The Blog

The Vital Social and Community Importance of Schools Cannot Be Overstated

Whilst education cannot directly and of itself address the underlying causes of economic/social inequality and injustice, it can offer young people a chance to fulfil their potential, to open eyes and minds to opportunities without limit, and to prepare them for a balanced life as confident and active citizens.

I have been involved with schools for many years first as a student and then as a governor and parent as well as a member of a local authority. I am currently the chair of governors of an all-through academy - the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community College. I have seen the role of schools and their governance evolve. Their core role has not changed but there are opportunities to enhance their contribution and to change the ways in which they foster learning.

Whilst this article is written in a personal capacity it draws on my experience and my passionate commitment to excellent education for every young person. Education is a human right and should be respected at such.

Whilst education cannot directly and of itself address the underlying causes of economic/social inequality and injustice, it can offer young people a chance to fulfil their potential, to open eyes and minds to opportunities without limit, and to prepare them for a balanced life as confident and active citizens.

Investment in education is essential and governments should commit to a world class school based education for every child and young person funded through taxation not fees.

The focus of a 'good' or 'outstanding' school should always be on its learners, their families and their communities. Learners need to be excited and inspired at school but parents, the wider community and the media have responsibilities too. Teachers and learners need to be ambitious and never accept second best not be complacent. There can be no excuse for poor performance.

Excellent education requires a partnership and engagement with parents and carers. It also requires recognising that publicly funded schools are public assets, which should open up their facilities to local communities. This may include sports and leisure facilities, community cafes, day centres and IT hubs.

But schools can do more, much more than this. They can offer education to adults and local employers. They can create space and support for new start-up businesses, social enterprises and voluntary organisations. And whilst steering clear of partisan politics, schools can and should be active in local community-based social action, and the promotion of local community interests.

In return, local employers and residents can offer schools much, including work experience, expert contributions to lessons and activities, occasional financial support (although this should never be seen as a substitute for proper and adequate state funding), and volunteers - to complement, but never to replace staff.

Schools are important local employers too. To that end, they should be exemplar employers and show local leadership to others. They should respect and treat teaching and non-teaching staff alike. They can contribute to the local economy and create social opportunities through measures such as paying the 'Living Wage', avoiding 'zero hours' contracts, and wherever possible, undertaking local recruitment especially of non-teaching staff and local purchase of supplies, especially food. Again, this kind of approach can offer opportunities to link education agendas with wider social and economic agendas, with catering being very much part of the wider learner well-being programmes that will include sport, classroom activity, school meals and advice to parents and carers. The same can apply to cleaning and facilities teams.

The trend to greater devolution to school head-teachers and governing bodies and the particular development of academies should not deter local authorities and other local public bodies from collaborating with schools. I know there are some good examples of such collaboration, but I strongly suspect that there is scope to go much further in basing primary health services, public libraries and other public services on school premises - places where local people regularly visit, and which are located in the centres of neighbourhoods and communities. Placing such services within and around schools offers the clear potential to extend opportunities to create shared agendas and integrated provision.

Local authorities should be ready to delegate and second elements of children's services to schools, including educational psychology and social work services. These services could then work more closely with traditional school-based staff, to ensure a strong, holistic focus on the needs of every young person and their families. This would most certainly improve the management of challenging behaviours, and reduce absenteeism and exclusions. Parenting classes should be part of the offer in every primary and junior school; and there is no reason why children's centres could not be based and even managed within schools, where this is what parents and the local community wish.

I fear that there is a strong risk that the present fragmentation of the education system, together with an over-emphasis on examination results at the secondary level (important as these are), will drive some schools to move away from, rather than further towards local communities. This has to be avoided. Schools are first and foremost community resources, and unless they work with and are accountable to their local communities, they cannot be regarded as community assets. Governing bodies must and should include members from the local community, as well as parents and staff representatives. To that end, work is urgently needed to develop exemplar models of local accountability for all state funded schools, including academies and 'free schools', with possibly some new scrutiny powers for local authorities as part of the mixture.

Staff and governors should be accountable to learners and parents (and carers) too - and their appraisal schemes should reflect this. Social media and other forms of ICT should be used to keep everyone informed of activities, progress and decisions that might be about to be taken, and about which parent and learner views are critical.

School policy and practice should be developed through co-design with learners (of all ages and stages) and their parents (and carers) as well staff - both teaching and non-teaching. It is quite clear to me that hierarchal control and diktat has no place in modern school leadership or in flourishing schools.

Schools and education are changing. ICT, modern pedagogy and changing lifestyles means that the traditional '8.30 to 3.30' learning model may no longer be appropriate for every learner, or for any one learner for every stage of her or his education, or for every subject. Schools can and increasingly do offer more on-line learning and out of standard hours teaching and learning, via extended hours of access to school premises and the use of technology. Students in England can be part of a virtual learning cohort with colleagues from across the globe. Some, especially at sixth form level, can participate in courses that would and could not be available at a single school, but which can be delivered from a distance.

Local schools can co-operate with each other and local colleges to develop and deliver sustainable programmes and to offer greater opportunities for learners. They co-operate beyond their immediate locality too.

Schools have to collaborate with learners, staff, parents and local communities to develop what is right for their particular learners and their communities. They have to ensure that no child in a state funded school is disadvantaged and prevented from participating in/accessing the full range of curriculum and extra-curriculum activities because of family financial circumstances. For example, schools can (and some already do) ensure that every learner has access to a laptop or tablet at school and at home. 'Pupil Premium' money can be used, but its use and the wider agenda must be always underpinned by a robust commitment to equality of access and opportunity. Schools should be fully accountable for their commitment and practice in respect of the equalities' agenda.

The opportunities which schools can offer; their ability to inspire and raise ambition and expectations; and their chance to be at the core of their communities have never been greater. At a time of austerity and less money, even in education, the need to realise these opportunities could not be more vital. This will require some action by government, a slightly revised focus from OFSTED, and an openness to be collaborative from local government and other local bodies. Above all, it is going to require bold, creative and inclusive leadership within schools themselves. Schools cannot and should not wait for a lead from others - governors, head-teachers and everyone at a school have to cast aside timidity, orthodoxy and deference, and demonstrate/role-model the leadership ambition to which they would wish their learners to aspire.

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