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Build bridges to the people

Schools need to have a proper dialogue with their community - and not assume they know best. Phil Revell reports

Headteachers need to build relationships with their communities if they are serious about taking part in the extended school experiment proposed by ministers, according to a leading American academic.

"Traditional educational leaders can't see the point of these relationships because they want everything to be clearly defined," says George Otero.

"But our approach means that you get a community that feels it is dealing with society on its own terms."

Dr Otero works in New Mexico, the state that comes bottom of nearly all the educational tables in the United States. It is home to a large population of Pueblo Indians and many Latino immigrants. Sixty per cent of Native Americans never finish high school, he says.

In the US, Dr Otero supports school improvement through local control and student empowerment. He is the founder of Santa Fe's Center for Relational Learning and is working with schools in New Mexico on a project to demonstrate how community-based education can meet changing needs. "There's a synchronicity of agendas in the US and the UK," he says.

In England, the Government wants schools to build bridges with their communities. Faced with the need to co-ordinate children's services and support families, ministers are proposing that schools become the hub for a range of community services - as set out in last week's Children's Bill.

Heads will see health and social services operating from their school site.

Dr Otero argues that the current focus on standards is not enough to shift deep-seated problems in areas with poor educational attainment. "It doesn't work because, even if you give extra funding, you can't affect the social context. Standards are only part of the scenario," he says.

"The community is disenfranchised because it is simply the recipient of a service. There's no partnership."

He talks about the dilemma between expectation and reality. Society raises the possibility of equal access for all to educational and material success, but the actual situation is one of failure and exclusion. "The reality breaks people, it causes depression and violence," he says.

To break the cycle, Dr Otero persuades heads to leave their schools and start talking to local people by convening community meetings.

"As a profession we think we know best. But I say, 'You could be right, it may not work, but nothing else you have tried has worked either'."

Parents and community leaders are encouraged to attend. The emphasis is on listening to what the community has to say.

"We facilitate the conversation, helping education leaders to listen. We say to the community, 'Let's sit down and listen about the experience you are having with our school'."

The result may be a "full-service" school where a host of services are available on site, or it may be an extended school, open for community learning at the end of the formal school day.

Dr Otero cautions against defining the end result in advance. "Leaders need to celebrate what occurs in a way that is disproportionate to the actual outcome," he says. "And celebrate what happens even when it's not what you thought was going to happen. It may not be the cake you planned to bake - but it tastes pretty good."

He argues that there is abundant evidence that the community-based focus pays off in traditional terms. High schools that have signed up to the programme report higher levels of attendance, and lower levels of smoking and drug abuse.

Ironically, just as the UK is seriously investigating the extended schools model, the US is withdrawing funding from after-school programmes introduced by former president Bill Clinton.

Dr Otero says: "We now have national testing by any other name, and federal funding changes means that those after-school programmes have to focus on literacy and writing skills."

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