Mon | Jul 16, 2018

School of Education - Driving the change within

Published:Sunday | March 18, 2018 | 12:00 AMTherese Ferguson-Murray
Lecturer in the School of Education, Dr Therese Ferguson-Murray at a Change From Within workshop.

We often hear complaints about the state of our education system, both in the news as well as in our own personal conversations with family, friends, and colleagues.

Underachievement, dropout rates, poor teacher quality, a lack of resources, poor parenting and parental involvement, and school violence and indiscipline are just some issues that engender these criticisms.

Whether warranted or not, these concerns underscore the fact that quality education is critical to Jamaica's sustainable development.

Over the years, the School of Education (SOE) of the University of the West Indies (UWI) has engaged

in various teaching, research, and outreach activities focused on improvements to Jamaica's (and the region's) educational system.

One such initiative is the Change from Within (CFW) programme, founded in 1992 by four principals of inner-city schools to address violence and indiscipline within schools, under the leadership of Sir Philip Sherlock, a former UWI vice-chancellor. Since 2002, CFW has operated from the SOE primarily in inner-city schools and, after a four-year hiatus, resumed in 2016 under an Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) thrust.

Led by a four-member team, the programme currently works with 11 primary and high schools within Kingston.

Early participatory action research on the CFW programme, jointly undertaken by CFW schools alongside UWI researchers, identified eight principles common to the programme's success, which underpinned an internally driven change process.

While each component is distinctive in its own way, all of them converge around elements of leadership development, capacity-building, mentoring, and participation by all school stakeholders (including staff, students, parents, community members) to drive change. Consistent with its ESD thrust, the programme has dual objectives.

It seeks to engage school stakeholders in lifelong learning that enables them to contribute to education that is sustainable and that impacts school and community.

 

STUDENT IMPROVEMENT

 

It also aims to engender skills that are necessary for a sustainable, peaceful society, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem-solving. Over the years, the programme has been effective in improving areas such as student achievement, parental involvement, attendance, punctuality, and discipline, and staff and student self-esteem.

Two of the programme's components - the Circle of Friends and Restorative Justice Circles are being employed to bring about school improvements.

The Circle of Friends has been a part of the programme from the beginning, offering school principals an informal network within which challenges and best practices can be shared, and leadership qualities fostered. This is important given that much of the 'academic' literature deems leadership a crucial component in shaping positive school cultures where students and teachers can feel safe, forge relationships characterised by care and trust, and perform at their best.

Through the years, the Circle of Friends has evolved to include not only principals, but also vice-principals, guidance counsellors, senior teachers

and others thought to have particular leadership potential. Currently, the Circle of Friends meets on a monthly basis.

Past research on the programme identified the Circle of Friends as the most effective part of CFW, while current research has identified specific elements from which Circle members' benefit, including the ability to transform self, communicate vision, shape a physical and social environment for change, and build personal and professional capacity. All of these elements are crucial not only to the shaping of positive school cultures, but also to the shaping of sustainable societies.

While the Circle of Friends has been a long-standing component of the programme, the use of Restorative Justice Circles is a new element, added during its current phase. Restorative Justice Circles are meant to offer the schools an alternative means of addressing conflict, based on communication, community, and restoration as opposed to the utilisation of violence. Further, the idea is that the Circles can be used with students as well as staff.

By emphasising skills such as communication and facets such as community, the notion of the Restorative Justice Circles not only addresses immediate issues of conflict within schools but also prepares individuals (children and adults) to be peaceful, respectful, and tolerant local and global citizens.

The philosophy and methodology of Restorative Justice Circles was shared with participants from the current CFW schools - principals, vice-principals, guidance counsellors and teachers - during a training workshop in 2016, with one of the founding Principals of the programme and a restorative justice practitioner, Pauletta Chevannes, as facilitator.

Since then, some schools have shared the practise of Restorative Justice Circles with other staff members in in-house professional development workshops and on a whole school basis as part of special occasions such as Peace Day. As this is a new element of the programme, research will have to be carried out to explore how the schools use it and its impacts.

Education is crucial to a nation's development as it can break individuals out of cycles of unemployment and poverty, reduce societal inequalities, and provide persons with the knowledge and skills needed to live sustainable lifestyles.

Moreover, education can lead individuals at all stages of life to reflect on their individual beliefs and values, to critically think and communicate about issues, and to creatively address problems. With this realisation in mind, the CFW programme seeks to address unsustainable facets of education through its main elements, including fostering leadership, building capacity among staff, and involving all school stakeholders in the process of school change.

Through the lifelong education with which all stakeholders in the CFW programme engage, individuals explore alternative perspectives and ways of thinking, and develop skills needed to address some of the same issues that affect the quality of our educational system today. Moreover, through a process that involves school alongside community, these changes can transcend the particular schools to the surrounding communities and the wider society.

- Therese Ferguson-Murray is a lecturer in Education for Sustainable Development in the School of Education, Faculty of Humanities and Education at the University of the West Indies. She also serves as the current Change from Within Programme leader. This article is one in a series that seeks to promote and highlight the impact of the Arts and Humanities on the individual's personal development and career path. Please send feedback to fhe@uwimona.edu.jm.