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'Creative Schools' as Effective 'Learning Communities'

Barry Cocklin and Ken Davis


INTRODUCTION

There are those occasions when, as a visitor, you enter a school and there is a certain, very subjective, feeling that things are working. The students and teachers appear comfortable with their situation, there is a sense of enjoyment, and a feeling that learning is taking place. Furthermore, there is a strong sense of 'community' and interaction, and often support derives from the wider community context. Such were my impressions when I first came to Rana Primary School in September 1995. Although the Principal (Ken) and I had worked together at the university when he was seconded the previous Semester, I had never visited the school and it was not until September that being allocated supervision of two practicum students provided me with the necessary 'excuse' to spend some time there. Following the practicum, I continued to spend time at the school, working with small groups of students, teaching some lessons to the Upper Division group (Years 3 - 6), working with some individuals from Lower Division (Kindergarten - Year 2), and participating in end-of-year school-community functions such as the fete, where I was asked by parents to play 'Santa', and Concert where the Parents & Citizens (P&C) presented me with a gift of thanks for my assistance and support to the school.

It was during this time, also, that we discussed the possibility of conducting a research project during 1996. This derived from two aspects. First, was the subjective sense that things appeared to be working at this school, and so we sought to establish a description of the existing situation, within a notion that things can always be developed through a strategy of working with the people in the school and community. The second aspect was the consideration of the literature on both Learning Communities (see Cocklin et al, 1996) and Creative Teachers (Woods, 1995) which appeared to offer a basis of elaboration of the context.

BACKGROUND

In conducting the study we have been influenced by our interpretation derived from this literature. We have done so in light of the current changes within education in New South Wales, some of the likely directions these changes may take, and a concern that many of these developments are being imposed from outside representing a greater politicisation and control over education. This is evident in the statements of devolution of control to the schools, yet coupled with the centralisation of control within the political realm (see, Bates, 1993). In NSW, this was clearly evident in the time following the Scott Report (1990). While Scott proposed to locate greater control in schools, the results were an increasing bureaucratisation, curriculum control firmly located within a central body, and the eventual recentralisation which occurred with the Labor decision to abandon regions, all underpinned by the managerial approach characterising both Scott's work and subsequent reform agendas (see, Cocklin, 1992). This political paradox (see, Hargreaves, 1995) is perhaps seen most clearly where, while espousing freedom, the directions to Principals in 1995 stated "Your schools are to reflect the priorities of the present Labor Government's educational agenda", and that Principals needed to "understand your political context; know and implement the Labor Government's priorities; appreciate your responsibility of ensuring a performance-driven system; have no doubts of the professionalism required of you as a Principal within the above context." Within this there is also a further paradox of terminology. On the one hand, there are the claims for autonomy and flexibility, for creating an educational system responsive to the local context, where equality and quality are promoted. On the other, education is to become more business-like, more managerial, more efficient - defined in terms of market responsiveness and market forces. Increasingly, then, the terminology of education is being couched in terms of an instrumental, centralised, curriculum, standards which measure proficiency and allow comparisons between schools, a mono-cultural approach to content and pedagogy, and a domination by narrowly defined outcomes which are measurable in terms of quantity (see, Bates, 1993; Grundy, 1993; Woods, 1995; Retallick, 1994). This drive to managerialism, however, is contradicted by the bulk of educational research which shows that:

...good schools are those in which principals are leaders not managers, and in which teachers form a true community of professionals who talk a lot among themselves about school related matters. Good schools, contrary to the doctrine, spend more on education, pay more to teachers, have lower teacher/pupil rations and have more resources. (Snook, 1992:8-9)

In other words, the notion of a 'good school' evident within the research literature places emphasis upon issues of collegiality, a professional involvement in curricular and pedagogical development, a secure school culture involving parents and community, a secure and stable profession and school, school-based professional development, maximum use of learning time, and continuing resource allocation (see, Bates, 1993). Furthermore, this 'school' would be a site of reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983) in which:

Action which follows from planning will be collaborative, once again with every person encompassed within the field of action being responsible for the taking of action. Action will not necessarily be a process of problem-solving, but rather of further problem-posing which will be fruitful for future critical reflection. (Grundy, 1993:172).

