Kathy Maskell, deputy head at Limeside Primary School in Oldham, near Manchester, can pinpoint the moment that she realised how much had changed. "Parents started to say that their kids needed more homework," she says. "We were quite shocked and had to think well, actually, maybe they do."
Until a few years ago, when Limeside pupils attended sports matches, they would boast that they were from "Crimeside". On appearances at least, this was fairly accurate. The Avenue and Hollins estate that surrounds the school is on what is traditionally the wrong side of Oldham's Manchester Road. In 2004, 60 out of the 600 houses were empty, and vandalism and antisocial behaviour was rife.
Joyriding was common and none of the residents had a central-heating system. Teachers noticed a high turnover in their classrooms as families passed through the area on a regular basis.
"I once had to take a child home, and the house was all boarded up," explains Ms Maskell. "The only way in was through a broken window."
Teachers are aware of the effect poor housing and a rundown physical environment has on their pupils' education. There is the tangible impact of not having a quiet space in which to do homework, or sharing a bedroom with family members and not getting enough sleep. But also the wider effects of living in an area prone to crime and anti-social behaviour on pupils' behaviour and outlook.
As schools are tied closer to the Government's Every Child Matters agenda and the extended schools programme, these wider issues that impact on children's welfare are becoming the responsibility of the education system.
A report published earlier this month by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) suggests that through greater co-operation, social-housing providers and schools can tackle some of these problems together. John Thornhill and Joanne Kent-Smith, co-authors of Housing, Schools and Communities, argue that working with housing providers makes the task of looking after social welfare much easier for schools.
Worklessness, homelessness and antisocial behaviour are obvious areas where education and housing overlap. "Bad behaviour in schools is called antisocial behaviour in the community, but it's essentially the same thing; it just manifests itself differently," says Mrs Kent-Smith, CIH senior policy and practice officer.
Tackling Neets (those not in education, employment or training) is also a priority for both: schools want their pupils to achieve qualifications and acquire skills that will eventually lead to employment. From the perspective of the housing provider, if young people are in work, they are more likely to pay rent and be in a position to maintain their property.
"Talking about good schools in regeneration discourse is something that wouldn't have happened 10 years ago," says Mr Thornhill, also a CIH senior policy and practice officer.
"It's no longer just about the physical environment, but about the social fabric. The housing sector has realised that you end up right where you started after 20 years unless you tackle the issues holistically. Schools are also being encouraged to look outside the box - it's about joining all the pieces together."
After being put in special measures in 2000, Limeside Primary has risen from the ashes; it was rated "good" in its Ofsted report in 2004 and "outstanding" in 2007. Transformational work has been carried out within the school under a new headteacher who has brought in a new curriculum and has adapted teaching methods around a philosophical-inquiry approach, where children have more ownership over their own learning.
But integral to the school's success is the regeneration of the surrounding Avenue and Hollins estate, and the partnership between the school and Contour Housing, which bought the estate from the council in 2005.
Contour refurbished all the houses with new kitchens and bathrooms, electrical rewiring, central heating and low-level walls, allowing neighbours to chat but maintaining privacy. Crucially, where overcrowding is a problem, families are now given priority and offered a move within the estate rather than being relocated elsewhere. The result is a lower turnover of pupils at the school and a more settled school.
The Limeside and Contour partnership was born when Helen Arya, the school's head, asked Contour to repair a fence, and the housing association has continued to supply resources and services to the school ever since. James Williams, Contour's regeneration leader, sits on the board of governors at Limeside, and Contour ran a Dragons' Den-style competition for pupils at its head office as part of the school's creative-enterprise project.
Meanwhile, Mrs Arya sits on the board of the Avenue and Hollins Tenants and Residents Association, encouraging communication between Contour and its tenants, many of whom are parents.
Contour has also taken on the philosophical-inquiry programme and is using it to great effect in its community-cohesion work in race relations between different estates. Vicki Carroll, Contour's group assistant director, is in no doubt of the mutual benefits of the partnership. "We were involved in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme in Salford as part of a consortium bid and we provided a strategy around community engagement," she says. "If it wasn't for our partnership, we might not be invited on to that platform."
As part of the Government's flagship BSF programme, schools are asked to consider the surrounding area in their prospective plans for regeneration. However, teachers are so stretched that adding concerns about housing to their list of responsibilities isn't always realistic.
