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Fresh avenues for open access

Jonathan Croall finds community education makinga big comeback.

Community education was a great buzz phrase of the 1970s and early 1980s. But the government's radical reforms of the last few years and the dismantling of much of the local education authority structure seemed to have pushed the idea well into the background. Community education is now making a comeback, says John Rennie, director of the Community Education Development Council (CEDC) in Coventry. "Things were looking bad three or four years ago, but the new situation has created new opportunities," he says. "The community education movement is getting its second breath: it's got a lot to say for itself now."

CEDC is at the heart of the movement, as it has been since it was founded in 1980 as a national focus for community education. It has, like other agencies, had to adapt to changing circumstances, and is now self-financing. But its essential aim to make schools open to use by everyone, and accountable to the community remains the same.

There appears to be a steady increase in the number of community schools, although according to CEDC only around 30 per cent are formally designated as such by their LEA. Whereas the label tended to proliferate in inner-city areas in the past, the main growth is now among schools on greenfield sites.

John Rennie argues that opening up a school to parents and the community can make a dramatic change. "Many schools haven't done this in the way they should - they've just produced turgid school brochures that make them all look the same," he says. "So most parents don't have a clue. But give them genuine access, and all of a sudden they get a sense of ownership. The message is that schools that have done this have been successful."

Today, under the chairmanship of Eric Midwinter, and operating from its base in a former school building in a suburb of Coventry, CEDC is providing an impressive range of support for community educators and parents through its resources, training and consultancy. It also has in hand several action research projects, though these are by no means confined to schools and LEAs: many of them depend on co-operation between several national agencies or different groups within a community.

One of its newer services involves providing a "community needs audit" for schools. A CEDC consultant talks to the school's senior managers, then looks at the catchment area, sends out a questionnaire, has discussions with a range of local groups about their needs and then reports back to the school.

"So much community education is ad hoc because schools don't have time to do this kind of research," says Maggie Robinson, who has done several such audits for CEDC. "We can give them a detailed plan for three or four years for a reasonable cost."

There have been some positive results. In one village, where as many as 80 clubs and societies were found to exist, the community identified the need for a tele-cottage, which the school then set up. In another authority, a school was advised to set up a community group outside its premises, and also a dual-use library. Some of CEDC's work is partly designed to fill the gap left by the reduction in the LEAs' advisory and support services. This is the case with its recently established National School and Community Network (NSCN), which now has 200 member schools at the secondary level. For them CEDC provides guidance on a range of issues, such as inspection, out-of-school care, creating a business plan and the funding of community education. Membership also puts like-minded schools in touch with each other, and pays for an annual visit from a member of CEDC's staff. "Schools appreciate this personal contact," says Phil Street, CEDC's assistant director. "They can talk freely about their dilemmas, but also hear what's going on elsewhere."

CEDC has always had a bias towards disadvantage, a fact reflected in its recent work on child protection. A training programme based on its guide, Responding to Child Abuse, is now in operation in 40 LEAs in England and Wales. As a follow-up, it is now working to assist teachers who have been given the responsibility in school of being the "named person" for child protection.

It is estimated that around one third of child-abuse cases are initially identified in schools. Yet it was clear from four regional conferences CEDC ran in 1994 that many of these "designated" teachers had received little or no training, and that they were often experiencing a conflict of loyalties in carrying out this difficult role.

"Teachers who have excellent relations with parents can find themselves having to give evidence against someone whom they may have been informally counselling," says Phil Street. "The whole area of dealing with suspected abuse is very stressful for teachers, who can find themselves facing in two different directions."

This work has led CEDC to consider another problem, that of teachers increasingly being used as unofficial social workers by parents. "Within five minutes of coming into school they are talking about their marriage, money, housing, their neighbours and unemployment," says John Rennie.

Rather than have a social worker attached to a school, as has been recently suggested, CEDC is about to explore the idea of Parent Aid, a framework of Relate-style counselling services to which schools can refer parents. "Teachers don't want to stop parents talking about their own predicament, but they need support," Phil Street says.

CEDC has many other initiatives in progress, including governor training, an inter-agency project on bullying, and the creation of materials to help teachers to involve the community in their work with the national curriculum.

The aim is to make good use of what John Rennie sees as a changing climate. "There's a swing of the pendulum; people are getting fed up with hearing about the price of everything and not of the value of anything."

CEDC, Lyng Hall, Blackberry Lane, Coventry CV2 3JS. Tel: 0203 638660.

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