Schools and a civil society

Dr Mark Merry

11 July 2018

A recent school newsletter article by AHISA member Dr John Collier (Head of School, St Andrew’s Cathedral School and Gawura), addressing increasing incidences of verbal aggression by a few members of the school’s parent community, kick started a wave of media reporting and commentary on how parental anxiety, increased tolerance for expressions of rage and declining civility are erupting in the form of bullying of teachers.

Writing for ABC Online, Peter Kurti, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies, urged readers to ‘pay heed to the kind of warning issued by Dr Collier’, arguing that although we have not yet lost our civility, we are ‘increasingly confused about what civil behaviour requires of us’.

Kurti also argues that schools and community and religious groups ‘all have a role to play in promoting civility in our society’ and says that ‘schools must teach young people how to take part in community’.

Unfortunately, developing a school into a vibrant community is no longer an easy task. Establishing a disciplined environment as a platform for achieving community has always been held as a tried and true strategy by school leaders, but apparently discipline is no longer enough to counter the excesses of self-absorption in an age of entitlement.

Perhaps the lack of trust we see undermining young people’s support for democratic government is affecting their adherence to other institutional structures. Yet, ironically, younger people are expressing greater interest in alternatives to democracy such as military regimes. Kurti is right in his perception of increasing confusion in civil life. If parents are as confused as their children – and the recent reports mentioned above suggest many are – then there is even greater pressure on schools to model the building of strong communities.

In a previous ‘Comment’, I suggested that our response to some of the pitfalls for schools in this new age of entitlement must be values-based if we are to create a pathway from ‘me’ to ‘us’. Knowing how to model and promote values is one of our great strengths as leaders of independent schools. Another tremendously valuable tool we have for teaching community is our commitment to service learning programs. And most AHISA members have the benefit of working within religious frameworks that give cause and authority for embracing the ‘other’, frameworks firmly rooted in centuries of tradition and faith.

That makes three well-tested models, both secular and religious, that our schools can draw on to support the development of civil behaviours. Perhaps we need to talk about them more, celebrate them more and even be prepared to defend them more. The future we bequeath our young people could depend on it.

Dr Mark Merry is National Chair of AHISA. He is Principal of Yarra Valley Grammar, Victoria.

Schools and a civil society (PDF)


A note posted to the website of St Andrew’s Cathedral School records John Collier’s bemusement at the media attention received by his newsletter article addressing increasing incidences of verbal aggression by a tiny minority of the school’s parent community. The note reports, ‘Since the newsletter article was published, Dr Collier has had no cause to raise the issue again.’