Educational Leadership and the Community, ed by Gelsthorpe and West-Burnham: helping schools move from being ‘schools in the community’ to ‘schools of the community’

My secondary school years were spent at a school called Oathall Community College.  At the time, I didn’t really take much notice of its name or that it had the word ‘community’ in it.  It was just the school that I went to with all my friends.  In fact the whole of my year six at junior school  came up with me to Oathall because there was just one secondary school in the catchment.  Pretty straightforward for my parents.

Now it is my turn to start thinking about secondary schools for my two daughters as they move towards the end of their primary school years.   In Buckinghamshire, where I live, the situation for parents is a little more complicated.  We are presented with two main schooling options post primary – upper schools, for children of all abilities - or grammar schools, for children who qualify through the 11+ process.  So, to be able to go to some of the schools where we live, my children have to pass a test.  But, I am not going to discuss the rights or wrongs of selective schooling here.  I have been much more interested to learn what it means for a school to be called a ‘community’ school – having been to one myself (albeit a long time ago) AND having also stumbled across a really inspiring book on this very subject – Educational Leadership and the Community – Strategies for School Improvement through Community Engagement (edited by Tony Gelsthorpe and John West-Burnham).

Now I realise that it might seem a little pretentious of me to be reading and reviewing a book about educational leadership when I am not a school teacher, let alone a school leader.  However, I come from the perspective of a parent within a community, interested in how the local school provision can be the best not just for my children (isn’t that what all parents want?) but also for the wider community.   After all, schools are uniquely placed, they are operating within communities and a flourishing and positive relationship between a school and its community can bring real, mutual benefits.  This is the overriding theme of Educational Leadership and the Community.

All the contributors to Education Leadership and the Community have been able to provide informed and experienced perspectives on education and community because they have or are all working in these sectors – as school teachers, head teachers, adult education teachers, inspectors of schools, directors of education, managers within youth services, social services, children’s services, as a Community Schools Network Manager, as a Director of Education and Lifelong Learning at the Community Education Development Centre and as Director of Professional Research and Development at the London Leadership Centre, Institute of Education.

As its starting point, the book reflects on the last two decades during which schools have been operating within a programme of centralised reform – national strategies and a national curriculum – not all bad of course but hardly conducive to working with diversity and being able to respond to the uniqueness of each school’s community.   As the editors point out, “..the inspection regime, undoubtedly one of the key factors in raising standards, has nonetheless given rise to a mood of compliance.  Those who look over their shoulders cannot see the horizon”.   And there’s no doubt school leaders are in a very difficult position because of this.  It can’t be easy to be creative, to take risks, when your school is being measured and reported and placed in a league table based on centrally imposed targets such as the number of students gaining 5 GCSEs at grade A-C but which takes no account of the uniqueness and the diversity of your community and the children within it*.

In his contribution, Tony Gelsthorpe asks that education and schooling be defined more widely than just academic success and also that there be a movement away from the preoccupation with quantitative measurement of school success and improvement to a more qualitative one in terms of impact on society, community and individuals.  And to do this, Gelsthorpe suggests identifying a values framework to underpin a comprehensive community education service. ”These values might include the following:-

  • Access to high quality learning is the right of all.
  • Learning is a lifelong, life-enhancing process.
  • Involvement with the wider community enriches the curriculum and the teaching and learning enrich community life…”

And from these values, real benefits of “educational provision and practice rooted in the community can be realised.

Also rooted in the community needs to be the curriculum itself, including teaching and learning about the community, participation in the community, preparation for life in the community and, just as importantly, teaching and learning FOR the community.  Why not, for example, open up the school for further, adult and continuing education (such as ESOL classes), sports and leisure activities, transition summer schools for children moving from year six to year seven (a notoriously difficult time for some children), extending support to new parents (new parents mentoring partnerships), support for single Dads, and so on and so on?

John Grainger looks at how community schools, all of which have developed differently in response to their own, unique set of circumstances, have progressed over the last 25 years or so.  He uses, and extends further, a test offered by Phil Street, Chief Executive Officer of the Community Education Development Centre (CEDC) to judge whether a school is “committed to the operational principles of community schools“.  They are:-

  • To what extent does your school extend access to educational, recreational, social or cultural activities to the wider community?  List the provisions and the activities.
  • Are you offering lifelong learning educational opportunities?  List the provisions and the activities.
  • Is the community being involved and used in the delivery of the National Curriculum?  List examples of involvement.
  • Which other agencies is your school collaborating with to meet community needs?  List the agencies and purpose for collaboration.
  • What are the opportunities for the community to be involved in the governance or management of community school activities?

Plus Grainger’s additional questions:-

  • What measures have been put in place to join these operational principles together in practice?  List the measures in place.
  • How are these aspects of school life integrated into its ‘mainstream activities? Provide evidence of the integration to maximise the advantage to all learners.

Much of the rest of the book uses research and cases studies from around the world and around the UK, providing invaluable, practical examples of how primary schools, secondary schools and places of lifelong learning have adopted community based educational values as well as specific strategies and approaches that they have used to deliver community education.

I thoroughly recommend this book for anyone working in education and in community services or anyone who has an interest in these areas.   It is inspiring, visionary, entertaining (in particular, Chapter 4, Managing a Community Primary School by Peter Hall Jones) and an education in itself.

* Schools are also measured on value added which does take into account the progress of students between key stages and acknowledges special educational needs, family circumstances, movement between schools and the unique challenges some schools face. But the focus often remains on the number of students attaining 5 GCSEs.


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