Everyone can share the meal: valuing cultural diversity in schools

Andrew Stevenson’s recent piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, The White Bread Playground , commented on the lack of ethnic diversity in some independent schools.

As the principal of an independent school that has a tremendous diversity of culture and languages, I ask myself questions about how we are measuring up not only in the area of welcoming students from diverse backgrounds to our school, but in providing them with equal access to all that the school offers. I know my colleagues across the sectors ask themselves similar questions. I note below some indicators and ideas from PLC Sydney: others will have programs and practices that could add much wisdom to this topic.

One way of testing if we give a voice to the variety of cultures in our schools is if the students of the school pay no heed to cultural background when they are selecting their student leaders. In a student election we have a real test of staff and student attitudes. The stakes are high and the outcome provides an indication of what our community is really thinking. It was therefore very heartening for us at PLC Sydney that the five students with the most votes for 2013 came from five different backgrounds: Southern European (Captain),  Pacific Islander, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Anglo-Saxon. We will keep watching this indicator.

A second measure is whether or not students join together in cross-cultural groups in the playground. I observe at PLC Sydney that the majority of social groups are mixed but that some are homogenous. It is not productive to socially manufacture friendship groups, but, like many schools, we do provide students with opportunities and encouragement to get to know students from other backgrounds. The sport and co-curricular programs are a very helpful means of breaking down barriers.

A third measure is if students from different cultures are achieving excellence. The various honour boards, lists of achievements, or recognition assemblies should reveal names from a variety of backgrounds. I am pleased that ours do.

A fourth measure is parental involvement. Do the parents from different cultural backgrounds feel welcome to contribute to the school? It is here that the leadership of the Parents and Friends Association plays an important role. At our recent Fair and Open Day our convener, Cameron Townshend, discovered that parents from one cultural background were not volunteering. He asked some questions and found out that some of the parents were nervous that their level of English might embarass them. He found a confident parent from this background and she organised a stall where they could all use their native language and she would provide the expertise in English when required.

It is also the case that we don’t have to have students mixing cross-culturally at every point. In our Boarding School we have a diverse population, with students from Rural NSW, ex-patriate families across the globe, international students and some Sydney-siders who live-in at school in their final years. These groups get on well together in the Boarding House. Sometimes, however,  they want to get together with other students who speak their language and think about home.  Sometimes the rural students make close friends with others who love life on a farm. It is important to allow students to develop deep friendships with people who share their interests.

One important aspect of cultural diversity is the one highlighted by Andrew Stevenson: enrolment. It is also important to note that school communities create a cohesive school climate by making a multitude of smaller choices.

Vision and Values in Faith-based Schools

The Association of Independent Schools has recently established a Leadership Centre, with the very well respected Dr. Leoni Degenhardt at the helm. In her first publication about leadership in independent schools the twin notions of ‘Vision and Values’ have been identified as the basis for building an effective school. Leaders are supposed to enact the vision and uphold the values of the school.

Only last week, Harvard educator Mark Church encouraged the staff at PLC Sydney to ask themselves why children should be educated at all. The answer was all to do with the issue of vision and values. What is your belief about what a human being is? What is it that we value about being human? What do we value about knowledge? What sorts of people should schools hope to help to create?

With so many independent schools in Australia founded by the Christian churches, how might the religious framework of the school underpin its vision and values?

One of the central organising metaphors of our current Western societies is development. Schools develop. Children develop.  Effective firms develop both their structures and their staff.  This metaphor has positive and negative aspects. Growth and change are exciting. Schools are supposed to increase the knowledge and skills of children in language, mathematics, science, the social sciences, technology and the arts. On the other hand, it is easy to use the development metaphor to increase the status of one group of ideas at the expense of another simply by presenting the one as the natural progression of the other. Our films and literature often depict us, for example, as developing from a child-like faith to a position of adult skepticism or doubt. With scientific discovery as our new intellectual base and personal freedom as our political modus operandi, we move past a vision of a human being as made in God’s image to one of a homo sapien, who is the result of a chain of events that is based only on the imperative that the fittest survive, or, alternatively, to a self-actualising and self-defining being who acts in an absurd universe.

Of course, people with faith didn’t need the Enlightenment to teach them how to doubt. The apostle Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 13 that ‘We see but through a glass darkly’. It is obvious from his letters to the churches in Thessalonica, Corinth and Galatia that members of those churches had their own questions about what to believe. Well before Paul, an Old Testament prophet such as Jeremiah railed against God for perceived injustices. The Book of Job is an exploration of the question of pain, thus recognising that the existence of pain causes people with faith in a transcendent and immanent God to ask questions. It would appear that the Holy Book itself is OK with the faithful having doubts. The first commandment, after all, is to love God with, amongst other things, all your mind. From Augustine to Isaac Newton, and from Martin Luther to Elaine Storkey, Christian thinkers have puzzled over the connection between their faith and aspects of their experience.

I wonder what it would have been like to have lived in the Roman Empire in the early part of
the first century AD. Lawrence Wellborn, in his excellent analysis of the first four chapters of Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth, provides us with a picture of exactly how violent the Empire was. He notes: Crucifixion…was widespread in the Roman world. In speaking of the ubiquity of the cross, we do not have in mind the occasional use of crucifixion as the ‘supreme penalty’ (summa supplicum) in notorious cases of high treason, nor the more frequent use of crucifixion as a means of suppressing the rebellious subjects in the provinces, but rather the daily employment of the cross as a punishment for slaves in the cities throughout the Roman Empire. Just outside of the Esquiline Gates at Rome, on the road to Tibur, was a horrific place where crosses were routinely set up for the punishment of slaves. There a torture and execution service was operated by a group of funeral contractors who were open to business from private citizens and public authorities alike. These slaves were flogged and crucified at a charge of 4 sesterces per person.

At that time in the Roman Empire, people who were captured in warfare were seen as having no inherent dignity or status. They were the ones who were ‘not the fittest’. Equally, they had no voice, no rights, no political status in the broader community that enabled them to do anything remotely equivalent to ‘self-actualisation’.

The early Christians taught those slaves one of their central beliefs: that they were created in God’s image. And they taught them a second central belief: that God’s love is shown to humanity in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. The Church was too small, and too politically out of favour, to undertake the type of revolution regarding slavery that the Clapham Sect, under Wilberforce, undertook in the early 1800s in the United Kingdom.  But it did bring due emphasis to a very important question: What is a human being? Where else could these slaves have found a vision of themselves that was ennobling?

If we are to set up schools that enable the children within them to see themselves as not simply constructors of new, or operatives of old, forms of power; and not as just another form of matter, then the Christian beliefs about what a human being is, are not a bad place to start. Effective schools hide no knowledge. They are not afraid of Copernicus or Darwin or Nietzsche. They are not afraid of doubt. But neither are they afraid of Jesus. Children are given a firm foundation for building their humanity, and they are allowed to doubt their doubts.