Long read: The importance of community engagement

With international schools increasingly focused on community engagement, Dan Worth looks at how to make the most of it

Dan Worth

Outreach: How international schools can make the most of community engagement

The international school shouldn’t and doesn’t stop at the boundary fence.”

Rob Ford, director of Heritage International School in Moldova, no doubt echoes the thoughts of many who work overseas when it comes to how they see the role of their school in the community.

“I believe strongly that international schools have a special role, responsibility and obligation in their respective countries,” he adds.

For Ford’s school, this means engaging in everything from supporting a local orphanage and a community centre for vulnerable families, to raising the profile of animal charities and the work they do for cats and dogs in the country.

The purposes of doing this are myriad – from ensuring that the school is part of the community, rather than apart from it, to giving students a chance to learn through engagement with such organisations.

“[The school was founded] on the idea that we were preparing global citizens and future leaders of society who would be selfless and have integrity and altruism. Developing the idea of social responsibility through direct action was central to the school’s aim,” says Ford.

International schools and community engagement

In the world of business, this sort of engagement, where an organisation gives up time, effort, energy and resources to help others, is usually dubbed corporate social responsibility (CSR) and has become something that most organisations wish to tout as part of their business operations.

Within the international school sector, though, the term is not widely used to cover such initiatives as those listed above – perhaps because the world of education has always liked to see itself as a sector that does not need to specify when it is "doing good"; this is intrinsic to its entire purpose.

Whatever it is termed, though, there certainly seems to be a growing trend towards formalising and embedding this sort of work within international schools, as Mark Orrow-Whiting, director of curriculum and student performance at global school Nord Anglia, outlines.

“There are lots of things that have happened over the past 10-year period, including with the pandemic, that have given children an opportunity to talk about and share their experiences, engage with other people, work in local community…it was always there but it’s definitely increasing,” he says.

Reaching out

This trend is somewhat personified by Greg Threlfall, who is head of outreach for Shrewsbury International School in Thailand – a job that came into existence in August 2020 as part of a recognition that the school’s community work needed more top-down oversight.

“I'm the first incumbent of this role – it didn't exist before,” he says.

“There were passionate people who drove forward some nice programmes and started some interesting things, but then they moved on or they got promoted to a different role and couldn't necessarily give the energy they needed to those things.

“That created the situation where we had good programmes rising up and then dropping off, and it wasn't sustainable. So we thought if we want things to be sustainable for a long period of time, if we want to have consistent impact and to record that [it needed a full-time role].”

And given Threlfall’s remit, it’s easy to see why the role was created, as he explains that he oversees everything from community engagement, entrepreneurship and sustainability to partnership work with schools, universities and corporations.

Building together 

To take one example, the school regularly works with local schools and a local e-commerce provider in the country to get students and teachers from across the country working together in a collaborative initiative called the Equitable Education Fund.

“It’s a programme that has a focus on students working together to produce products that are then sold through an e-commerce platform as a competition,” he explains.

“You end up with a product which is sold through JD Central [an online store like Amazon] but along the way students meet lots of different high-profile mentors to help them develop their products and then sell them, and that money goes into the Equitable Education Fund.”

Products have ranged from handbags made using fabric from a traditional tribal weaving group and silk scarves made from volcanic ash-dyed cloth to sustainability produced soap and shampoos – all of which are now being sold regularly.

For Threlfall, this long-term focus is key: “It means [the local schools] have a product that they can make in their community and that could continue to be made after the programme's moved on from that particular school.”

He adds that this sort of long-term focus is key to his work to ensure that the outreach efforts the school engages in make it truly part of the community.

“We don't want to offer those things in a condescending way – we want to look at how we work together in a co-coaching environment,” says Threlfall.

A partner, not a saviour 

This is a point raised by Ford, too – international schools are increasingly aware that they cannot act as a "saviour" in the region and outreach activities must be about cooperation and community.

“The concept of charity support in schools can sometimes be handled in a meaningful-but-clumsy way if it is done badly with good intentions. We don’t want our students to have some notion of ‘noblesse oblige’ and certainly not of pity and patronisation,” he says. 

Like Threlfall, he says the key is to ensure that engagement with the community has real, long-term impact, and is not just a quick tick-box exercise.

“Developing social responsibility and the concept of altruism through educating around the issues of poverty, inequality, power, welfare, public provision, the environment, goes hand in hand with the practical aspects of our students actually making a difference,” he says.

“They are not just raising donations for, say, the animal shelters, [but] lobbying politicians to tighten up laws on animal welfare and widen the debate on how to tackle humanely the issues of stray animals as well as teaching good, responsible pet ownership.”

