Leadership: Masterclass - How the pieces fit

3rd April 2009 at 01:00
Becoming a valued part of a community is more than just ticking a box. Look beyond the ordinary to make the most of it

From September 2007, all schools have had to demonstrate that they support community cohesion and Ofsted now looks for this in inspections. But what exactly is it?

In 2006, Alan Johnson (the then Education Secretary) said that community cohesion is based on "a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community". Which doesn't make the concept any clearer or easier to dissect.

You can view the issue as a set of concentric circles, with the child at the centre. Radiating out from this is the school community, teachers, staff, children and their families; next circle out, the locality, faith and ethnic groups, local businesses and interest groups; wider again is the nearest town or regional representatives; building up to national and then the international perspectives.

A good start is to draw up these circles for your school and get as many people involved as possible to draw up key aspects of their community, such as the school council, governing body, religious and ethnic representatives and business leaders for a start. All ages need to be represented, from the youngest to the oldest. It is vital that everyone is involved if the phrase is going to become meaningful.

The senior management team needs to support the idea. The worst situation is where schools promote community cohesion out of tokenism. There is a potential minefield of issues and management needs to be comfortable with the idea, or the whole initiative will flounder when the first angry parent comes through the door not wanting their child to visit the synagogue or mosque.

Community activities and events need to become embedded into school life. Visits into school by ethnic leaders or members of faith communities are helpful, but combine this with visits by older people to explore life in the war with Year 6, say, or a local business to explore mini industries with Year 11.

Getting out and about can be beneficial too. Samantha Mason took her Year 5 class to visit a local foundry. It was the industry's first school visit and she felt that both parties benefited enormously. "It was brilliant," she says. "The children saw molten metal being poured out and saw an entire product from initial designs and plans, through the making process, to the finished article. That is not something they can experience in everyday life."

The business benefited from the excellent PR, and the community had a better understanding of the work being undertaken. Samantha feels it was the best trip she made because it gave the children a once in a lifetime experience and opened up an aspect of the local economy.

So rather than just visiting the local garden centre to look at the produce, why not interview its staff about their roles and careers too? Local sporting facilities can help; football clubs and sporting venues often have trained staff to work alongside schools to tackle issues such as racism and gender or disability issues. Some children may see the relevance in these events if their particular interest has been flagged up.

Charity fundraising can also help promote cohesion. Why not allow the children to nominate a charity and have a vote? Or decide that your school will have three fundraisers per year, one for a local cause, one for a national and one for an international. Older children can research potential causes and present their findings to peers to vote on.

At secondary level, groups of children could run a charity stall for different causes each month. Again, this needs careful thought, unless you want to promote the idea that everyone in a particular region or country is poverty-stricken with no food or water. However, using festivals and celebrations can be powerful in recognising differences and similarities, but don't just trot out the usual Diwali and Hanukkah and Christmas. Perhaps there is another more diverse faith in your community, or you may want to look at local historical celebrations. Many local councils are resurrecting older celebrations in order to promote a sense of community. Could your school get one started? Good examples are May Day or rushbearing celebrations.

If everyone can see the validity of community cohesion and everyone feels involved, there is every reason to start to build links with other schools in this country and abroad, giving a much wider recognition of the family feel that the majority of schools seek to embrace

Kate Aspin is senior lecturer in education at Huddersfield University Next week: Managing staff performance.

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