This action should be directed towards an emancipatory praxis, one where:

The question for the educational leader is not "Am I emancipated and how can I emancipate my staff?" but, "How can I engage in forms of critical, self-reflective and collaborative work which will create conditions so that the people with whom I work can come to control their knowledge and practice?" (Grundy, 1993:174)

The notions of both learning community and an extended version to include that of a creative school seem to us most appropriate in seeking to promote this view of a 'good school'. This assumes greater importance in light of recent pronouncements by the Department of School Education (DSE) that all NSW schools are to 'become' learning communities. The DSE has directed some attention towards the notion of schools as learning communities as a means of enhancing the quality of teaching and learning (NSW Department of School Education, 1995). This approach has been based within the work of Senge (1990) on learning organisations in USA business organisations which emphasises a need to develop the capacity of the whole organisation to learn, rather than focussing on the learning of isolated individuals. On the other hand, 'based' is the descriptor in that the DSE terminology has been derived rather than based upon an analysis and interpretation, with an approach of implement rather than develop and critique in terms of the school context. Once again, then, this is a change imposed from without, and one where the business rhetoric has been 'implanted' without further consideration.

THE RESEARCH

The initial intentions of the research arose from the first contacts with the school from discussions focussing primarily on seeking to determine 'what worked and why'. The study commenced under a general question as to: what is it that makes the school what it is, and how can this understanding be better used and translated into more effective learning for the school and its community? In adopting this, we sought to start with a description of the culture of the school, then, through an action orientation use these findings to examine and reflect upon the situation, effecting strategies and processes of change and development as a result. The actual strategies and implementation are described in more detail in another paper (Cocklin & Davis, 1996).

The research has involved interviews of staff, students, and some of the parents, as well as extensive observations, by myself, while Ken has used 'oral history' interviews to focus upon:

what threads exist that are common to the community's history and the school's development, culture and ethos. What has happened in the past that has bonded the community and the school so closely together and how does this affiliation work to make the school the 'learning community' it seems to be.

While we have engaged in the action orientation in so far as an ongoing reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983) has been adopted, we had also intended to implement certain strategies in Term 2 on the basis of the cultural description derived from Term 1 data. However, two changes in the situation intervened. In Term 2, Ms Dean, a fourth year student on internship, took over the teaching of Upper Division. Although Ms Dean was willing to participate in the research and in any changes we wished to implement, it was evident that both her and the students were adjusting to a new situation as they developed their own new relationships and practices. It therefore seemed counterproductive to impose a further dimension on this situation, particularly in view of the importance of the internship for Ms Dean. Second, the internship program is designed to allow the released teacher to undertake a professional development project of their own. Ken had been asked by a number of the local schools to assist in their development of computer learning for both staff and students, and consequently he was away from the school more often than he was present.

With the project continuing, and with further analysis and reflection ongoing, the intention remains that these processes of both data collection and action will continue. As a consequence, we can only report on the initial data gathered, without being able to reflect upon the changes this has brought about, some of which are now being initiated in Term 3 as this paper is prepared.

THE CONTEXT

Even though it is located only a few kilometres outside a major rural centre, the school and community are very much isolated and independent of their larger neighbour, which reflects both history and geography. Opened up in the 1930's as a series of rural blocks, the surrounding district comprises a number of small farms on the banks of a large river subject to occasional flooding which precluded denser settlement and has preserved the rural nature. The initial forty-one settler families , who balloted for the blocks, arrived in an area covered with weeds, no houses or roads and no boundaries to the farms. With the Great Depression in full swing, some of these people were among the unemployed, and all were pioneers in the sense that they had little more than the basic tools and a willingness to turn their block into a home to sustain them. Separated from the town by poor roads and a lack of transport, they came to rely on each other, and from early accounts rapidly developed a strong sense of community. Most occupied their land and lived in tents or shacks for the first few years while they built a permanent home, they walked to town for food, drew water from the river, and worked together to get their land prepared. As the Depression eased, some of the men obtained work in town, leaving further development of the farm to their family, and to evening work. Indeed, accounts describe fencing activities undertaken at night where lanterns were placed on posts to align them, and 'all the community turned out to help'.

In 1935 Rana Primary School was opened. At the start, it was a one-teacher school, occupying a temporary classroom for the first year, although it has been a two-teacher school for most of its history. At present, the Principal teaches Upper Division, and Ms Osborne, new to Rana this year, teaches Lower Division, while there is also a part-time release teacher/librarian, school secretary and school handy-person. There were 38 students at the start of the research, 18 (9 girls, 9 boys) in Upper Division, 20 (9 girls, 11 boys ) in Lower Division. Although the majority of students come from the Rana district, others travel past their local school to attend Rana Primary.

