The surface level of understanding is very different from the deeper understanding when it comes to knowing your school community. The surface level is very rarely an accurate summary of the deeper level; more often, the first impressions and the bluntly clear elements may actively obscure the realities of what is going on.
When I talk about school community, I am talking of the small world beyond the school gates which most of your pupils call home. The known places. The school community is centred on the school itself, of course, but it includes the children both as pupils and as people; it includes the parents and the local shops and businesses, as well as the local public places that everybody may go to. It includes the school staff; all of them. For me, within the idea of a school community, I would also include the much more hazy but no less real ‘values’ that permeate, often in the space between parents and the schools.
The relationships between schools and their communities have altered.
As the Department for Children, Schools and Families became, again, the Department for Education, this signalled a cultural shift in the conceptualisations of the role of schools. In terms of adding clarity to the role of schools as primarily academic institutions, I don’t disagree with this move at all. I do, however, think that the multi-agency approaches that came about more easily when there was a closer relationship between schools and children’s services often enabled schools to engage more actively and supportively with their local communities.
It meant that support was more easily available, and this support could build stronger foundations for pupils in school. Schools I knew, for example, may have been the site of, or they mat have closely with, a SureStart centre. For young teenage parents, this enabled them to access support from health and social care professionals during the infancy of their child. The schools became places of support not just to the academic development of pupils, but to those parents and people in the community who would seek to engage at the local level in accessing various forms of support.
The way things are going seems to me to be further dislocating schools from their local communities.
As many schools move towards gaining academy status through Multi Academy Trusts, and as Free Schools continue to proliferate, we have models of schooling that may seek to build elements of their school identity not from their local community, but from their relationship with their trust, or from their own academic vision. This is not to say that free schools and academies cannot foster community, or value it; I do think it is fair to say, though, that unless they actively prioritise it, it is not as likely to happen organically.
Perhaps now it is not only teachers but schools themselves that are being parachuted into disadvantaged urban communities.
A school that has a very weak engagement with its local community – the community from which the children come – is not necessarily a bad or ineffective school. It may still get excellent grades and offer a high-quality education, and this is laudable; many such schools succeed despite disadvantage in the community too. Nonetheless, though, I feel that an opportunity is lost for the school to become something more for pupils, and for the local community – surely they can be both?
Through being outward-looking towards the community, we can aim for more than just that the children will grow up and leave the community, off to the cloisters of Oxbridge and off to the big cities where success awaits. Schools could be instrumental in raising the level of education, opportunity and aspiration in their local communities, and in helping to connect the local community with organisations that can support them. Schools can be the only place where people from different backgrounds in a diverse community come together.
These opportunities should be seized and developed, not overlooked.