How schools can empower local communities

Are schools just another public service, powerless to the sway of government, or are they the key to empowering local communities? Melvyn Roffe searches for the answer in a small town in Denmark – and learns an important lesson from 16th-century Scottish history
6th December 2019, 12:05am
Bringing Home The Danish
Melvyn Roffe


How schools can empower local communities

From the very earliest days of organised education in Scotland, schools have been rooted in their communities. In 1560, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland called for a school to be established in each parish so that every child could learn to read and access the scriptures. While the effectiveness of these parish schools has been debated by historians, there is no doubt that they became cornerstones of the communities that they served and, following Parliament's Education Act of 1633, could be considered to be the first institutions of the modern Scottish state.

My first headship in England was at a school that had been established in the aftermath of the English Civil War. A local historian once showed me a map of the town, which picked out the buildings that were still performing the same function in the 21st century as they had done in the 17th. Only the parish church, a local pub, the market and two schools (including mine) were highlighted. "They'd got the needs of the mind, body and spirit covered by 1670 - the less important things came later," the historian remarked.

After moving away from that school, I was involved in a project to improve education in another town in England. Every generation since the war had been hit by new upheavals and challenges, and the town had experienced decades of poor educational outcomes linked to multiple deprivation. Yet underneath the disadvantage lurked a strong community identity and dedicated community leaders, just as surely as under the layers of unsympathetic post-war urban planning and tired 1960s architecture there remained traces of a beautiful Georgian town built on a medieval street pattern.

My team scoured all kinds of data to try to understand the local issues, as we planned to open a new school. Figures showing that children in the town had high levels of single-day medical absence from school were particularly revealing.

As NHS services had been "rationalised" over the years, they had gradually been withdrawn from the town, leaving the population with very little secondary healthcare. Most people referred from their GP now faced an awkward journey to visit the local hospital or other secondary care setting. Children were missing school to sit on a bus for half the day to attend routine appointments that should have been available in their own community. Or sometimes they were missing school to support family members, perhaps as interpreters, and taking the same needless journey. The situation was especially bad for mental health services, meaning that the most vulnerable students faced the most frequent journeys and suffered the greatest impact on their education and wellbeing.

A town councillor explained how this had happened. Although there were local representatives on all the bodies responsible for the town's services, councillors from the town were rarely appointed to key roles and, even when they were, the priorities of the larger and less peripheral communities tended to dominate decision making. It wasn't a party-political thing (although at election time it was sometimes presented that way), nor a reflection on the quality of local leaders. It wasn't even mainly about money (although there was never enough). It was to do with the structure of decision-making, which denied the community the ability to influence its own destiny.

Worse, services intended to help the community were inadvertently undermining it, for example, by requiring children to miss more school than was necessary, thereby deepening the impact of the deprivation that had already made them vulnerable.

'He has to make this work'

Armed with the data, we held meetings with the agencies that would be providing services for pupils at our school. Could we, perhaps, design the services around where we wanted the children to be - in school? We were, after all, the one truly universal children's service. In fact, for many families, we were the one reliable public service of any kind. Although education in the town was labelled as failing, it had at least stuck around when so many other services had given up and left.

The other agencies reacted with everything from active enthusiasm to incomprehension, disdain and obstruction. Nevertheless, we developed our plan to accommodate key services within the school for pupils and their families. But then there was a general election, capital funding was cut by the new government and all those ideas were scrapped. I may be wrong, but I thought I heard a stifled sigh of relief from the other agencies.

Shortly afterwards, I joined a bunch of headteachers, local government officers and policy people on a European Union study visit to Denmark. We spent a week getting under the skin of the education system of a town in Jutland, coincidentally of similar size to that in which I had been working in England.

Welcomed to the town by the mayor, we were introduced to the principal of the newly built and splendidly appointed technical school. "He has to make this work," the mayor told us in his introduction to the principal. "I put the taxes up to pay for this building and if he doesn't do a good job, I'm dead at the next election." He laughed, but he wasn't joking.