There were also some events in recent history which have exerted an effect upon the data gathered. In particular, Semester One of 1995 saw Ken teaching at the University and a relief Principal take over the school. As some of the data illustrated this provided a context where both students and parents reflected upon the situation and made evaluations based upon a judgement of difference between this and the 'norm'.

RANA PRIMARY: THE DATA

From the data gathered and analysed to this point, certain factors have emerged as central to an understanding of the culture of the school. Again, these are in the process of further analysis and data gathering, as well as underpinning current reflections and developments within the school.

HISTORY

It was apparent that some of the current situations within, and perceptions of, the school reflected the historical context of both school and district, which, as Ken suggested, should serve to remind us that:

The school has 'reaped the rewards' from the historical development of the community and will continue to do so as long as it remembers its origins and 'feeds' the needs of the community to be involved.

This, we suggest, reflects a point of difference from the notion of continuous improvement derived from the corporate sphere (see, Senge, 1990) which underpins much of the change rhetoric at present. Rather, within educational contexts there are elements of the school we may wish, upon critical reflection, to preserve (Hargreaves, 1995).

From the oral history interviews, certain characteristics of the school, and school-community relationships, emerged. One of the dominant themes was that of 'pride', as a past-pupil from 1938 recounted:

It went from one generation to the other and that went down through the school. But you took a pride in your school. Because we went to the Rana School and I suppose because we were all so close we took pride in the school so much so that even when we grew up, the ones that didn't shift away from Rana you still continued that same effort that your parents had.

This ongoing contact with the school reflects both an allegiance and ownership which continues to be a particular feature of the context. At various school functions, sporting carnivals, fete, and concerts, members of the local community, and past pupils, are regularly in attendance. Furthermore, during the research a number of past students have 'dropped in' when they have a day off from their secondary school. Not only do they come to the school, but there have been occasions where they have sat in on the classes, taken part in the lessons, and offered assistance to the teacher and students. This ownership and relationship with the school continues, as one parent commented about her older children who had left Rana:

Even with the bigger girls now, they pretty much think of Rana as 'their' school. I've got to tell them about it because they want to know what's going on - anything that's got to do with Rana they just help. It's their school.

The sense of community and togetherness which underpins this ownership and allegiance owes aspects to the relationships among the first settlers where "Everyone helped one another." This was also apparent in that it was community action which saw the school started and then involved the community in fencing the school grounds, planting trees and sinking a well for water.

This community sense was also seen in terms of an extended family of relationships:

All grew up like one big family - real close ties - all the generations of children [from the original settlers] went to Rana School.

Such generational ties continue, with one parent with two children at the school noting:

I went through the school, my mother went through the school, and my grandmother got the school going.

The notion of 'family' also extended to others, including the children from the Boy's Home which occupied the original homestead for a period of time:

The kids who went to the school were like your children even though there were a lot of children from the Boy's Home. Well, I know I, and I'm sure the rest of them did, that they sort of became part of your family too. You would walk into the school and they would all run up to you and say 'how are you going?' and make such a fuss. It made you feel good to be going and doing things for them.

The continuity of relationships extends to involvement with the school, certainly amongst a core who have returned as parents in the P&C and general support for the school, but also just in general from among the local community:

The community looks on the school like it's our school, I know I do, sort of take pride in it and like if I drive past and see a light on I'll come in and see what the light's for.

While this has presented but a slice from the history, certain aspects do emerge as 'themes' which help to elaborate the relationship. There has, then, been a sense of pride, involvement, allegiance to and ownership of the school from the early days, all of which continue to be demonstrated in the current context of both perceptions and relationships between school and community. From the initial settlement, and the experiences of the settlers who sought to develop their land and environment for the good of all residents, derives the perception that 'what we do is for the kids'. The strong community-school relationship was evident in the way in which the community sought to have the school built, the fencing of the grounds, the planting of trees, and the continued close relationships between the community and the school. The issue of involvement has included not only the relationships outside school, but also in the way in which those generations of past pupils and parents, as well as those within the community, maintain their links with the school. These aspects have contributed to a sense of 'stability' which was recounted during these interviews as a strength of the school and community, and which continues particularly from the relationships between the school and the original families and their descendants.

THE CURRENT CONTEXT

The views of their culture from the current generation indicate that there are a broad range of factors which contribute to the schooling experience, which we have grouped under some tentative 'themes' before further analysis.

