It has been a fascinating pleasure today to visit the British section of the SHAPE International School at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) outside Mons in Belgium, and tomorrow will be equally as interesting. The school reminds me of a well resourced private day school as much as anything – small class sizes, good quality and quantity of staffing, secure budgets, and a content, familial feel that derives in part from a long standing cross-fertilisation between a significant number of adults who have worked in other MoD schools. That feeling also derives from a high level of motivation among the staff and the excellent conduct of the children who have amazing opportunities for learning and whose parents by and large have themselves a high level of motivation. Teaching a Year 5 class this morning has been a treat, as has meeting other teachers, other candidates (all from other parts of the MoD education estate) and the support staff at the British Section.

80afe14d85ca2e1ed023196ff6e59a9cI generalise of course, but this is a UK state school very different from most. It is in a very privileged position and is grateful for and appreciative of that position. It has a beautiful new school on a beautiful and well planned new campus (thank you to the US Corps of Engineers for that). The school houses the Canadian section as well, and other schools house the Deutsche Abteilung, the US High School and Elementary School Sections and a school that houses other nations (Norway, Turkey, Italy among them).  Each school serves its own nation’s curricular imperatives and this has limited any form of long term or significant cooperation between them. The desire is there, but the barriers are severe.

Coming here has been like coming into a different world. You are vaguely conscious that you are in a foreign country, but once in the school, conversations revolve around the concerns and the life of any typical British school, except that SEN issues do not figure quite so heavily, and disadvantage hardly at all.

SHAPE_MS_WebIt has raised questions for me about the relationship between provision and community. If part of good leadership is about provision for the present and for the future, then a part of community is similarly about that. SHAPE functions well as an international community in part because the range and scope of the provision (housing, entertainment, activities – both sporting and creative, work relationships etc) is so wide. The same goes for schools. This provision releases pressure from people and creates opportunities, within the choices they make, to be together.

In between the teaching and observations today I have been reading a paper by Michael Fielding, part of a set of papers in a book co-edited by Stephen Ball celebrating the work of the Journal of Education Policy. Fielding’s paper is from 2000 and relies on insights from the Scottish philosopher John MacMurray. MacMurray is having something of a renaissance recently, with papers by John Shortt and a book (and a number of papers) by Julian Stern celebrating and applying his unique contribution to our understanding of community and communal being. There are probably many others writing about him also. Fielding describes him as unjustly neglected, one of the “unsung figures of twentieth-century British philosophy” (2000: 397). Not any more he isn’t.

MacMurray’s account of community distinguishes between relationships that we have that are functional and those that are personal. Having established that the concept of self is meaningless without “the other” against which to define it, and that “to be human” is actually a signifier of what it means to “be in community,” MacMurray then relates the functional forms of relationships to those we have in “society” – social relationships. Arguing that we are not actually social beings, but in fact communal beings, he relates the personal relationships to community in precisely the same way as functional ones relate to society. Functional relationships are generally instrumental or transactional, relationships to “get things done” as Fielding puts it. Society, for MacMurray (so argues Fielding), is an organisation of functions.

Personal relations are not predicated on getting anything from one another. A friendship that has a purpose is no friendship at all. An ulterior motive is absent in a true friendship by definition (this is why “friendship evangelism” was such a blot on the Christian landscape; the care and delight that are present in a good friendship seem secondary, or even unnecessary to the business of getting a conversion). MacMurray however sees this communal, “purpose-less” collection of personal relationships as requiring something of society to frame it. The personal indicates the communal, always. Such communal relationships are expressive of who we are as persons. But society, describing the functions that enable us to get things done, is the scaffold of the communal growth.

“We become persons in community, in virtue of our relations to others. Human life is inherently a common life. Our ability to form individual purposes is itself a function of this common life…Community is prior to society” (MacMurray, J. 1950. Conditions of Freedom, London, Faber, p. 56)

Fielding then argues the case that in seeking the underpinning principles of community, then equality and freedom are both necessary and in fact depend on each other, one not being present without the other in a relationship (p. 400). This makes perfect sense to us once we gaze at it intently. The acceptance of equality between two people liberates immediately. Macmurray explains it this way:

Equality and freedom, as constitutive principles of fellowship, condition one another reciprocally. Equality is a condition of freedom in human relations. For if we do not treat one another as equals, we exclude freedom from the relationship. Freedom, too, conditions equality. For if there is constraint between us there is fear; and to counter the fear we must seek control over its object, and attempt to subordinate the other person to our own power. Any attempt to achieve freedom without equality, or to achieve equality without freedom, must, therefore be self-defeating. (Macmurray 1950: 74)

Fielding goes on to conclude that “Community is rather the reciprocal experience people have as persons in certain kinds of relationships…it is n a group of people, nor is it the mere fact of a relationship; rather it is the shared mutuality of experience that is constitutive of it…a way of being, not a thing…..Furthermore, that mutuality is informed by the values of freedom (freedom to be and become yourself) and equality (equal worth) which condition each other reciprocally.” (Fielding, 2000: 401)

This is the nub of it, and why provision of opportunity, of activity, of any field in which the actors might see themselves as equal and free, is important in building community. It may be the reason why servant leadership, which makes provision for others abundantly and in love, is essential for the formation of community. By creating an affectionate “hospitable space” (Tony Eaude’s lovely term) within an organisation or institution, a servant leader can begin to offer the opportunity for members to meet as persons, equal and free. In compliance-driven organisations such as schools this is harder, and attention always needs paying to it, but it remains possible, because of the primacy of the teacher-child relationship whose fundamental heart is affection.

These ideas – especially the ones between servant leadership and MacMurray’s ideas on community, need some developing, but some small sparks of what I saw today in the British section at SHAPE were an indicator of how it might work. In fact the whole of the SHAPE base had something of that same abundant provision for the 14,000 people working at the base. It was good to have seen some of the “interior angles” of this particular SHAPE.

About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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  1. […] make the distinction, following Macmurray, between community and society (I have blogged on this here) – society utilises others to a purpose (not necessarily in a bad sense); community treats […]

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