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20th June 2003 at 01:00
Extended schools - 240 are to be tried out - will change the face of traditional employment. A multitude of community functions will affect the way staff work. Martin Whittaker reports.

The Nottinghamshire village of Bircotes and Harworth has some new facilities - meeting rooms are now available free to local groups, there is cheap printing on offer, an email guidance service, a health clinic for teenagers and a community minibus. And who is providing these services? The local schools, of course.

Bircotes and Harworth community school once had a poor reputation in this isolated mining village. Today, while some local shops are boarded up and the miners' institute has seen better days, the school is flourishing.

Along with its local feeder primaries, it is increasingly seen as the hub of the community.

The school is being watched closely by the Department for Education (DfES) as a model of good practice in its pound;52.2m plans for extended schools.

Over the next three years, 240 such schools will broaden their role to provide childcare, health and social support, adult learning, parenting support and ICT access. The idea is that by integrating health and social care, the wider problems impeding children's learning can be better dealt with by the relevant professionals. Teachers will be free to get on with what they do best. It will also be of interest to the new minister for children (see story, main TES) Research by the DfES and the NUT, the biggest teachers' union, has found that extended schools can have positive effects on pupil attainment, attendance and behaviour. Learning too is enhanced as the school is seen as a supportive community resource.

But what will it mean for school culture as we know it? According to the Whitehall guidelines, extended schools need to have more flexible opening hours if they are to offer additional activities and services. Staff may be able to offer support in particular areas, but extra help must be optional.

This could offer new opportunities for career development and flexible working as the guidelines allow schools to make supplementary payments or give time off in lieu.

Specialist staff such as special educational needs co-ordinators could find themselves in great demand, while other staff could benefit from school-based services such as childcare and health advice.

At Bircotes and Harworth, the headteacher, David Harris, is upbeat about the school's growing interaction with the its community. It serves a big post-war housing estate near Harworth Colliery, once the area's biggest employer and an epicentre of struggle during the 1980s miners' strike.

Mr Harris works closely with heads of nearby North Border infants and junior schools to co-ordinate their wider community role, helped by pound;100,000 in Pathfinder funding from the DfES.

The secondary school's assembly hall and classrooms, complete with new projectors and interactive whiteboards, are about to be opened up for use by local groups. Staff come in early and stay late for the school's breakfast and after-school clubs. Twenty three staff volunteered to run an Easter school for GCSE students. This was sweetened by the lure of extra pay but it worked: more than half Year 11 turned up.

The head of Year 11 recently gave a talk to parents on sex education.

Students help produce newsletters and leaflets for local pensioner groups.

ICT technicians provide evening courses to small businesses and have helped set up a service offering email guidance on issues such as bereavement or drug abuse.

Mr Harris says part of the secret is that this has been a grassroots development. "If you have the facilities that can be used by the community, then it's ludicrous not to - the whole issue is about getting people across the doorstep and having confidence in education," he says.

He does not see teacher workload as an issue. Flexibility is the key, he says. He will give a teacher time off in return for evening work, but says staff opt to work over and above their normal duties because they want to.

Mairi Murray, head of upper school, says the new approach pays off.

"There's the satisfaction of knowing that the children are going to do better," she says. "The relationship I have with them is much improved: they can talk more openly about their experiences and needs."

At North Border infants and nursery, they are turning a former staffroom into a community health centre. They also provide childcare and after-school activities for pupils.

The head Gary Bott, says it can only work if staff volunteer. "There's no compulsion on my teachers to get involved if they don't want to."

Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the NASUWT, the second biggest teachers' union, supports the idea of extended schools but says they must be clearly planned and well-funded.

"I see the concept as something of great value and one that teachers would welcome," he says. "But clearly there are going to be some important safeguards .

"It's clearly not the responsibility of teachers to provide this enhanced role - that has to be for other professionals, and there has to be a clear understanding of responsibility.

"There has to be serious thought about the organisation of the school, and an understanding that the primary function of the school - the pedagogic function - is protected."

Despite his caution, O'Kane believes the involvement of other agencies is a big plus. "There is a lot to be gained from other professionals getting some insight into the work that goes on inside school, and perhaps even a recognition of some of its difficulties," he says. "This might lead to a greater appreciation of the vitally important work teachers do."

A spokeswoman for the NUT says: "One of the advantages of having the additional support in the school is that it is on tap immediately. It's not something you have to search for, and it can take pressure off teachers."

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