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Partners in the fight against disadvantage

New learning communities have shown that schools can act together for the common good, says Tom Burnett

GLASGOW'S "new learning communities" programme is a development of the city's "learning communities" programme which adopts a cluster approach to learning (secondary, primaries and pre-five) and the Scottish Executive's new community schools initiative.

Both the city's and the Scottish Executive's pilot projects got under way at around the same time in 1999 and both have been seeking fresh ways of raising attainment for all young people, particularly the socially disadvantaged. It makes sense, therefore, at this stage to bring together the most promising aspects of both initiatives.

Schools can have little effect on the home environment of young people which, all too often, can become the active ingredients of disadvantage. A compelling feature of the new learning communities strategy is that schools will be able to reach out into the lives of young people much more effectively. The link made with families of children as young as three, for example, who enter a pre-five school of the local learning community, will be maintained until leaving age. Expectations and aspirations will be established early and schools will no longer be working on their own.

Dedicated social workers and health workers will have access to parents and to homes in ways that schools have never had. Unnecessary absence from school will be confronted more effectively and that in itself will be a huge advantage which will greatly lessen the effects of disjointed learning, one of the biggest contributors to lack of progress.

Our own learning community of St Mungo's is now in its fourth year of operation and we have had a number of joint ventures - all successful, some more markedly than others. The biggest hurdle was learning to work with each other and trust each other within the new framework. Two pilot projects were established in the east end of the city and in each case a principal was appointed with a new learning community senior management team. In our case this consisted of the heads of the nine partner schools, the secondary depute head in his new role as "head of school", the secondary head as the principal and the bursar.

Previously harmonious relationships were sometimes tested to the limit. But we got there and colleague heads began very successfully to take on responsibilities for aspects of the new federation as well as for their own schools. Now the pilot project is to be extended and widened to include other clusters of schools.

Training has been a significant feature and the most recent sessions fairly buzzed with ideas and energy. The activity that attracted most attention was an oversubscribed "child protection" option involving primary, secondary and pre-five personnel together with health professionals, social workers and psychologists - not always a successful mix. But the agenda was urgent and the problems inescapable.

The perspectives aired were different, but all valid and informative and, at the close of the seminar, the group of 40 or so participants were asking for more. They had recognised the difficulties their fellow professionals faced and recognised how they could help each other to help young people.

The optimism and enthusiasm augured very well for future co-operation.

Another joint activity saw our school liaison officer and our careers officer visiting the homes of winter leavers to discuss next steps with young people and their parents. This was a particularly significant development for those who could have been lost to education at this stage and even apparently unmotivated families were appreciative of the efforts.

The arrangement is courageous and has the potential, in equal measure, for valuable progress or for administrative guddle and here lies a key challenge. In the real world each of the partners, committed as they are to the concept of improvement, will have their own agenda, and leading their separate approaches to an empowering outcome of self-confidence and attainment for our young people will be no mean feat.

Strong leadership which is focused, visionary and determined, with the clear confidence and backing of all the partner agencies, will be essential. It is an exciting opportunity which must be seized and made to succeed for the future of all Glasgow's young people.

Tom Burnett is principal of St Mungo's learning community in Glasgow.

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