Paul Rowe, Chairperson, Educate Together
Paper Presented to the Marino Institute Conference on School Culture and Ethos, March 20th 2000.
I would like to present to you some of the experience of the Educate Together movement in handling the atmosphere and culture within which our schools operate. But firstly by introduction, let me briefly explain what Educate Together is and how it operates.
Educate Together is the national representative organization of patron bodies and Boards of Management of schools that subscribe to the Educate Together Charter. There are currently 18 such schools in the Republic of Ireland. They are all national (primary) schools. These schools are recognised and funded by the Irish Department of Education and Science, they are non fee-paying and operate under the same set of regulations and law as do all state funded primary schools in the Republic.
The impetus to establish schools of this type in Ireland grew out of the general trend towards educational reform of the 1970s, and resulted in the establishment in 1977 of the Dalkey School Project. Despite the enormous obstacles that had to be overcome, other schools followed so that there are now 10 schools in the greater Dublin area, 2 in Cork (one of which is a Gealscoil) and others in Kilkenny, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Ennis and Celbridge. In practice this is a very diverse family. Some of the schools are inner city schools, one with disadvantaged status; others are in affluent suburbs. Some are in areas of enormous and growing social diversity
The structure of an Educate together school differs in only one respect from the structure of other national schools. The role of the patron (which is carried out by the bishop in the traditional model) is occupied by a company limited by guarantee whose members comprise the supporters of the school in the local area. This membership generally consists of the parents, ex-parents and prospective parents of children in the school itself but would also include supporters from the general community. This company has charitable status and is governed by the Companies Acts, which ensure that it is run in a fully accountable and democratic manner.
Educate Together schools are set up by small groups of committed parents, teachers, educationalists and other interested parties. They have to struggle against formidable difficulties in order to establish schools that are run according to their ethical and educational principles. The scale of these obstacles and the fact that have been overcome clearly indicates the commitment of these individuals to establish schools that are decisively different in ethos from those in existing schools.
It is as a result of this that questions of “Ethos” assume a central importance in the life of an Educate Together school.
This paper attempts to describe these questions and to reflect the continuous self-analytical passionate debate that is at the core of the development of Educate Together as a distinct educational philosophy in modern Ireland.
What is Meant by “Ethos” in and Educate Together environment?
I refer first to the definitions of ethos already mentioned at this conference
“The character, sentiment, or disposition of a community or people, considered as a natural endowment; the spirit which actuates manners and customs; also, the characteristic tone or genius of an institution or social organisation. “The disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement “â¦the dominant pervading spirit or character of a place or institution”
Whilst these seem appropriate in many social situations and organisations, they would appear too general and perhaps almost ethereal for many in an Educate Together school.
A definition, which would be more understandable, would be: –
“The ethical principles and educational policies upon which the school strives to base all its activities.”
Not only this, a parent or teacher in an Educate Together school would expect that this ethos would be expressed in a written form. They would look for it in the mission statement of the Board of Management and centrally in the memo and articles of the limited company that carries out the responsibility of the patron.
The written statement of ethos of an Educate Together school would be expected to be used as the litmus test of the appropriateness or validity of a wide range of school practices or activities. These would include the way that the patron company conducts its business, the way that elections are conducted for members of the Board of management, the discussions of the Board itself, as well as the day to day activity of the school both in and outside of the classroom. In contentious policy debates, it is the “constitution” which is appealed to settle disputes (usually by both sides with equal passion) and most importantly it provides the common ground around which parents, teachers and supporters of very varying opinions can agree and work together.
Educate Together would contend that it is a fundamental obligation of any school to define its ethos in written form. We think that it is essential that this should be in the form of a single stand-alone document that is automatically available to anyone working in, attending or supporting the school.
We would also suggest that to be real, this statement must have a legally enforceable character and should be written sufficiently precisely so as to give positive security to all those involved in school affairs.
Whilst defining an ethos in this way could appear to an outside observer to leave the stage wide open to doctrinaire and dogmatic school policies and possibly the emergence of special kind of ‘political correctness’, our experience has been to the contrary. By clearly defining a set of unifying principles and attitudes, it creates a zone of security within which can flourish vigorous debate on interpretation and implementation. It allows all concerned to know exactly where they stand and as a result, it spurs creativity, initiative and innovation. We have found that it has attracted many dedicated and talented teachers, built very high levels of positive parental participation in educational life, and created highly supportive atmospheres in which children have flourished.
To take this discussion further, it will be best to examine the definition of the Educate Together ethos is some detail.
The Ethos of Educate Together
The ethos statements of all Educate Together schools originated in the formation of the Dalkey School Project whose Memo and Articles have been copied with very minor changes in the legal documents of the 16 other limited companies that today operate as patrons of Educate Together schools.
In this document, the aims and objectives, powers and limits to the powers of the patron body of the school are clearly defined. Much of this is in legally detailed language, and as a result I will extract only the key features effecting the ethical values that the patron seeks to promote; –
The objects for which the Association is established are as follows:
“To advance education in Ireland, to develop, promote and support the establishment of schools which accord with the following principles:
- 1. A child-centred approach to education
- 2. Co-education
- 3. Multi-denominational i.e. all children having equal rights of access to the school and the social, cultural and religious background of each child to be equally respected
- 4. Run by management committees which would be predominantly democratic in character.”
Later, in 1990, the member companies of Educate Together met and drew up the Educate Together Charter, which is now the basis of unity of the Educate Together movement.
