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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Community or market: covenant or contract?

Richard Cotter
Senior Fellow, Centre for Organisational Learning and Leadership, University of Melbourne.

Community and Society
As the world is reconstituted by neo-liberal economic policy, many groups now report crumbling relationships and a hunger for community. Even politicians have begun to take notice. From an educational viewpoint, the experience of community is critical for personal growth and the capacity to learn.

Community is frequently distinguished from the larger society, which may be an extension of the community but clearly has a different framework organised around a range of corporate organisations and institutions, private and public. In broad terms, community is constituted by relationships and commitment; society operates on laws and enforceable contracts.

The larger society is defined by the contract, with its social, economic and legal dimensions, whereas the 'covenant' provides the glue for community. The principle of the contract provides a framework for the modern market economy: we all get what is our due; we pay what we owe and we have recourse to a legal framework to get what we are contractually owed. Basically our obligations under a contract are conditional on what other parties can legitimately claim, and legitimacy is regulated by published rules.

In contrast, covenantal obligations tend to be unconditional. The educationist, Thomas Sergiovanni, makes the following distinctions about covenants:

'The major story line in the narrative of social covenants is much less conditional. In this narrative, connections are covenantal and thus more moral than calculated. Marriages, extended families, civic associations, faith communities, caring groups and friendship networks are examples of affiliations characterised by covenantal relationships. Connections among people are created when they are together connected to shared ideas and values.' (Sergiovanni, 1999, 10)

The two distinctions may be theoretically distinct but in practice the edges blur. Certainly covenantal obligations between a parent and child, for example, are qualitatively different from what a consumer owes the gas company. But many environments have elements of both contractual and covenantal obligation. In schools, for example, do we unfailingly report students who have broken the law or do we treat them more like members of our own family? Do we adopt a policy of zero tolerance to society's code or do we argue that a society that relies wholly on legal contract might lack the warmth and generosity that elicits the very commitment to make that larger society work?

The school: covenant and contract
Schools are usually a mixture of both contract and covenant. They operate under various government acts, which put them under legal obligations to students and their families, local communities and the wide range of people who are employed by the school. Indeed, the increasing recourse to litigation - or the threat of it - highlights the contractual aspect of obligation in schools. It is the ultimate outcome for the contractual orientation. In addition, families now have more choice in schooling, which injects elements of the market.

However, in successful schools, teachers do far more than the minimum required of a formal contract. Both for individuals and the school generally, teachers do a great deal of work that is often not widely known. Highly effective schools can call on such generosity, but are also very careful not to exploit it. Successful school leaders know how to inspire and support such generosity because they are able to demonstrate that they genuinely share a common set of community values. They are also sensitive to the well-being of those who give generously, and watch for the signs of burnout that afflict some of the best teachers. This is the classic commitment to a covenant, not simply getting more out of the workers.

Parents' generosity also contributes to schools driven by a strong sense of covenant. In highly successful schools, parents play an increasing role: serving on school councils and boards, fund raising, turning up to working bees, assisting with sporting teams, going on school camps, helping in classrooms, providing input for specialist activities - and the list continues. Both teachers and parents note each others' work and inspire commitment.

Schools, like all communities, work because of generosity. Without generosity, schools don't work - it is as simple as that. However, in our current school scene, how that generosity is represented and honoured is a complex process. This is because two contrasting frameworks exist for understanding what a school is. Schools exist in both communitarian and societal terms. That is what creates the tension.

But even in the most community-orientated schools, contracts apply. The industrial relation system is based on contract and exists as a safety net for teachers who feel that the demands of community or management have become exploitative. When a school is forced to resort to the language of contract, the sense of covenant that drives community is threatened. In extreme cases, resorting to contracts and the accompanying legal framework will very quickly disable a school. However, even in strong school communities, contract and covenant exist side by side. Successful schools understand and accept contracts as a basic guarantee of certain rights for individuals or groups, but their strong community cultures are able to transcend the minimal expectations of a contract.

The contract framework also exists for the other major stakeholders - parents and students. In their contract relations with the school they are customers, who feel they have a right to a certain standard of educational provision. As with teachers, contract also exists as a safety net for parents and students. Just as teachers may resort to contracts, parents may emphasise the language of 'individual rights' rather than that of 'responsibilities' - a sure sign of some retreat from community. However, as in the case of teachers, the right to make such claims cannot be eliminated because of some notion of communitarian utopia. 'Trust me, I'm a teacher' now elicits the same response as 'Trust me, I'm a doctor'.

In broad terms then, a school must manage the peaceful co-existence - or a creative tension - between covenant and contract. Educationists, like Sergiovanni, rightly point to the importance of commitment to a covenant - schools cannot exist without a generous commitment to a vision. In falling back on the contract, we diminish the educational enterprise. However, schools also exist in a larger society, which imposes the rule of law and demands increasingly transparent accounts of performance. But in all such contractual obligations, generosity, trust and goodwill are needed to humanise and blur the hard edges of the contractual perspective in schools. In an open environment, we can all acknowledge contracts as safety nets for the different stakeholders and as, perhaps, what can be demanded as minimum expectations. Contracts are a given and part of the institutional context. But if we can minimise our reliance on contracts we are more likely to be innovative - and in the process experience more fulfilment, creativity and fun.

Sergiovanni, Thomas J. (1999) 'The Story of Community' in John Retallick et al (eds.) Learning Communities in Education, London: Routledge


Subject Headings

Education and state
Education finance
Education philosophy
School and community