Educating the stakeholders

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Hugh Mackenzie urges Labour to look againat community schools.

Labour claims a commitment to education reform, but as the party locks horns with the Tories in the forthcoming general election campaign it may well miss the chance to kill off the sterile debate over state versus private education. Assuming New Labour wins the general election it is highly probable that Britain will enter a period where the "stakeholder philosophy" will set, or at least influence, Labour's agendas both overt and covert.

In The Blair Revolution, by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle, the stakeholder economy involves individuals and communities taking more control over their lives. This theme has also appeared in the approach to party members by giving all paid-up members voting rights and thereby a say in party affairs. Labour's spin doctors have identified health, education and social security as the policy areas voters most care about. Consequently they expect politicians to create policies that reflect their aspirations. But Labour has missed one solution which would link the stakeholder economy with a regenerated state education system: community schools.

Community schools first appeared in the 1930s in Britain and the United States as a solution to two different and contrasting community problems: as a check on rural depopulation in Cambridge and a panacea to the Depression with its massive unemployment in the automotive industry of Michigan. These parallel developments were the brainchildren of two exciting but different educators, Henry Morris in Cambridgeshire and Frank Manley in Michigan. Both men took the view that education was a lifelong process, and should be accessible to all ages at a time appropriate to the needs of the client.

An analysis of the main characteristics of the current descendants of both the British and American community schools should make interesting reading for the spin doctors. They serve their local community. The school's clients are from the complete age range, not only the statutory school population; there is a belief that education is a lifelong process. The schools belong to their community. They are free. The school's educational resources, bought with tax monies, are available to all clients. The curriculum can be adapted to reflect the community's needs and aspirations. The opening hours are not tied to those of statutory schools. There is community control through a system of school boards, governors or community councils.

This impressive list tallies well with Labour's basic educational philosophy as spelt out in the Blair Revolution and in particular with those proposed by Professor Michael Barber, one of the party's education advisers. These aims are likely to form the education section of the party's election manifesto. As yet there are no suggestions as how they might be achieved, hence the necessity to persuade the decision-makers that community schools are a viable option. Labour's education aims appear to be: raising educational standards; zero tolerance of failure; pre-school provision for all; a daycare service for parents who wish to work; active encouragement for the wider use of new technology; a determination that citizens achieve their full potential; freedom to develop in each school a distinctive ethos and identity; equality in the curriculum for academic, vocational and training courses.

All of the above might be acceptable to the electorate and examples of each are readily available in the growing number of Britain's community schools. To these laudable proposals outlined by Mandelson and Liddle can be added four more proposed by Professor Barber. Parents and teachers should accept new legal responsibilities for the education of their children. Out-of-hours learning centres should be established. All students and pupils should have individual learning plans. All students and pupils should have mentors from industry or the local community.

These four aspects of Professor Barber's educational philosophy have been discussed by both professionals and lay people as ways to make the relationship between parents and teachers more meaningful. They eradicate the notion that education finishes for the bulk of the population when they leave school. His fourth point stresses the view that many non-teachers have a great deal to offer education. Most community educators would have no argument with these aspects. If these political aims are intermeshed with the outstanding characteristics of community schools, it becomes fairly obvious that community schooling is a way that Labour can achieve its aims without having to reinvent the wheel.

There are many added bonuses such as the removal of the dead hand of sameness which has been a problem with many socialist solutions. At present, British community schools reflect an amazing variety of solutions to the problems facing society.

The age range in a community school will lead to a development of tolerance, thus helping society to re-create the community self-discipline and control that is so sadly lacking. The presence of adults, as learners, in a school is a clear signal to the young that education is a lifelong process. The mixing of teenage and adult cultures helps to remove the fear of the unknown.

Initial training programmes, which are being advocated by all the main political parties, can be delivered at school level without the expense of constructing and staffing new buildings. The training programme may be a main plank in the move to combat unemployment, and, if successful, might reduce the sense of alienation that blights the lives of many young people in Britain. It is even possible to argue that these bonuses might help society in its struggle against crime.

If Labour were to develop its educational ideas from the community school movement it could gain new impetus in its efforts to tackle the problems of unemployment, crime and alienation. By tackling them in a positive manner Labour would distance itself from the Conservative right-wing's negative solutions. It would debunk once and for all the negativity of rhetoric that places the blame for society's ills on the population's (in particular the working classes') self-inflicted mix of laziness and lack of initiative.

By adopting community schooling, Labour could clearly indicate its genuine commitment to education for all, and, more important, create an avenue for communities to become involved in the stakeholder economy. This education policy would have cost implications but there are more than 300 community schools across the country, from Orkney to Devon and Cornwall.

This scattering of community schools could be used as the seed-bed from which the rest would grow. This growth would allow Labour the opportunity for a meaningful educational revolution at grass-roots level. For the teaching profession it would be a vote of confidence from Tony Blair and David Blunkett. After 17 years of being told that it is incompetent, morale would be restored.

It would move the sterile political debate away from the tired discussion on the pros and cons of comprehensive schools versus grammar schools. By involving all communities in their own community schools it might be possible to produce an education system suited to the needs of the 21st century, reflecting the aims, needs and demands of the whole British population. The founders of the community school movement, Morris and Manley, would certainly think it was one way to give communities a stake in influencing their own lives.

Empowerment of the community is surely what Labour's stakeholder economy is all about.

Hugh Mackenzie was formerly headteacher of Craigroyston Community High, Edinburgh.

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