The word community is banded about very freely, often meaning particular interest groups as in “the artistic community”, “the rural community” and in many cases, “the school community”. The interesting question is what exactly is “the school community”?
The first school that I joined in the South of England was described as a community school. This meant that as soon as afternoon lessons finished for children, adults would arrive to follow the many courses and activities that were designed for them. Many of the adults were parents of the children in the School and this resulted in a very strong sense of shared identity.
My children’s primary school was attached to the local parish church. The strength of the connection varied with the enthusiasm of the Headteacher and the Rector but over the years I have seen a strong relationship develop which clearly brings the children out of the school and into the church and vice versa. Many schools have enthusiastic parents who are willing to organise events for the parents’ association and provide generous fundraising. Schools who have this parental support are very fortunate and in a much stronger position than those schools in areas where parental buy-in may be more difficult.
However, all of this treats the concept of community in a very specific and limited way: What is good for my school and thus for my child? How can I contribute through fundraising or organising a family quiz night? How can I help the School to move forward by adding to its resources? These are laudable aims and much valued by staff in schools. There is, however, a wider sense of community which I think is essential to introduce to young children if you want it to grow into an adult commitment to the wider world outside the narrow self interest.
Young children and their parents take each step in their development tentatively and sometimes with trepidation. The focus for new parents is very much on the well-being of their own particular child and observing the development mile stones is one of the great pleasures of parenting. Arrival at Nursery or School may be the first time that the child has interacted regularly with those outside her/his own family circle. This is where s/he learns some of life’s most valuable lessons; s/he learns that her/his own needs may have to wait and give way to those of others; s/he will have to learn to share both toys and the attention of the adults; s/he will occasionally have to tolerate injustice and settle for something s/he doesn’t much like. All of these are essential lessons in the socialisation of children and the training of the ego. This is also a good time to introduce to young children the concept of a wider community outside the self, the family, the School and most certainly outside the area of personal wants, needs and desires.
Many schools begin this process at the great church festivals, Harvest, Christmas and Easter. Sending shoe boxes of toys and treats for children in care or in war torn areas and sending harvest baskets to the elderly or infirm and, in our church, fresh eggs to be taken to the bereaved at Easter, are ways in which children can begin to understand that their world includes those who are hungry, sad and displaced. These habits become deeply ingrained and although the young child’s understanding of the motive is limited in the early years, it lays the foundations on which to build a more mature concept of the world around them. A growing understanding of the concept of community is the route through which children and adolescents begin to understand their place in the wider world. At our school there is a cycle of activities punctuated by exceptional projects. In the recent past these have included our regular Harvest and Christmas charity appeals, our annual House appeals which give individual girls the chance to decide on their projects and compete with other houses to raise the most funds, and the Christian Aid collection in May. In addition, we have raised dramatic amounts of money in a short time for emergency aid distributed through our link with The King’s World Trust for Children based in Tamil Nadu as well as responding to natural disasters that occur all around the world.
We always encourage the notion of individual responsibility and thus an 11 year old may often come up with a good idea to raise funds for a cause that has moved her. There is often a personal motive; one girl led fundraising throughout her time at the School on behalf of the hospice where her younger brother had died. I am always particularly pleased when an individual or small group of girls propose projects which are dear to their heart. The teacher responsible for managing the School’s charitable efforts always ensures that fundraising activities are timetabled to achieve the maximum effect, and to ensure, as far as possible, that the funds will actually go to the needy and not be siphoned off in extravagant expenses etc. Part of our responsibility is to make sure that our funds are well used and do reach the needy.
Children and young people enjoy the process of fundraising; the pleasure in the baking and selling of cakes for a charity is exceeded only by the eating of them at break the next day. I have been rather moved in the past to see how our Sixth Form girls enjoy meeting the elderly and stroke victims who come to our annual tea concert before Christmas. Some of the Sixth Formers are overseas boarders who are far from home and not able to see their parents or grandparents very often. Bubbly conversations and smiley faces on old and young persuade me that this community event is something that genuinely benefits both parties.
The younger the child the more concrete the effort has to be. A young child who presents a harvest basket for a special assembly is more likely to understand its purpose if some of the recipients are present or if there can be photographs taken of the doorstep delivery. Similarly, our children benefit from the many visitors to our assemblies who come to talk about their projects and needs and encourage the children’s commitment. In one particularly memorable assembly, I watched with the Junior girls as a dog from Canine Partners managed to put clothing into a washing machine and shut the door. The children’s enthusiasm for that charity was boundless, connected no doubt to the bouncy charms of the dog.
The modern parent is significantly busy. Often mother and father are working and time with their children is precious. Quite rightly, that time is often spent on leisure and family based activities. For many young children, school may be the place where they learn to face outwards and to understand that with privilege goes responsibility. Children growing up in England, whatever the current economic stresses may be, are amongst the most privileged in the world. They experience civil order, good health care and access to free education. They need help to understand that these privileges are not universal. From those to whom much has been given, much is expected.
Community is bigger than the self, it is bigger than the family, it is bigger than the School and a child who learns that lesson in Reception or Year 1 is not likely to forget it.