastised her rowdy new pupils with the quaint notion that the new building they were about to enter would magically reduce the amount of bawdy behaviour in the corridors.

Her desire to ignore some uncomfortable realities about what it is to be a young person, teacher or indeed even human being meant that whatever the rhetoric of modernisation, there would always be “shouting down corridors” Whatever the architectural vision of the shiny new learning spaces, there will still be a desire of young women and young men to occupy different spaces when it comes to their ablutions, picking off of acne scabs and throwing cigarettes down the latrines. Whatever the politics of corridor decoration, posters will become magnets for other posters and there will always a school wag who has to make their mark on the pristine wall hanging.

Schools just don’t function like well oiled machines in factories but behave like organisms in cultural ecologies. They don’t exist in isolation from the wider world they inhabit, they are fundamentally uncontrollable and trying to change their ecological properties can often be a frustrating and challenging process.

Schools are ecological systems: not industrial plant

Teachers, parents and children tend their patch in their own specific and unique way. They may be more or less successful at this tending, but whether they identify themselves as Centres for Learning, Big Picture Schools, Round Square schools, Faith Schools or plain old fashioned chalk and talk classrooms, schools’ different pedagogical models can coexist within the same social or geographical context. Schools demonstrate a form of ecological diversity which mirrors the biological diversity of the lands they inhabit.

Seeing schools as complex ecologies allows us to assess school improvement agendas ina completely different light.

Complexity theory would suggest for example that the emergence of school league table winners causes the emergence of school league table losers. When schools are engaged in competitions for pupil numbers, or for positions on a league table, it is not as if they are running on an Olympic race track with competing athletes to see who can run 100m the fastest: this competition means that the ‘front runners’ are partially responsible for disrupting the state of the race track of those lagging ‘behind’. They may have started at the same starting gate (which is unlikely) – but the high achieving schools then manage to dig up the race track for those who are slightly behind them; leading to the winners winning by an even bigger margin than they demonstrated at the start of ‘the race’.

On the horizon…. Global School Ecologists

We think the time is right to develop models of change which acknowledge the ecological nature of schools and the education contexts they are part of: particularly in countries who have been looking to the West to provide models of school improvement and who may be seduced by the attraction of the schools as industrial plant metaphor.

We are developing training programmes which develop ‘school ecologists’: members of the school community who can describe and explain the myriad of different pedagogical characteristics which their schools demonstrate – and then help construct a future which is of benefit to the whole school community. ‘School Ecologists’ would learn to understand the signature ecological pedagogy of their school and the consequences of interactions between children, teachers, parents and culture. This may well provide us with new insights of what the point of school is in rapidly changing international times.

If you would like to be part of our Global School Ecology programme, please contact us at nick@aspire-trust.org