How can you bring about authentic engagement and collaboration between schools and the communities they serve? That was the question pondered by a group of heads and community leaders in a recent "challenge" workshop run by the National College for School Leadership, one of a series of sessions aimed at developing cutting-edge approaches to leading extended schools.
Maggie Farrar, director of Every Child Matters at the NCSL, explains: "We hand-picked a group of experienced heads from a range of schools and asked each to bring along a partner from a local agency outside the education domain. As well as keeping in touch with the good practice that's already going on at local level, we want to develop innovative ways of working, so we can disseminate them and improve the system for everybody."
One aim of the workshops is to create a mix of knowledge and expertise through bringing together people with diverse roles - the co-leaders that heads have chosen range from a manager of children's services to the vicar of a Cornish village. Each workshop is run over 24 hours.
"Because school leaders are very busy, they are used to going from problem to solution in five minutes," says Ms Farrar.
"It's natural to turn to solutions that are familiar to us and consult with people whose views are likely to coincide with our own, but these solutions might not reflect the complexity of the real world. To achieve genuine collaboration with the community, school leaders need to seek out people who may disagree with them and provoke them into new ways of thinking."
A key feature of the workshops is their clearly defined structure. Each centres on an issue framed as a challenge, and begins over dinner with a speaker whose role is to provoke debate. With the May workshop focusing on how to achieve "authentic collaboration", Karin Woodley, chief executive of the Stephen Lawrence Foundation, asked how participants would engage local people whose own experience of education was less than positive, and spoke of the need for clear language when communicating with different parts of the community.
In the follow-up session participants unpicked the language and examined the underlying assumptions.
Brian Odger, head of Perranporth school in Cornwall, says: "This was a useful exercise as even the word 'school' can mean different things to different people. We agreed to define it as 'a place where learning happens', but others might just think you are talking about the building."
The room was then divided into research zones where participants can draw on the experience of other heads and co-leaders, use the internet, or take part in a telephone link-up with an expert.
Angela Edwards, head of Kibworth high school near Leicester, came away with a plan to engage the local "silver surfers". "We want to work with adult learning providers to develop ICT training that will give senior citizens a better idea of how computers are used by children at school. Once this is established, we hope to encourage retired people into school to help with learning support, such as reading programmes. It would be a great way of bridging the gap between the older and younger generations," she says.
Carol Birch, chair of South Leicester Council for Voluntary Services, who attended the workshop as Ms Edwards' co-leader, says: "For the co-leaders, it was very useful to get together with those from agencies in other areas.
It was also good for the heads to get out of the school setting and focus on the issue."
"I came away with a feeling of excitement and dedication, as well as reassurance that other schools are grappling with similar problems," says Mr Odger. "The workshop really challenged us to think about ways of discovering what the community really needs and wants."
Mr Odger found attendance at the workshop had fringe benefits. "We liked the challenge model and the four-part structure so much that we decided to use the same format for our school review forum, a meeting between staff, governors, parents and community leaders.
"Although we had to collapse it down to two hours, it was a great success and a governor said it was one of the best meetings she'd been to. And she goes to a lot of meetings!"
Future workshops will take place over the next three terms and focus on issues such as multi-agency working and how to give power to parents and children. More information about each workshop and its outcomes will be on www.ncsl.org.uk from September, with a guide to running challenge workshops available by early 2007