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Charlotte Brunton, secondary head of English at the British School of Gran Canaria, has a similarly compelling example.

“Prior to this year, all sixth-form students would volunteer for an hour each week at a local nursing home. It was really lovely – they’d partner up with residents and assist them in activities, sit and chat with them, arrange musical performances at Christmas and so forth,” she says.

“As soon as we arrived, they knew exactly who they were going to see, where they were going, and there was excitement from both the residents but also our students.”

Student volunteering

Getting students involved to this level of engagement may not happen overnight – but if you start the process, it can soon grow into something far larger, as Aminah Evans, foundation stage leader at Hartland International School in Dubai, outlines with reference to the school’s charity committee.

“It all started with one cake sale to raise money for breast cancer awareness and now it has grown into so much more,” she says, explaining that the initiative now works to help numerous local charities in everything from outreach work and awareness-raising, to donating key items and engaging parents, too.

“The students have really grown in their understanding that helping others does not always involve cupcakes but rather giving the gift of time and empathy instead.”

For Orrow-Whiting, this rising tide of student engagement was something Nord Anglia noted a few years ago – and led it to create its Share a Dream initiative, whereby students can proactively log and share outreach work.

“We wanted children to have an outlet to share what they were doing, in three ways: the time they were giving, the items they were giving and the money they were raising – usually as something being done beyond work already being done by their school.”

To date, he says this has shown some 56,000 hours donated, 50,000 items donated and $433,000 raised for charities. “It’s a great way to harness ideas and share their work,” adds Orrow-Whiting.

And the pandemic has done nothing to dampen this enthusiasm – quite the opposite, in fact, with a 68 per cent increase in usage of the platform since September 2020.

The kids are alright. What about parents though?

Getting parent support

This is no doubt all very good for the soul – but does it help a pupil's educational journey? Threlfall is unequivocal that it does – not least because it helps to build up a student into a more rounded individual, something that is vital for careers and university admissions.

“Academic excellence is great and it's the important way to get to where you want to go. But the fact is you won't be successful in that process unless you understand the soft skills that you need to be able to move forward in the current higher education landscape.”

He says that this is something that most parents understand now, although he admits that some have needed persuading.

“I've had this conversation many a time: 'Why are you taking my son or daughter away from further maths?', 'They should be doing five A levels,' and things like that,” he says.

“And we have to encourage those parents but by connecting with the parents and engaging them in it, because the majority of our parents have a business background, or they're in politics or something like that, they understand the need to learn and develop those skills.

Mike Godwin, acting head of lower school at Harrow Bangkok, agrees that complementing academic education is key: “It’s such an important life skill and a way to develop empathy and understanding – [it] ensures students are leading and given the opportunity to give back.”

Embracing the real world 

What’s more, Orrow-Whiting thinks that attempting to ignore this trend would only make schools look out of touch – to pupils and parents.

“The world is changing all the time and there is an awareness now among young people of issues and what they are doing about them – and lots of parents are keeping up with that and supporting them,” he says.

Colin Bell, CEO of COBIS, adds that a school’s outreach activities can often serve as key recruitment and admissions tool for staff as well.

“CSR is a key thing for schools now for attracting families and attracting staff. People are very informed about these areas and have their own moral compass and want to work for ethical organisations,” he explains.

It is perhaps no surprise then that COBIS also includes outreach work with the local community as part of its accreditation process – something Bell says has definitely become more integral to how many schools promote themselves.

“I think schools love the chance to share their extracurricular work like this – to show they are connected, inter-culturally-minded, and have the opportunity for this work to be showcased.”

Of course, any charity or community involvement must also include any necessary due diligence, to ensure that partners are reliable and acting in good faith. “Schools, of course, have to be careful which charity or organisation they help so they know it’s legitimate, they are handling any funds in the correct manner – schools must be on top of that.,” says Bell.

He adds, though, that he is not aware of any problems with an unscrupulous charitable organisation. “I haven’t heard of any examples of when this hasn’t worked out,” Bell says.

A future formed together

Nonetheless, this sort of focus will only become more important as international schools continue to enhance the scope and visibility of their work in their communities

All of this does represent more workload for staff – at a time when teachers and leaders are under more pressure than ever.

However, the importance of local engagement and outreach work and the organic way this complements pupils' learning – always the number one consideration of school, after all – means the drive to professionalise and embed this within everything international schools do is only going to move in one direction.

As Ford sums up: “We can hardly claim to be educating global citizens if we don’t first start with developing strong local citizens in our communities”

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes. He tweets @danworth

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