The 'School'

Some of the students reported the history of the school as an important factor which they would tell a new person about, as David noted: "First, I'd probably give you its history. Well, Rana has a very good history about how it came to be". There was also a strong sense of pride in the buildings, particularly the older block which now forms the classrooms, which some felt had been spoilt by a new library in front closer to the main road:

I'd move the library out the back of the school because it, like, blocks off the actual school. It's, like, jammed out and the rest of the school looks dull. I'd like the library around the back so you can see the actual school. (Petra)

Neither David nor Petra have the connections through the original families, yet evidently saw this history as an important aspect.

The students spoke of a strong sense of pride in 'their' school, stating that this was the best school, also reflected in the point that there were no major changes suggested, as Kat remarked "I don't really want to change the school". The sense of ownership also came through strongly, expressed in terms of 'our' school and their loyalty to it, for instance when asked to sell his school to me, David said:

To make you come here I'd tell you how great we are. .... Well, I've been to two other schools. The first one was really good, the second was a bit down in the dumps, and this one is great.

For those from outside Rana district, it was evident that they had selected the school after either experiences from or considerations of alternatives:

Mainly because it was a small environment. Because everywhere we went there wasn't much different than what you would get around Sydney - they were concrete jungles just like around Sydney. .... How big was the school - that was the first question - how many kids. Then, the teacher/child ratio, and resources. .... And how Ken was over the phone. When I rang [their closest school] the Principal up there - at the time - didn't sound very good. Then we rang Ken and you just had that good feeling - just the way he sounded and the way he talked to you.

The bases of such selections reflected a variety of factors, including:

Being a split [multiple grades] class situation, it allows them to expand, and progress and grow, as they feel comfortable, and I guess a lot of that stems back to the ability of the teachers. .... He has come home and said 'I've got Year 6 homework'. He complained a bit and I told him he should be proud of himself because it was a great effort. Now if he was in a structured school he wouldn't have that flexibility and that's where I believe that our kids are fortunate.... .

Perhaps indicating the attitude towards school, particularly by the students, were remarks Ms Osborne made during Term 1 upon the unusual situation at Rana where 'you have to kick the kids, and some of their parents, out at the end of the day'. In this, she was reflecting on the fact that at the end of each day there are always some students still in the classroom playing on the computers, talking with each other, or with the teachers, or playing around the grounds. Often, too, the parents stay after school, talking with each other or with the teachers. As Ms Osborne noted, in all her prior experiences, students were always in a rush to leave the school, and few if any parents entered the school grounds other than on formal visits. This enthusiasm for school was noted by parents as well:

The best thing my children have learnt is the fact that they like school and it's not a common thing for children to like school. .... It's rare that we have had to drag them out of bed. Most morning's David's up and dressed by 7.15, ready to go. He would walk out the door there and then.

Certain features emerge from such comments, in particular the notions of size and relationships, including those involving teachers.

Size

For the students, the issue of size included a number of positive benefits, such as space provided by the large area and small number of students, relationships in terms of making friends, and the contributions made to the teaching/learning situation, as Nicole comments:

There's not much people - I just always like to go to schools with not much people so there's not much bullying. That we all get to learn a lot more because there's not many of us and we get to learn more because the teacher has more time to teach us. Most of us get along very well. And there's not much people so you could have more chance of getting friends in other classes. You just get to know other people in higher grades who know more.

The interaction effects of size, and their contribution to both relationships and learning featured prominently in parent comments as well:

I took them up to [nearby school] for a week and the kids nearly died. They didn't like it. It was too big, too much of a shock for them, I think. They were used to having, not only me, but other parents. They were really used to having that 'closeness' with everybody else and they just didn't like it. Then I brought them down here and that was the end of it.

It was evident throughout the data that the small size contributed to the formation of a particular set of relationships, between students, with teachers, and with the wider community. On the other hand, we would be loathe to suggest that size is the determining factor, rather that perhaps the aspect of pupil:teacher ratio needs to be given consideration in larger schools, as well as relationships and community involvement.

Relationships

With the students, friendships were an important facet of their lived experiences at school. While it was evident that bullying was not found to the same extent as in larger schools, this is not to suggest that we have an idyllic setting at Rana Primary. For instance, the end of Term 2 saw three boys move to another school, partly due to their creating a number of problems for other children. Yet even there, the allegiance to Rana becomes evident, as they came back at the end of their first day at the new school to tell students and teachers all about the new location. In other words, they still felt they could return.

