Schools will save the world!

The next best thing to travelling to other countries is meeting foreigners in your own. So, even before the International Confederation of Principals (ICP) convention began earlier this month, I was relishing the prospect of gathering with more than 2 000 principals from 33 countries as diverse as Ghana, Canada and Singapore.

But when the convention in Cape Town finally kicked off, the experience was even more rewarding than I had expected. A rich thinking-feast—speaker after speaker ladled amazing ideas into my ears.

The convention’s theme was ubuntu, and the presentations, all reflecting on ubuntu in different ways, thrashed out many sides of education—from the emotional life of boys to reforms in global education; from tips to strengthen your school to the heady domain of philosophy.

Space dictates that I can’t get into all the fine ideas I heard (look out for more at www.icp2005.com).
But I do want to explore a thread common to many of the presentations: the relationship between a school and its community, society and the world.

For example, does successful change in a school come from within it—or externally, from policymakers? To what extent do education systems enable schools to produce capable ‘global citizens”? And is it society that defines schools entirely—or is it a two-way street, with schools also having the power to shape society?

On the first question, it seems that change can be successfully driven by external interventions as well as schools themselves. David Hopkins, who calls himself a ‘schools improvement activist” and hails from the United Kingdom, described the process of school reform in his country. While imposing national prescriptions on schools initially led to improved results, Hopkins argued that for ongoing transformation to be sustained, the school must lead the reform.

Three teenage girls from Danville Park Girls’ High in KwaZulu-Natal told the conference how difficult change was—for both a school and a community. Being black ‘model C” learners makes them outsiders in their communities because they’re ‘coconuts”; and they are outsiders too from the traditions and dominant cultures of their school. But they don’t just settle for this—they’ve claimed their space at school by insisting on changes to accommodate what they need.

As to the second of my questions: schools and their relationship to the competitive world of modern economies. Pasi Sahlberg from Finland argued that there are fundamental mismatches between the way a typical school has to function and qualities valued by global economies. Schools operate within the framework of fixed results, accountability and standardisation; in contrast, economic competition demands risk-taking, creativity and flexibility.

But it is the last question I posed above that most intrigues me: the possibility that schools are not only the products of their particular history and society, but they also exercise power over the world.

I’m no expert, but I can think of many instances where schools have been used to shape the new generation in the interests of a certain social power group—not least under apartheid.

But an idea that seems to be gathering ground internationally is that schools can be the nurseries for a generation that can not only challenge the prevailing world order, but also make it better. It’s the idea that, in a time that is—yet again—marked by human savagery, the tide can eventually be turned by teaching today’s youngsters the value of tolerance, justice and equal opportunity for all.

This is not a new idea. As Shirley Pendlebury of the University of the Witwatersrand pointed out, the idea that there is an intimate link between education, social justice and the possibility of human flourishing is at least as old as Aristotle.

It might have been because of the convention’s theme of ubuntu, an African philosophy that stresses ‘humaneness”. Perhaps it was also because the ICP convention took place just after the London bombings. But Archbishop Desmond Tutu echoed many in his speech when he said: ‘[Educators] have the high calling of helping to nurture and develop a new breed of human being who will want to be more compassionate and caring, who will be gentle and sharing, who will know that we are really one ... human family.”

As much as I relate to this idea, I’m also wary of it. Schools have a lot on their plates as it is—preparing youngsters to survive in our modern jungle is already a big job. Now they’re also being asked to drag this messy world into a better future. And they’re being asked to do this when all around them religious, political and other social institutions flounder in conflict and deceit.

Can schools save the world?

Should they?

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