A toast to longer opening hours

1st November 2006 at 00:00

At least one head is raising a glass to extended schools, but others feel more sober about the issue. Martin Whittaker reports

Not many schools can boast having their own watering hole, but Chessington community college can. The bar is one of the school's community sports and leisure facilities, and principal David Kemp says that sometimes if he is working late he will wander over there to meet parents.

"On occasions, I have found it very useful - if I see parents I want to talk to - to have a discussion with them over a drink in the college bar,"

he says. "I certainly recall sorting out an absenteeism issue with a parent that way. Their child was back in school the following day."

The secondary modern in the London borough of Kingston leads a cluster of schools in the area that provide extended services. It is just about to begin a pound;23 million re-build, a large part of which will be developing its already extensive community use.

From 2008, this will include a new cafe-bar, sports facilities, a large lecture theatre, dance studios and new classrooms, and the campus will open seven days a week. This is not just a community school - it aims to be the hub of the community.

In many ways it already is, says Mr Kemp, but it has been held back by poor facilities. He has spent the past 16 years - first as a deputy, then as head - developing this vision.

The school has a strong track record in multi-agency working. It opens at 7.30am for breakfast clubs and closes at 11pm after people have left their adult education classes or the sports centre. On Saturdays, members of the local South Korean community use its classrooms to teach children in their native language.

Mr Kemp says the school's evolving community role has pre-empted the Government's own agendas. "The Every Child Matters agenda and the extended schools agenda are just music to our ears," he says.

But not all heads have enjoyed the tune. A recent survey by the Guardian showed that only 11 per cent of heads were fully in favour of extended schools, while 37 per cent had reservations about them.

The Department for Education and Skills recently celebrated the milestone of 2,500 extended schools in England and reiterated its aim to put schools at the heart of their communities.

But how does this change the head's role? What qualities are needed to put the "community" into community school?

Mr Kemp, 57, has seen his role evolve with his school. When he was first developing its community ethos, he spent much of his time out of school getting to know the community.

Today he has an eight-strong senior management team. As well as the school's budget, he has to oversee sizeable budgets for the sports hall, adult education and the hiring out of school facilities.

"You become a chief executive, I suppose," he says. "I'm making decisions not just on behalf of the pupils here, but on behalf of the community. You attend a lot more meetings, so not only have you got all your normal head meetings, but a meeting with parents in the evening can be followed by sitting on a neighbourhood crime prevention panel or sitting on a community-use forum the next evening."

He is often still there after 8pm, and likes to call in on Saturday mornings to see what's happening in the sports centre. Occasionally, he's even there on a Sunday. "Most heads are very committed to their schools,"

he says. "I think to run a full-blown community school you have to have an over-commitment, and sometimes it can be very, very onerous."

Alan Smithies is head of Parklands high school, a full-service extended school in Speke, an area of high deprivation in Liverpool. The school shares a new campus with a range of services and has increasingly become the main hub of the large estates which it serves.

When Parklands became a fully extended school, as well as chairing the multi-agency steering group, Mr Smithies also attended all four of its sub-groups. He now delegates much of this, although his community role still makes heavy demands on his time.

Does he work longer hours now? "If you asked my family, they would probably say yes," he says. "There have probably been more events in the evening which I like to support, and probably longer working days because very often there are people you need to see who can't get to you until the end of the day."

But Mr Smithies is not complaining. He is effusive about the benefits of the extended school for his pupils and in joining up parts of the community. For example, the area has had a big problem with prank 999 calls and youths stoning fire engines. The school responded by arranging to have a member of the fire brigade in school regularly to get to know the pupils.

Since the scheme began, there hasn't been an attack on a fire crew in Speke, says the head.

The National College for School Leadership says a big challenge for heads of extended schools is building relationships with their communities.

A report by the think-tank Demos for the national college says that if schools simply try to engage communities from their own institutional perspective, they will cut across work from other services and meet with a lack of interest. It says schools must meet their communities half-way, developing a style of leadership that begins with the community's needs and seeks to build capacity to pursue shared objectives.

Maggie Farrar, of NCSL, says many heads are learning from the Sure Start children's centres, which have built strong and dynamic relationships with parents, families and communities. But is there a danger that the workload might become unmanageable?

"There is if they think they have to manage and control it all themselves,"

she says.

Ms Farrar says many heads are appointing people from the community and voluntary sectors to help manage the extended services and act as a bridge between school and community.

"With extended schools, heads are realising that they can't manage all this themselves. It's about building a team of people around them who can do this work."

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