While the lack of bullying did receive mention, the central focus for the students was on the benefits of the type of relationship formed at Rana as the following comments by Taylor indicate:

It's got good kids. Some [bad] behaviour - well, some of them - but there's no bullies. Because everyone cooperates. Yeah, like a family thing. Some fight but not as much. We sort it out.

I: Who 'sorts it out' - teachers or students?

Both.

This notion of 'family' came through in the majority of discussions, with parents, students, and teachers. The students talked in terms of 'these are my friends', and the changes in such groups over the time of the study, and also reported situations which appeared most akin to a form of sibling rivalry. This is not to discount that there were contrary opinions. During parent interviews at the end of Term 2, there were comments made that this rivalry had perhaps become more intense and was being seen as a problem. In one such interview, when I asked for 'a word' to describe the relationships at the school, the parent laughed and said:

You want me to say 'family', don't you! Well, it's not - there's been a lot of fighting and my daughter has suffered because of it. But, it is sorted out now.

This indicates that all is not peace and harmony, but also reflects the unsettled nature of Term 2 with a different teacher, a very long term, and we also have to consider the extent to which changes in student personnel may have contributed. As Ken suggested at the start of Term 3, there was at least some sense in which a rivalry for position as the 'top dog' in the school did contribute. On the other hand, there remains the point that such things reflect the dynamic nature of any culture, and that changes in relationships are only to be expected. Overall, however the general point was made that:

It [school] seems to bring out that protective 'big brother' attitude to the little kids. I think it's taught them a lot about relationships. Because they've got all the kids, they've got the teachers, then they've got the parents, then the community - everybody is so involved, and there's so many different personalities involved - it gives them a good grounding.

I: Getting on with a 'range of people'?

Yeah. I mean, like because there's all that such intense emotional involvement with everybody interacting with each other - it is like a family. I mean, the girls [daughters] will fight amongst themselves, but heaven help anyone else who steps in and tries to fight. The kids [at the school] are very much like that, too - stick someone else in there that tries to start a fight with one of the other kids - doesn't matter who they are - and the kids form a group. Just the same as a family.

The students made similar comments, reflecting their loyalty to the group, and also noting that this was conferred by membership of the school. Both parents and past and present students also noted that this group allegiance continues after the students leave Rana and go to secondary school, with a suggestion that it perhaps continues for adults in the community as well.

While difficult to ascertain, from general observations there does seem to be a strong sense of community identity and membership derived through the school as the 'source'. I suggest this as this identity seems to apply equally to at least most of those who are outside the Rana district, although the notion of insiders and outsiders was raised:

I've enjoyed it [being 'involved' in the school]. I think it's helped me fit in a bit better. As I've become more involved. I know that some of them have felt like they were outsiders - they were told during the first few days that they would always be the 'outsider'. But I didn't find that at all.

As far as these parents were concerned, the difference was due to this involvement, with both the father and mother being involved in such school organisations as the School Council, P&C, Canteen, and Reading tutors. From the available data, the only comments regarding the outsider situation were those by one parent who remarked that her and her daughter had 'little in common' and didn't share the same interests as the Rana community, especially those of horses and 'country' pursuits such as line-dancing. This is not to suggest that involvement, or personality, is the determining factor in this insider/outsider situation, rather that considerably more data would be required.

A further feature of the relationships which exist are those primarily associated with learning. From the outset of the study, it was clearly evident that a very supportive relationship existed in both the classroom contexts. Here, students worked together, helping each other, and providing a 'learning support' network. This existed across the various age grades, which again was seen as a strong benefit of the situation:

Instead of working on your own, if you've got a problem you've got another person next to you to ask to help you out with it. It's just like one big class instead of just 1,2,3.... It's better to be all together. (Colin)

Certainly, the teacher/student relationships at Rana are very 'close'. Partly, this can be attributed to the size factor, as both teachers have said 'in a small school you're never off duty'. However, it seems to have more to do with an attitude of involvement, as David commented: "It's them [teachers] being with the children all the time. I think it's great".

At both Recess and Lunch, the teachers are out in the playground, often joining in games and participating in activities. In the classroom there is very much an ethos of 'working with' students in a collaborative learning style. Throughout, parents and students placed particular emphasis upon these close, personal, relationships as one of the defining characteristics of Rana Primary.

Teachers, Teaching and Learning

As a parent noted:

If they've [children] got a problem they're perfectly comfortable going to the teachers with it. They see, like Ken and that, as being part of the 'family' too.

