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‘Vision’ and the Small School

The issue of ‘Vision’ came up again at yesterday’s meeting of the Small School trustees (21.6.02). A remark of Tina’s, that at the heart of the Small School had been two couples, set me thinking.

For the first few years of the school’s life Satish and I always denied there was a particular philosophy to the Small School. We did this to avoid the endless debates that would have ensued had we decided to write something down and because the philosophy of a school comes from outside the school. The nature of Steiner/Waldorf schools would seem to contradict this. However, if we look closely at Steiner we discover that it is the Christian Community (also founded by Steiner) that is the guardian of the philosophy/vision.

For Inventing a School (1991) something had to be written down, and it was something I concocted. Much of what I wrote has to do with aims and objectives. The philosophical element is supplied by Fritz Schumacher, Vinoba Bhave and an inter-faith working group, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the parents. In any case, what one finds over the years is that parents come and go and therefore the make-up of the parent group is constantly changing. It is the teachers who provide continuity and therefore the teachers who have held the vision.

At the heart of what I had to say was the simple statement that ‘The school exists for its students’. This may seem too obvious to need stating until one realises that in many, if not most, schools decisions are made for the convenience of the teachers or to implement a government policy or to meet some parental requirement, governors’ interest or society goal. So one has to keep reminding staff, parents and trustees that ‘the students always come first’.

The second point is that there is ‘a commitment to the development of the whole person, body, mind and spirit, in all its aspects, creative, practical, intellectual, ethical and emotional.’ This, again, may seem unexceptional were it not that most schools don’t take seriously what it means to address the spirit. This is not something that can be taught. It is something that is caught, and that led to a third important statement: ‘The person of the teacher is more important than the matter taught or the methods used.’ Because no one can inspire others to be better than they are themselves, it is not possible to lay down a vision and expect others to follow it. They have to share it.

Keith and Caroline responded to an advert in Resurgence when working in India. There was no possibility of interviewing them and I appointed them on the basis of their letter which showed quite clearly that they shared our core values. Later Caroline wrote in Inventing a School:

‘In the course of our work and our studies connected with it, we began to discern a global perspective to the problems around us. We were convinced that change was necessary, but it became more obvious as time went on that housing the homeless, treating the sick, and other activities directly involved in the relief of suffering, although personally satisfying, were only partial solutions to the problem. We saw that without change in national and global political and economic structures, poverty and inequality continue to exist, and yet as foreigners we had no part to play in political activity in India. The underlying ambivalence of our situation became apparent and we realised that only in our own country did we have a chance of being effective workers for change; and it was at this point that we saw the vacancy at the Small School.’

So we have arrived at another principle: ‘Think global, act local’. In its small way the school is an agent of global change.

‘Our work in India also taught us the importance of the personal dimension: that change is only effected by individuals who have changed. It seems that education offers the best chance of working towards transformation on the personal as well as the global level, in a school which questions accepted norms, especially concerning relationships between its members and the importance of a practical and spiritual dimension in daily life.

‘We were particularly attracted to a school where all are on first-name terms. This convention reminds us of the shared nature of teaching and learning: our experiences in grass-roots training of community workers had showed us the truth of the saying “How can I teach, but to a friend?”’

That is the key to how Caroline and Keith and Julia and I operated. Our homes were always open and pupils were our friends. We remain very close to a number of former pupils. During the time I was Head I did very few things outside the school. When we went to the theatre, opera, a concert or even on holiday, there were usually students with us. Students had first call on our time.

If we come to our teaching ‘as a friend’ then we can be Tolstoy’s teacher:

‘Tolstoy’s teacher is not merely expected to transmit knowledge deemed traditionally worthy, nor even to convey the values of contemporary society. He is not merely a filter for purifying and simplifying a dominant strain of culture. He is rather, a remarkably independent and creative artist who…stimulates the pupil to understand those aspects of culture that he as a teacher deems valuable. The teacher is, then, given and extraordinary degree of independence. It is his judgement that is final and crucial. His freedom is checked, or rather defined by several claims...the claims made by the actual world in which the pupil finds himself and which he must live in successfully after his schooling has ended. His studies must prepare him for the realities of that world. They need not prepare him for a specific vocation or dictate a limited role for him; nor need they provide him with only utilitarian skills which would enable him to cope with the practical problems of life.’

Schumacher also focuses attention on the teacher. He points out that in schools there is an irresolvable tension between ‘freedom’ and ‘discipline and obedience.’ There is no solution, ‘and yet some educators are better than others.’ The problem is transcended by ‘love, empathy, participation mystique, understanding, compassion – these are faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of any policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilise these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently: that requires a high level of self-awareness, and that makes a great educator.’

Vinoba Bhave, Satish’s teacher, wrote: ‘The goal of education must be freedom from fear…Fearlessness means that we should neither fear anything nor inflict fear on others…The only sufficient basis for such fearlessness is knowledge of the self. This self-knowledge is the foundation of education.’

The vision that the core team, and a small group of parents, shared is a global vision. It is a vision of the world as it could be and the steps that need to be taken to confront poverty and injustice and to live in harmony with nature. It is a commitment, for instance, to reducing consumption. (And that is why low pay wasn’t really a problem.) It is a vision of those who know that unless we look to ourselves and our own lifestyle we can have no influence.

At any one time the majority of parents probably did not share our vision, and certainly not all pupils took it on board, for we were not in the brainwashing business. And that is the way it has to be. For I believe that any attempt to reach consensus is likely to result in a lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor.

June 2002

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