Exam and other national assessment results have been delivered to children and young people across the country and soon we will have the dreaded ‘league tables’ that are so meaningless.  So, I hope this is a timely antidote and look at other core business.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a sermon that expressed the hope that our schools are sacred places for our children and young people. The phrase ‘sacred place’ has stayed with me throughout the summer.  I read many interesting philosophical articles and pieces.  However, I find the definition: “A sacred site is a place that is thought of as sacred (or holy) to a particular religion. Every one of the world's major religions has sacred sites” far too narrow in the context of inclusive education. 

Surely, a sacred place is a space distinguished from other spaces where rituals and practices mark it as special, “as sacred” but not necessarily religious in our current 21st Century understanding of the word.

Can we apply this definition of school as a sacred place to all schools across the country? A sacred place distinguished from other spaces where rituals and practices mark it as special? I believe we should and that we can.  

If our schools are sacred places then our children and young people need to be safe, to be happy, to learn, to be engaged and to have opportunities to participate in the wider life of the school.  So, what rituals and practices need to be in place to distinguish school from other spaces and mark it as special?   

Our schools must be built on positive relationships.  No one – especially children - should come in without a ‘meet and greet’ experience. The teachers can adopt this at their classroom doors and welcome children with smiles and positive words.  To be safe and happy, the pupil needs to know that at least one adult knows and understands them very well.  Then they will have the confidence to attend and take part in class.  Sometimes, individual children have specific barriers, but our schools often provide breakfast, a nurturing word, and sometimes even clean clothes to get the day off to a better start. 

To learn and make progress, pupils need access to appropriate curriculum and, in some cases, a full individualised programme.  There is no one size fits all. To be engaged, lessons need to be varied, active and inclusive with opportunities for real dialogue between the child and the teacher.  The child’s voice is to be heard and listened to.

To be able to participate in the wider life of the school we need opportunities which are accessible for children and young people.  These range from in school projects to after school clubs involving creative arts; sports; environmental awareness; charitable acts.

None of the above sounds revolutionary, good schools have been adopting this approach by living and actively demonstrating the values of: Wisdom, Justice Compassion and Integrity and in Curriculum for Excellence four contexts for learning: Curriculum areas and subjects; Interdisciplinary learning; Ethos and life of the school and opportunities for personal achievement.  It also chimes with the UN PILLARS OF EDUCATION: Learning to Know; Learning to do; Learning to live together; Learning to be and learning to transform oneself and society and with the Buddhist “Instilling Goodness/Developing Virtue schools” where graduates develop the core virtues of Kindness, Good Citizenship, Trustworthiness, Respect, Fairness, Humility and Integrity while exploring and developing their individual academic potential and talents. 

However, another dimension which ensures school as a sacred place is discipline and behaviour. For many children and young people, school is the only main constant in their life.  They live in a throwaway society.  Everything is instant, urgent and transient.  This is so often the antithesis of truth, reason and conviction. 

While school based, I had two comic posters on display in my room.  One read: “Attention all teenagers.  No is a complete sentience”.  The other was a caricature of the teacher with mortarboard and cane asking the young people “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?”

These are funny but also serve to remind us that children and young people will always push at the boundaries.  You could argue – it’s their job.  It is our job to provide them with boundaries, frameworks and guidance.  Sometimes, school is the only constant in the life of many children and young people. Sometimes it is the only place they hear ‘no’ and it is followed through.

This is not a plea for harsh disciplinary regimes but a plea for consistency, fairness and reason and for children and young people to be loved -to be shown kindness, compassion and affection.

It is possible and indeed preferable to be strict without being mean; to guide without being cruel. Children and young people want clear boundaries.  They need clear boundaries, frameworks and guidance.  Schools do this though systems, policies and strategies.  However, to be ‘sacred’ these must be not only consistently applied but lived and believed by all.  Our staff need to understand and believe their role in loving their pupils.   

 Schools and all who work in them must model positive relationships for these to become the norm in our communities.  This is the key factor that distinguishes schools and makes them sacred places.  

I wish all schools and establishments across the country a great start to session 2019/20 and hope to continue to witness your contribution to our schools as sacred places.