Arguably, these needs fall outside an educational remit. A 2008 report by teaching union NASUWT on the impact of a school's surrounding physical environment found that it does affect children's learning experience. However, it reported that school leadership teams are already heavily burdened, and the role of schools in the regeneration agenda needs to be carefully considered. Conversely, there is no statutory requirement for housing providers to take schools into consideration in their building or regeneration projects.
But the union is fully in support of closer ties between social-housing providers and schools. Patrick Roach, NASUWT assistant general secretary, was on the advisory group for the CIH report. "It's not about imposing additional responsibility on schools, but if we can have police, housing, health and schools sitting around the same table, that's great," he says.
"While there have been benefits of accountability regimes and targets for schools and other public bodies, one of the problems has been a fracturing of division across sectors, so that the needs of children and young people can fall between those different bodies and get lost."
Although housing improvements are always desirable, complete refurbishment is not always a viable option for built estates. But housing providers can still work in partnership with schools. CityWest Homes, which manages 22,000 houses on behalf of Westminster Council, funds teachers and facilities for 15 homework clubs in schools and community centres in the borough as part of an overall drive to tackle the effects of overcrowding.
Angela Piddock, headteacher at Wilberforce Primary School in Westminster, is well aware of the detrimental effect of overcrowding on children. "It can lead to a great deal of stress and anxiety," she says. "Children don't have a quiet place where they can read and do their homework, but this also has a huge effect on them emotionally." The clubs provide a quiet space for children to read and do homework, and ICT is also given priority.
"It gives them confidence and makes them feel more relaxed," says Mrs Piddock. "They have a chance to produce work they are proud of outside school, which is great for self-esteem."
Keith Cookson from CityWest Homes is on the board of governors at his son's school and was aware that an initiative was needed that would require little management by teachers, already burdened with a high workload.
"Though we've got a target, which is overcrowded housing, the aim has been to develop something that is as simple as possible," he says. "If schools have any capacity, it will be poured into Years 5 and 6 coming up to their Sats. So we thought that we would be able to provide support a little earlier."
Some might wonder why private-sector housing companies are so keen to get involved in promoting community education initiatives. Aside from the feel-good factor and kudos of helping improve a community in which schools are an integral part, it pays to improve an area's long-term social prospects, as opposed to just the bricks and mortar. Good schools create a demand for nearby housing and can also raise house prices, and not just in Brighton and desirable areas of London: in the Avenue and Hollins estate, there is now a two-year waiting list for houses, and the school has filled 224 of its 240 places.
The recession is tightening its grip on budgets for schools and housing providers alike, meaning that cash to support community work is shrinking at a time when it is most needed by disadvantaged communities. But housing providers have access to more pools of funding than schools and are often more experienced at making applications. Thanks to one of Contour's community managers, the estate has been shortlisted in the National Lottery-funded the People's Millions competition and is in the running to receive pound;40,000 towards sports facilities for Limeside Park, next to Limeside Primary School.
Mrs Arya certainly believes that joined-up services between housing, health and education are the future. "We are an extended school, just without the title," she says. "Children get such good experiences here at the school and they start to expect that outside of these doors."
The CIH report includes a 10-step plan for how schools and housing providers can work together. But in many situations, all that is needed is a meeting of minds within the community - as was the case for Mrs Arya. All it took was a conversation about a broken fence
For the CIH report, go to www.cih.orgpublications
- Are all key agencies, community groups and residents, parents and pupils actively involved in the partnership?
- Are there clear lines of communication between these?
- Is there an agreed set of strategic goals based on identified needs and expectations?
- Is there a strategy that sets out how each of the goals will be achieved?
- Are there performance indicators that enable progress and success to be measured?
- Is there an agreed action plan with attributed roles and responsibilities for each partner?
- Are there clearly defined information-sharing protocols and data- exchanges in place?
- Are there regular reviews of delivery against the targets?
- Are working practices streamlined to avoid any duplication?
- Is partnership working at a day-to-day operational level encouraged, such as joint publications, joint teacher and housing staff training, or shared events and conferences?
- Is there a commitment from all parties to ensure continuity of membership?
Source: Housing, Schools and Communities, Chartered Institute of Housing, November 2009.