First-class stamp, please Miss

1st November 2002 at 00:00
A health centre, a village hall, even a post office... Phil Revell reports on how schools are expanding into community centres.

THE new breed of school will not be just for education, or indeed just for children. In the future adults might visit their local school to buy a stamp, get medical advice, go for a swim, or take evening classes.

New "extended" schools, with more freedom to work with their communities, have been made possible by the recent Education Act.

Many schools already offer community services. In Brighton, Bevendean primary school has tried to become a focus for the local community. After-school clubs have been particularly popular, with parents as well as children.

"I know it has given parents a chance to increase their working hours or find new employment," says Carol Cooke, a learning support assistant at the school.

But guidance released last week explains how this year's legislation makes it easier to offer these services. "We want to see more schools at the heart of their local community," says a spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills."This new guidance explains the new powers and provides advice on a range of practical issues, such as working in partnership, premises, staffing and insurance."

Of course the new freedoms bring challenges. Schools will have to consider the implications of longer opening hours, new security procedures to allow for a rise in visitors to the site and new financial systems - to ensure that money does not leak from the core education budget into new ventures.

But the Act also offers a chance to make much better use of schools'

facilities. For example, if schools have rooms or buildings that are underused they can designate them for community use and exclude them from the school's net capacity. In fact they could permanently change the use of such spaces.

Wiltshire's director of education Bob Wolfson has been eagerly anticipating the changes.

"A lot of our schools are doing this already," he said."But it can be a complicated minefield and I'm hoping that this will make it easier to run community services."

One community will be studying the new guidance very carefully.

Barford St Martin first school has 42 children on roll and is the only community facility in the village, which has no post office, no village hall. The school has no hall and no staffroom, but it does have a Victorian teacher's house on site, a hangover from the days when heads were expected to live close to their schools.

"It's been empty since 1977," said current head Sandra Crook."It's always been our ambition to bring the school house into use."

That ambition has been realised through the Barford St Martin community association, a charity set up by parents, who raised pound;80,000 to renovate the building.

"We hope it will be used by the police, by local groups, perhaps as a temporary surgery by the medical practice," says parent Mark Smith. The association has ambitious plans for more developments on the school site including a hall that could double as the village meeting point.

Over the border in Swindon the Ridgeway school is also offering community facilities, but on a bigger scale. Its leisure centre has a turnover of nearly pound;200,000 a year and employs more than a dozen local people. There's a swimming pool, a fitness suite and a gym.

"It's open from 7am till 10pm," said Astrid Morris - Ridgeway's business manager, an ex-company secretary with extensive business experience. "The new Act is providing a framework for this kind of community provision," But she points out that schools are not businesses. "Do schools have the expertise to get involved in this kind of thing?" she asked.

And there are other constraints. Schools cannot borrow money to fund developments and governors will have to be very careful to draw clear dividing lines between the community provision and the school's day-to-day operation.

The difficulty of separating community services and schooling can be seen at Ridgeway, where the head of PE, Tim Whiting, is also director of the leisure centre, which pays a proportion of his salary.

"Governors are always concerned that it shouldn't be a drain on the school's budget," said Astrid Morris."And they are rightly concerned about the extent of their liabilities."

The new guidance makes plain that governors could not be held personally liable for any losses made by a community venture.

"Except in extreme circumstances, where governors have acted unlawfully or have acted individually rather than as a corporate body, the LEA cannot recover ... money from individual governors."

Any loss would be borne by the local education authority, which would, however, be free to recover this from any surplus in the school's community services budget.

phil.revell@ukonline.co.uk

WHAT CAN SCHOOLS DO?

The DfES suggests five main areas where schools might offer community services:

* Childcare: nurseries, playgroups, parents' groups.

* Lifelong learning: through the local FE college or via schemes such as LearnDirect.

* Healthcare and social services: onsite clinics funded by local primary care trusts.

* Cultural and sporting activities: after-school clubs and holiday sports programmes.

* Wider community services: Internet cafes, shops, or local services such as the Citizen's Advice Bureau or a Credit Union.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO NEXT?

* Identify goals: for example, improving pupil health, cutting crime or offering support for working parents.

* Identify partners: the LEA, charities, local community groups.

* Adapt school facilities: enhance security, improve facilities for visitors, disabled access.

* Create separate financial systems: community ventures must be self-financing, schools cannot use any of their delegated budget, except to support pupils' studies.

See full guidance at wwwteachernet.gov.uk.

There is separate detailed guidance on childcare.

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