I: What are the 'characteristics' of teachers who are like that?

Attitude. I think most parents - they don't see the need for their child to be 'the top' but they do want their child to feel comfortable and intelligent - and they want their child to be working to the best of their ability. So, just in my experience, some teachers haven't got that attitude - they are there to 'teach at' the kids - they are not there to work with the kids. .... It's a different sort of attitude - .... they've [the 'good ones'] got a lot of enjoyment, a lot of thought, into what they do for the kids - the kids are actually learning because they are enjoying it and they're interested in what they're learning. And nobody is left out - whether they're an 'A' student or 'bottom of the line' student. They've [teachers] got a little bit more time, a little bit more thought, about ways in which to approach that child to get them to want to learn. ..... But, I think, instead of seeing the classroom as 20 or 30 kids that you've got to teach this thing, I think the attitude is 'there's such and such over there, and they're not really good at this, but they're really good at that'. They see it more as an individual thing. It's 20 individuals, rather than '20 kids' or 'a class'.

For the students, there was a sense in which they reported being in control of the pace of their learning:

Most of all I learn things about something I wanted to learn about. If the project is really boring I'm not really interested and I don't feel like doing it and I don't really want to learn much. (Nicole)

As her parents commented:

Everyone gets a go .... encouraged to participate. It's 'participation' rather than competition.

In the classroom, this has been accompanied by a strong emphasis upon responsibility for their own learning:

Sometimes Mr D helps me, but usually I do it myself. Learning by myself is important. So, you learn more things instead of the teacher telling you things. I like working on my own. (Kerrie)

This is also reflected in an acceptance of the student-as-teacher, noticeable in the group work situation but also in terms of the computer where Ken tells the students to 'play around', make the 'mistakes' and learn from them, and then to share their 'discoveries' with both himself and their peers. It is also evident in the general approach in the school encouraging independence and responsibility to 'stand up for yourself'. When reflecting upon her experiences, Ms Dean remarked upon the strong sense of independence and willingness to speak up for themselves, negotiating and contesting, amongst the Rana students, a facet she had not experienced in other schools.

And, for the students, this learning was ongoing with most suggesting that their schooling and personal experiences had produced a view that:

Yeah, you learn something new all the time, you never stop learning. (Colin)

Finally, it was also evident that the students held strong views on teachers, aspects of which were based on a comparison between current staff and the situation from Semester 1, 1995:

Last year, when we had [Mrs X] - she was shocking. Because she would boss everyone around, and she gave detention and there wasn't any detention at the school - because nearly everyone was good. [She] came in and everything went down. (Ned)

Comments from another student reflected the perceptions between a 'good' and 'bad' teacher, which were again based upon this comparision between 'now' and 1995:

I didn't like [Mrs X] or [Mrs Y]. They were both slack. They thought they were just 'it'. ... And the school, like, just changed, but when Mr D came back we all just, like, came back together again. .... Um, bad teachers just give you stuff you can't do, stuff that's just too hard for you. You can't understand and they say 'too bad, you've got to do it yourself'. .... [A good teacher] they help you. They tell you how to do things. You seem to work together better. (Petra)

The 'good teacher' was also seen as one with whom a trust and rapport was possible, as Gabrielle remarked:

If you've got pressure at home, like, they can sit down and talk it through with you and stuff. They understand things you're trying to say to them. They try and explain, like, things they are talking about.

Certainly, the current teachers received considerable support and appreciation, as David comments:

I'd tell them [visitors or new pupils] about how good the teachers are. They make everyone learn. .... You're always learning here. .... Well, a good teacher pays a lot of attention to you - a bad teacher just walks around. A good teacher teaches you, a bad teacher tells you off for everything. .... And, if you are going to speak to students who are going to be teachers, one bit of advice I'd tell them is that we can tell a good teacher and a bad teacher in about 5 minutes.

For both students and parents, these views were also reflected in general comments that both would like a greater 'control' over the teachers appointed to the school in the future. This was not a critique of the current staff, rather a reflection on past events and concern that the important characteristics of the school be retained in the future. As one parent commented:

I: What happens in the situation where the parents aren't overly 'impressed' with the teacher?

I think, mostly, the parents aren't too quick to act. Not everybody is the same - everybody is different. Somebody might like something, someone else dislike that. In the case - I think it's a big thing if you get the case of a teacher that nobody liked. I think that teacher would be 'required' to leave. If the community all didn't like the teacher, they would try and find ways.

