12-hour schools to revitalise valleys

Once schools opened at 9am and shut again at 4pm. But they are now gearing up for 12-hour opening, offering services for adults, and getting the snazzy title of "community learning resource".

Neath Port Talbot is the latest education authority to join the "wrap-around learning" revolution after it unveiled county-wide plans to transform its schools.

Serving some of the most deprived communities in south Wales, it wants to make schools the focal point of the community, and is convinced this will widen access and regenerate the valleys.

Stuart Evans, the council's head of access and forward planning, described schools as a "beautiful vehicle" for delivering services. But the challenge will be to get communities themselves to take part in developing what they need.

"No one size will fit all," he said. "The whole idea is to establish the needs of each particular community and get people involved. It's about joining up formal education with lifelong learning and skills and using that to help break the cycle of deprivation."

Neath Port Talbot is to consult on proposals for its schools to work with outside agencies to provide activities such as family and child support, as well as health services and adult education. Plans for schools to house a library, resources for community training, and office space for the police will also be considered.

The Assembly government is promoting the principle of community learning with gusto and wants all local authorities to develop new ways of providing education, health services and childcare under one roof, in partnership with universities and colleges, business and the health sector. England is following a similar line with its "extended schools".

An Assembly government spokesperson said: "Our vision is that schools should act as a community resource. This is particularly relevant in the most deprived communities where services are often lacking and local residents are not able to take up opportunities outside their immediate areas."

Funding of pound;3.6 million in 2006-07 has been allocated to assist local authorities in developing community-focused schools, but things such as extending partnerships with other organisations need not be costly, he added.

Ian Bottrill, development manager for Mid Wales with the community learning charity ContinYou, said the key to the success of community-focused schools was individuality. "We want every local authority to come up with plans that suit their own needs and circumstances," he said.

"We believe that if this is going to be a success it has to reflect the needs of the community and there's no point in offering services people don't need. An after-school club may work well in Neath Port Talbot, where children can walk home, but it may not work in rural Gwynedd."

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