Councillors from all the parties on the town's council agreed: they'd backed the vision, they'd raised the money and now they were entirely committed to the success of the project. They knew and accepted that they would be held accountable if the new school did not improve the town.

Some of the other services for children and young people were delivered by the provincial government, some by the government in Copenhagen. We were told by the local politicians that no one understood the town in the provincial capital and no one understood Jutland in Copenhagen. Yet everyone agreed that the school should be the focus for services provided for young people and their families. Our supposedly educational visit was not complete until we had met health, social services, careers and social security officials, as well as representatives from unions, trade bodies and economic development agencies.

One evening towards the end of our visit, someone from the Ministry of Education in Copenhagen arrived to talk about their role in tackling Denmark's deprivation gap. He put up a slide that showed economic output per head across the country, drawing attention to the worrying situation. It certainly looked bad, with a range of colours from the lightest pink in the wealthy areas to deep, disturbing reds in some districts of Copenhagen and parts of rural Jutland close to where we were sitting.

I think it was a Belgian colleague who nudged me and pointed to the key to the map. The scale from the wealthiest to the poorest districts across the whole country was plus or minus 10 per cent. What we were seeing was a national deprivation gap that would have been covered by one quintile of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation.

In my report when I came home, I could not help but reflect on the contrast between an English town that was unable to control even the most minor details of its current service delivery, and its Danish counterpart, energised and cohesive in shaping its future.

In Denmark, the mayor had the power to develop a plan that placed a new school at the centre of not only the wellbeing of its young people, but also the town's future prosperity. Moreover, the people of the town agreed that this was a good idea and were prepared to pay the extra taxes required to see it happen. Perhaps some residents had disagreed, but if so, they must have been kept locked away until we had all gone home.

The consensus in support of the mayor's vision was underpinned by another important difference. Unlike in England, everyone knew who was responsible for the success of the town and the quality of its services. Scary though it may have been for the principal, it was also reassuring that he knew where the buck stopped: with the man right next to him on the platform.

Yet there was one question I couldn't really answer. With far less inequality and with gross domestic product per capita more than 30 per cent higher than in the UK, had Denmark been able to trust local people to make more decisions locally because it was more equal than the UK and more prosperous? Or was it more equal and prosperous at least partly because it trusted local people to make decisions locally?

I also reflected that my own involvement in trying to improve the education of the town in England was a symptom of its problems, not part of any solution. Rather than bringing in people like me from outside, it would surely have been better to give the town the authority and access to resources to develop its own way forward.

The power to make a difference

The focus of our political debates on public services is generally about money, especially at election time. The quality of decision-making is only an issue when there has been some almighty screw-up leading to an obvious and egregious waste of that money. Very rarely does anyone argue about where a decision should be taken and who should be taking it, unless, of course, the argument is about whether it should be Holyrood, Westminster or "Europe".

For example, has there been any rigorous debate about whether the "regional improvement collaboratives" (RICs) are compatible with the empowerment of headteachers under the Headteachers' Charter? Or whether the charter itself, which consists of two pages that mainly tell headteachers who can boss them about, represents any real kind of empowerment for them?

It is probably inevitable that the more complex a government structure, the fewer people will understand it, the more distrusting people will be of it and the less impact it will have. That is one of the reasons why I bet no party will go into the next Scottish Parliament elections with plans for RICs to have the power to levy local taxation in the way that small town councils can in Jutland.

The other question that arose from my reflection on this tale of two towns was about the role of schools in the community. Are they just another service to be controlled by the priorities of national or local government? Or are they the key with which communities can be empowered to unlock their own futures?

That 17th-century map suggested what were the priorities of a community putting itself back together after civil war. The 16th-century instigators of our entire school system started at the bottom and worked upwards. Those wishing to improve schools in the 21st century might still usefully bear in mind such precedents.

Melvyn Roffe is principal of George Watson's College in Edinburgh

This article originally appeared in the 6 December 2019 issue under the headline "Bringing home the Danish"

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