In discussing the 1995 situation, this parent noted that:

I think , to start off with, the parents were perfectly willing to be friendly, welcoming, helpful. But I think it was made quite clear to them from the start that they weren't welcome at the school. In fact, the further away they stayed the better. .... The kids were basically told right from the start that they...knew nothing. .... The kids weren't academically brilliant, but they loved going to school. .... But, even the brightest of them, the kids that really enjoyed learning - they were turned off. There was no homework done, they had totally no interest in school. They weren't interested in anything - they were becoming disruptive. .... It took all their self-confidence away.

Such was the concern with this situation, that a number of parents reported having considered withdrawing their children from the school. This, then, provided a point of contrast for both parents and students, which has influenced their comments regarding the present context of the school. It is not being held as indicative of the superiority of one group of teachers over another, but as an illustration of the importance of school-community relationships, particularly in situations where the community has a sense of ownership and involvement in the school:

I think it was a pretty conscious exercise to get the parents away. And that's when, I think, they're going to have the problems. Because of the way the school is, because it's a family/community school, and all of a sudden the parents felt like the door was slammed in their faces.

School-Community Relationships

There is a strong sense of school/community interaction at Rana Primary. Parents are involved in and with the school across a variety of in-school and out-of-school activities. It is also very evident that parents feel comfortable about coming to the school, even coming in just for a look during the day:

To everybody it is their school. They'll donate their time, they'll donate their energy, they'll donate their money. Everybody looks out for everybody else, too, other people's kids.

For some, the size of the school, as well as the approachability of staff contributed:

Again, just to have some sort of a say - because it's a small school - you can really have a say - make a contribution. The guy we've got there promotes that type of thing.

This size also appeared a factor in the relationships within the formal context:

...that's been a big thing, particularly with the School Council because you get to see how the school runs, you get involved in policy sort of issues, discipline codes, this sort of thing. So, you really get an idea of how the school runs... .... I think it was easier to do that because of the school - the size of the school. I suppose, as well as it being not so big and threatening for the kids, it's probably worked out for us as well.

Overall, there were general expressions that the school was 'open' to the parents, that they were encouraged to come in and participate. The basic approach, then, is one of 'partnership' between community and school:

It's good. I mean, if you're having problems with the kids - or the kids are having problems - whatever is going on, I have always felt perfectly comfortable with coming in. The teachers will help you. It's a two-way street...working with the parent. .... And the parents coming in and actually helping with the kids. Not only that, but parents are very interested in education and the educational processes. I've seen programs developed in Lower Division where they have actually gone back to the Department which originated from parent ideas - then tossing it back and forward with the teachers and working it out like that. .... I think it's got to be a partnership to work.

While some attribute the strength of the current situation to the current teachers, others recount the history and note that the school has generally had 'good' teachers who have possessed similar characteristics:

I think in one way we have been very, very lucky for the teachers we've had at Rana School. There were perhaps a couple who weren't so good, but on the average. I think it does make a difference, too, when the parents - I think probably with the teachers too, though, it depends a lot on how the parents are trying to help the teachers. That does make a difference, too.

Throughout, the notion of a partnership in learning was expressed:

A teacher is an authority figure to the child, and so is the parent. So, if those two combine and it's sort of like a run-on from home to school - and they've got a good working partnership. I mean, they won't always have a 'good' partnership - they will disagree and that - but, if they feel comfortable to disagree and that - and work it out like that. I think that's the most effective way.

This partnership also extends to the situation of parent involvement in teaching:

As much as having my children at school I probably even get more pleasure out of helping out there; the kids that need .... when I help kids like Duane that is probably a really great thing and that's when I grow. When I see a child like Duane or one of the others suddenly take off I really think I had a bit to do with it.

From the student point of view, they appreciated this school/community linkage, and the 'extended family' situation which existed both outside and inside the school, as indicated in this conversation with David:

The community, how it is involved in the school. We just have days when the community comes in and walks through - they always know something about Rana School. ....

I: So, you feel there is a fairly strong sense of community?

Yes.

I: Do you see that as something which is important?

Yes, very important.

I: Why?

Well, a lot of parents often don't know anything about their school [in other schools]. It helps a lot with the students as well. The parents know the teachers, and they work in the school with reading and things like that.

I: Those things are important - to you as a pupil?

Yes, very important.

