Save time & money with your local community

Neil Jones

I have been involved in education for 25 years as teacher, school leader, governor and inspector. After 23 years in prep schools, with 10 as a head, I have recently taken up the role leading a new Free School. I am fascinated by the way in which people of all ages learn and how we can blend new technology with good communication to strengthen our practice as educators.

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Images courtesy of author // Amazon bring Kindle Fires to the school. Images courtesy of author // Amazon bring Kindle Fires to the school.

It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community to work together to provide support and guidance, resources, and practical help. This is especially important when someone - a child, a family - faces challenges and are feeling lost and alone. Schools are, by their very nature, a community. Built of myriad parts, it has human relationships at its heart: teacher-pupil, SLT-teacher, head-governors, and so on. This community, as a system, when functioning well, has the children, at its core.

At this core, children will thrive because they are equipped cognitively and emotionally, with social and intellectual skills to achieve happiness and success through their lives. Communities are like villages; just without the pubs, church and shop! They can be both the teacher and the taught.

A crucial - arguably the most crucial - part of this system is the relationship between the school and its parent body. And naturally, “Communities are like villages; just without the pubs, church and shop.”within this is the individual relationship between the parent and teacher. You know the one: child loses jumper, parent sends email, teacher or TA puts out an all-points bulletin across school, jumper still not found, jumper materialises weeks later in the bottom of a random pupil’s bag. Or how about this one? Parent: “My child told me that he was hit by X in the playground. I want this bullying to stop…”. Teacher: “Your child hit X first…”. Or this one: Child’s progress in reading is poor, parent meeting called, “Do you read with your child at home?”, “No…”, enter QED…

These are, of course, somewhat glib, linear, cause/effect relationship interactions; schools are far more subtle and nuanced than that. Therefore, it is necessary to look at the system overall to consider how these interactions can be improved with better outcomes for the children in mind.

Parents, and the wider community at large, want to feel that they are helping. What might help most, of course, is just to leave schools alone, trust professional integrity, and let us get on with the job! However, there is the small matter of ensuring children’s safety and welfare, as well as the transparent and effective use of public funds. So, given the fact that we aren’t going to be left alone, how do schools address this?

Adeyfield School Brass ensemble playing for us

Well, in the worst cases, it is through an often frosty stand-off and grudging acceptance on both sides: parents have to send their children to your school, and you have to accept that parents (mostly) come along with the children. In the best cases, however, parents are willing and enthusiastic participants; the school acts as a significant institution within the life of the wider community, and professional educators take their rightful place as respected members of this well integrated community.

Aid from the Amazon….

Shortly after I arrived at my school last autumn, I was approached by a parent. She works for Amazon, who have one of their distribution centres nearby. Each month, Amazon make a donation to a local community organisation, but it requires that organisation to a) put itself forward and b) be voted for by Amazon employees. Previously the school had not put itself forward, despite the offer from the parent. This time, therefore, I was determined we’d support the parent in her desire to promote us, and encouraged her to go through the process. Within two months we were holding an assembly with senior Amazon staff, receiving 25 Kindle Fires and, more significantly, £2000 worth of Amazon vouchers to buy books for our library!

Okay, so ethically, I can hear you thinking, should we be encouraging multinationals with dubious tax-paying reputations to be offering us inducements? Cynical marketing? Well, that’s as may be, but partnerships are about mutual benefit. Amazon can give to the community (they can afford it) but a school like ours, in an area with some significant deprivation, needs to grasp opportunity that will benefit the children. In this case it is all about reading…

Which leads to another reflection on partnerships. What would be better? A well-designed and attractive library space purchased for somewhere north of £12,000? Or something equally as functional, furnished and designed for far less than even half that amount from a popular Scandinavian store, built by a collective of parents and volunteers? For me (and certainly for my office manager, who claims to be handy with a screwdriver) the most sustainable, lasting benefit will come from being clever and creative, and spending wisely!

It is clear that, in both examples, the impact on pupil outcomes is indirect. However, in both, and indeed through all community engagement, the benefit is gained from the building of the trust and commitment of those who do not directly experience life at school as the children and staff do.

With a little help from my friends...

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) have indicated that parental involvement is of “moderate value for moderate cost, based on moderate evidence.” So taking this view, it’s not worth it, right? Wrong. The key question that we must answer is posed by the EEF itself: How will you make your school welcoming for parents whose own experience of school may not have been positive? Through effective parental and community engagement, we will start to change the educational paradigm more quickly. This paradigm, driven by society and (especially) the media, creates an undeserved mistrust on the part of parents and communities, who reflect on their own negative childhood / adolescence experiences.

Instead, the power of engagement comes from building friendships, leading learning for adults, and inspiring or enabling others within the community to do good things. Whether it’s letting out space or hosting community-wide events, running adult education classes or briefing parents on how you are going to teach times tables, every small step gives greater faith and recognition that, as a school, you are a learning environment for everyone - especially the children. With the community engaged and parents feeling positive, the children will, unconsciously, recognise that school is a good place, one where they are recognised as an important partner.

So, here are three lessons that I have learned from experience leading both maintained and independent schools; actions and activities that, despite the parental demographic, are immutable and universal.

Year 3 grandparents day

1. Swallow the frog

A school that is built on kindness and empathy, rather than technocentric autocracy (ie people over data), acts like a magnet. Humans are feeling creatures “What might help is just to leave schools alone!”with a desire to belong to something that touches them emotionally. I can’t help but support Leyton Orient, and we have hoped and longed for leadership at the club that reflects our collective passion for it. With that now in place, the club is seeing signs of future success. In the same way, schools led with heart engage everyone in wanting the best for the children, meaning that the children are happy, well-supported and inevitably make progress.

It sometimes requires courage for schools to tackle issues head-on. But lack of funding, skills or resources are, in my view, only barriers to be overcome. Children need support, so it’s no use skirting the issue. Resources require effective budget and business management. Skills can be developed through professional development linked to school improvement planning. Resources, human or otherwise, through leadership, recruitment and prudent management, can support the vision and values of the school that leads with people first.

2. Clarity

Clear systems and processes, well understood by all members of the community, provide an anchor and solid core to school operations. Reliability and consistency are also human desires. We crave the familiar; something that offers comfort and support. Schools, for all their exposure to criticism, need to establish and reinforce their systems. They must ensure that there is flexibility enough to ensure a degree of empathy which recognises the needs of community members when necessary. In this way, schools become authoritative and wise organisations, trusted guides for parents and children alike.

3. Welcome them in

With the clarity of purpose and empathy established, the relationships with parents are to be capitalised upon. Opportunities to teach the parents - to educate them about how children learn, and discuss their emotional needs - can be established and led by the school. Schools can also involve the community partners from local services and other organisations. I am big fan of guerrilla teaching: teaching the moment, capitalising on opportunity, and creating memorable learning experiences. The same can be applied to the relationship schools have with parents.

Inviting parents and carers for coffee mornings. Through these, you can enable their support with reading, PTA sessions, jobs around the school, help on school trips, gardening, and so on. All of these offer opportunity to show and tell how the school works, to drop in snippets of educational theory, to discuss broader issues in education, or even to gain intelligence on the local community!

A Macmillan coffee morning

Following your values

Acceptance is linked with the mutual exchange of views. Potentially challenging, no doubt, but built on the foundations above - empathy, consistency, authority - the system that we are seeking to build, with children’s outcomes at its heart, will be stronger and more effective. And more importantly, sustainable.

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