The walled pity of it all

As I drive work I note yet another school where a fence has been put up – one of those things with little venomous spikes on top. It’s high enough to keep people out (and, I suppose, to keep them in!).

At a time when there is an increasing emphasis on partnerships this seems anachronistic.

Years ago when I was a Principal there was a problem with all sorts of people using the grounds, with graffiti and the occasional bit of vandalism. The cry went up – “build a fence!”, ‘repel the invader!”. But we found a much greater and more powerful approach – we invited people in.

Through an agreement with the local authority, the then Manukau City Council, we saw our grounds become part of the city network of public spaces and sports fields. People could book the grounds through the City Council who would agree to undertake all the annual maintenance on the grounds while the school continued with the weekly and daily chores.

It was an excellent arrangement for both parties. The City Council got additional sports fields while the school got organized use of its grounds by people who by and large were greatly more responsible than those who would wander in because they were at a loose end. Vandalism dropped, graffiti lowered and it was in every sense more orderly – park rangers would regularly visit the “school / park.” The Council came to consider it as one of their most successful “parks” having in excess of 80,000 planned and authorised users each year in those early days.

In Auckland there are current plans to slice land of the only public golf course because of a shortage of sports fields. It would be a safe bet to put money on the fact that there is a huge acreage of school grounds that lie idle – many behind spiky fences. How absurd!

I frequently take a walk though a local school that is open to such activity and it is great to see the grounds and outdoor basketball courts getting some use. The school doesn’t appear to suffer as a result.

We all love a good cliché – the problem is that there is always a element of truth in them. So we often hear educators spouting the old African proverb popularized by Hilary Clinton – “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Too often this is used to excuse poor achievement or performance in a weak attempt to shift blame. But how can such claims have credibility when spiky fences ensure that the village is kept at arms length? How can the village feel welcomed when the physical messages say otherwise?

I know that child safety is paramount. I know that there are sad and pathetic people out there who do not share our concerns for safety. But this is not the US where school lock downs are practised and sadly activated quite often. But there are other ways in which schools can be kept safe. Invite the village in to help with creating and maintaining a safe environment.

I cannot understand why New Zealand has been so slow to consider and to use community-sourced assistance that would allow teachers to get on with practicing their craft. It is great in the UK to see the role that dinner workers and lollipop workers help out. Many stay-at-home parents would be thrilled to have an opportunity to help and if this was sweetened with a little remuneration, in some communities that would make all the difference. It also makes the management of “volunteer” workers that much easier.

Now I need to be clear, I work in a fenced institution but there is managed public usage thanks in large part to a professional security unit that manages the use of the marae (over 200 nights a year, opens the gates for people to get to the market each Saturday morning (and to the ATM machine), and so on.

The proliferation of a Checkpoint Charlie mentality (without the Charlies!) has no place in education.

 

 

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