They also, however, were in some cases quite emphatic that it was 'their' school and while help was appreciated there was a need for parents to also acknowledge that ownership was the responsibility and perhaps right of the current students:

I: So, you think there is a need for people to listen to the kids more?

Colin: Yes! Not parents being able to rule the school!

While evident within the classroom where responsibility was encouraged, the students also expressed the hope that parents would allow them greater responsibility particularly at joint school-community events: Like, some parents are pains. They, like when they do something - like, you know the fair we had - well, they wouldn't let us do anything. (Kat)

TOWARDS A 'LEARNING COMMUNITY'

We are not suggesting that Rana Primary is a paradigm of a learning community or creative school (see, Cocklin, et al, 1996), but rather that there is strong community involvement and perception that it is a successful school. This, we see, then provides the foundations for the ongoing reflection-in-action and professional development of all members of the community as they seek to 'become' a learning community. Furthermore, it needs to be noted that 'becoming' a learning community is a process and not a product, it is ongoing and developmental.

From the data, we consider that at least in some part the five characteristics Johnson (1995) identifies as characteristics of schools as Learning Communities are evident in the Rana context:

1. All members are committed to life-long learning.

2. Learning is seen as the central activity of both individuals and the school as a whole.

3. Collaboration is the major plank in the school's culture.

4. Continuous improvement is built into the very fabric of the school.

5. Leadership is distributed and shared.

The challenge is, then, to possess all these characteristics in combination, but in particular in such a way as suits the specific school, and then to integrate them across school and community, system and society. The next step, then, in the Rana context is to undergo reflection-in-action as we draw from the cultural description to establish both directions and processes whereby this combination can be enhanced.

The basis for this action, we suggest, is apparent in four central aspects noted in this description of the current culture: history; ownership; relationships, and; empowerment.

From the history, emerges the point not that this particular history is a necessary condition, but that in developing a learning community the point of departure is the antecedents of the present situation. In this sense, then, any process of reculturation (see, Hargreaves, 1995) must start from a consideration of the present. Emerging from the history of Rana it is evident that there is a strong collaborative ethos, which in turn provides a basis which should then enable us to build on existing expertise and resources, while providing support and a medium for reflective dialogue.

Clearly evident throughout the data has been the strong sense of ownership of the school by the community, students, parents, and staff. This has historical bases, and also current factors which continue to contribute. In particular, we have noted the allegiance to the school, the notion that it is their school shared by all, the pride, and the extension of all of these to the learning and content. As Woods (1995:3) notes, this creative learning is where "pupils have control over their own learning processes, and ownership of the knowledge produced, which is relevant to their concerns".

The third aspect concerns the particular relationships which exist within the school. Here, the notion of family has been used by staff, students, and parents to describe the ways in which relationships have developed. While this does have some negative consequences, primarily this has produced a situation where the self-concept of the individual is enhanced, and where involvement in teaching and learning is encouraged through collaboration by all members of the community. Certainly, it is evident that the teachers, at least presently and most likely in the past, in the main exhibit many of the characteristics Woods (1995) has elaborated under the notion of creative teachers. In particular, we note the sense in which there is an approach of adaptability and working with students accompanied by a willingness to experiment and engage in reflection-in-action. As such, this again provides a foundation rather than an end point. It is in this sense that we have sought to expand the notion to one of Creative Schools as sites where these attributes are seen as desirable for all members of the community.

The overall outcome of these three prior aspects, we suggest, is a sense of empowerment. The community feel that it is their school, that they have both a right and an obligation to participate in the school, and in the educative processes. Similarly, the students have the perception that in their school they can exert influence, that they are given responsibility, and that they are valued in terms of their opinions and person. This is further enhanced by an approach which focuses on teaching and learning with all members of the community underpinned by collaboration and negotiation.

At Rana Primary, we suggest that there is a sense in which:

In a community of learners, everyone is about the business of learning, questioning, investigating, and seeking solutions. The basis for human interaction is no longer a hierarchy of who knows more than someone else, but rather the need for everyone to contribute to the process of asking questions and investigating solutions. (Kleine-Kracht, 1993:392)

In conclusion, then, we are suggesting that the notions of creative teachers, and our broader view of creative schools apply, at least to some extent, to the Rana context. While we have only initial data at this point, we would also suggest that for a school to become a learning community involves a process of development from within the particular culture directed towards empowerment and involvement of all members of the school community. At Rana, then, we have the start of the long journey towards a learning community, a process of collaborative action, which at times may be contested, seeking to support 'what works' and 'change what doesn't'.


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