Again extracting only the main features, this document commits the members of Educate Together to: –
“3.1 Support the establishment of schools which are: – Multi-denominational i.e. all children having equal rights of access to the school, and children of all social, cultural and religious backgrounds being equally respected, Co-educational and committed to encouraging all children to explore their full range of abilities and opportunities, Child centred in their approach to education Democratically run with active participation by parents in the daily life of the school, whilst positively affirming the professional role of the teachers.”2
From these extracts it can be seen that the fundamental driving concept in these definitions is that of inclusion – that is – that children should be educated together in an atmosphere in which difference is specifically recognised, endorsed and welcomed. That this difference covers ethical background and preference, religious views, social and cultural roots, gender and physical and mental advantage and disadvantage. The other major foundation idea is that the structures in which this ethos is delivered should be democratic, respectful and representative.
The beauty of this formulation is in the fact that it includes a fundamental commitment to respect the rights of minorities both in society and within the school and couples it with a commitment to deliver this in a form that is democratically accountable and subject to majority votes. It is important to note at this point, that although the ethos is legally enforceable; it is subject to a legally enforceable method whereby it may be changed. To some this may appear at first sight to be a weakness. Some may seek a legal definition of ethos that once established becomes unassailable and set in stone. Educate Together’s experience suggests that this weakness is in fact a strength. If the promoters of a school are aware that the ethical values which they uphold are liable to democratic change, then it clearly requires them to ensure that these values are constantly elaborated in the daily life of the school. An ethos clearly cannot be maintained purely by an external legal hand, it has to be a living, constantly regenerating feature of the discussions in the playground, staff room, management meeting and general meeting of parents. If the promoters of the school fail in maintaining it in these places it will certainly wither and fall.
How is this Ethos applied?
The democratic structures of an Educate Together patron are straightforwardly protected by the law. AGMs must be held each year, proper notice and notification of EGMs must be given, Directors must declare their interests and be accountable to the AGM and no action of the company can be outside its Memo and Articles. Even changes to these documents cannot be made without recourse to the Companies Office.
Further safeguards to the definitions of ethos lie in the fact that a school must operate under the regulations of the Department. Now, for the new schools owned by the Department, they must conform to the conditions of the new leases currently being developed by the partners in Irish primary education.
To successfully apply this ethos to a school and ensure that the daily evolving culture of a school is educated by it, we would highlight some factors listed below.
It goes without saying that the selection of a teaching staff and in particular a principal teacher who is committed to the implementation of the ethos in the whole life of the school is of paramount importance. We would highlight further that it is essential that this process does not stop at selection but continues with active support of the role of the principal who we see as the leader of the pedagogic team and not as a bureaucrat. Rather than being converted into an administrator, this leader should be provided with all the necessary supports to carry out the demands of modern school administration.
Secondly that the delivery of ethos and building of school culture is “an ideas and discussion driven process”. It has to be an ongoing, integrated, cyclical process of self-analysis â of doubt and questioning. It has to permeate all areas of school activity from the big areas of the delivery of the religious education core curriculum, through the way the school celebrates festivals all the way down to the manner in which the PTA organizes Science Week. This discussion should start before the school opens, be part of the consultation phase with the local community and continue until such a time when the school changes or is no longer needed. It is the responsibility of the patron body or trustee to ensure that this happens, that the issues of are brought up at the meetings of the board and parent body, that the school’s response to gender equity, the policy on peer pressure and bullying, the response to the recognition of multiple intelligences, the response to provision of facilities for religious instruction for those parents who wish to avail it, to the response to children whose native language is neither Irish nor English, I mention these few in no particular order of merit â that these considerations are carried out with full reference to the defined statement of ethos.
Thirdly, that the consideration of these questions must take place in a situation where the participants have real power. The process of review of ethos must be a process that has teeth. All participants in this review must really know that they have a legally enforceable right to participate and make a difference. If they do not and are merely consulted, then they will not become the active deliverers of this programme. It is our experience that any attempt to impose an ethos in a hierarchical model is ineffective in today’s world. Furthermore we think that it completely misses the huge opportunities for creative involvement that the democratic model offers.
There are indeed dangers in this process. Democracy means that there is no certainty that the voters will make the right decision. Rights mean in essence the absence of control. In our schools there is sometimes a danger that the local democratically formed patron can become embroiled in the detail of school life and lack sufficient detachment to carry out its supervisory role.
To the first concern our experience would suggest that the benefits far outweigh the possible dangers. In fact over 25 years despite many â usually positive but sometimes highly controversial – disputes over the implementation of the ethos our core values have never been threatened. At the same time we have had to stand back in awe at the confidence with which our ‘stakeholders’ – children, teachers and parents have enriched these core values in practice.
To the second, we feel that this is a management and training issue that national bodies like ourselves must address in order to make the system work. In the past year, we have put into place patron and management training schemes that meet this requirement.
The key issue here is one of trust. That is, trusting that the ethos upheld genuinely corresponds to the best interests of the educational community and that this community has been empowered with the structures, practices and information necessary to protect it.
It is our contention that the best way to support and protect a school ethos is to define it in a legally enforceable form, which is also legally bound to democratic evolution. The pressure of the obligation to be held to account at regular intervals by one’s constituency erodes dogmatic formulation. It constantly forces a patron or promoter of a school to consciously explain and justify the policies implemented. It openly encourages critical and constructive comment and alternative suggestions. It provides a mechanism whereby such suggestions can be evaluated by the community in whose interests they are being advocated.
We would also contend that the Educate Together model suits well the emerging atmosphere in society in which parents, teachers and children expect to have real rights and responsibilities in their institutions and that policy decisions are taken with conscious justification and openness.
- Memo and Articles of Dalkey School Project Limited
- The Educate Together Charter 1990, as amended by the AGM of Educate Together April 17th 1999