Community, in itself, can mean different things to a school. Their community will focus on the teachers and other adults in the school, the children in their classes and their families. The idea of family broadens the community, especially in an area with low mobility. A school can serve several generations of some families. Schools also have to have an eye to the next generations of students, so will look at earlier year opportunities and their links. The pupils of a school pass through the community, usually identifiably through their uniform. So, in reality, community has to mean everyone in a locality.
The idea of rights, respect and responsibilities, as often shared within school values, derived from community values, will have resonance within the wider community. Heads and senior staff can often spend significant amounts of time dealing with issues from within the wider community, as they affect their pupils, directly or indirectly.
From that point of view, a clear view of surrounding issues is essential to provide background information to support clarity of decision making. The school/setting needs to audit the local and wider community, seeing itself as a central player in the community, as a potential social amenity resource, but also seeking to use the local area as a resource for wider learning.
Bring in the local police officer, or support officer, the crossing patrol, the caretaker, fire brigade, ambulance staff, to share their roles in keeping everyone safe, and to broaden the children's vies of themselves within their community.
If the school/setting is involved in community life, with children visible, behaving, learning, sharing, being polite to passers-by, the reputation is enhanced. Where choirs, drama and music groups go out to sing, dance, play or perform, the school demonstrates the quality of the learning and the outward looking stance. Pupils going out of the school are essentially ambassadors for the school. Well-behaved children are noticed as much as less well-behaved groups. The public are now often quicker to comment on these things and with ease of communication, receiving an email from a positive member of the public, shared with the children, adds value to the visit.
The community is involved in the life of the school/setting. Where schools put on performances or other events, welcoming the community into the school enables a “soft sell” approach. Some parents have not had a good school experience. To cross the threshold can be a challenge for some. Informal events can provide the vehicle to show a welcoming face.
Links with local and wider clubs and organisations can provide additional expertise and resources that are shared to advantage pupils. If the community strengths are known, they can sometimes be used to enhance the curriculum or the extra-curricular activities offered. Parents with language skills, art, drama, music, writing or any other curriculum area, can sometimes be persuaded into school to share experiences.
Schools bring in a wide range of church groups, who may be able to support the collective worship aspect of school. Wildlife groups, historical associations, local museums all may have specific expertise to impart. Then there are the sports clubs, who may be able to support within the week or through after school clubs, with the link to the club encouraging wider participation. It all takes some time to coordinate, but opens the school and shows the school in it’s wider vision.
As a community resource, the school may be able to host local group meetings, especially outside the school day, where other local amenities might not be available.
The school, as an education establishment, can see itself in a broader educational role, by signposting adults to available learning opportunities. This can be through local library opportunities to formal educational opportunities within local colleges. A large number of schools accept students on BTEC or NVQ routes for their practical experiences.
The hardest part of auditing the school in the community is in gaining a true picture of whether the school/setting is valued by the local community. If the school/setting has systems to canvas local opinion, evaluate outcomes and act on findings, then they may be in a better position to make decisions. However, many schools will rely on a canvasing a small group of committed parents, through the PTA or the Parent Governors. This will probably give a skewed image.
Parent questionnaires often suffer from poor returns. This is not totally surprising. To receive a questionnaire several pages long to fill in and return by a certain date, can be off-putting. Alternatives include smaller, regular, themed questions; one a week, or five a month. In that way the school can adopt a “You said, we thought, we did…” approach to issues arising in a timely manner. Using social media, Twitter or Facebook, is providing some schools with direct communication with community members.
Making sure that good news stories have broader readership, through regular press releases, puts the school into the community homes. Unless the school is proactive in this regard, much will go unnoticed. “Selling” the school may not come naturally, but the benefits need to be accrued.
Schools cannot divorce themselves from their community; it walks through the door daily, in the form of the children, their parents and other community members. To understand their environment in all it’s complexity, ensures that decisions can be clearer and have greater impact.
Proactive is always better than reactive.