Open those doors

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Do you think your school does a good job of serving the local community? If so, Phil Revell has some tricky questions for you

The community is back in vogue. Government is suddenly very keen on partnerships and joined-up children's services. Ministers intend to tear down the walls that separate childcare professions, and future policy-making will put the family in the spotlight, where it belongs.

This is the new localism, and schools will play their part by extending their services. They will offer health, social services and education, all on the same site - possibly from a temporary hut in the playground.

The National College for School Leadership has a role to play in this process. One of its recent seminars discussed what these new community leaders might look like. There was much "blue-sky thinking", but several heads wanted to know what practical policies their school could follow to build community links.

"What we need is a step-by-step model," said one head. Being of a practical mind I thought I could help the debate along. So here are 10 sets of questions which schools might ask themselves to determine how seriously they take their community responsibilities and how far they may have to travel before they can call themselves genuine community schools.

Step one is easy. During the break for coffee at your next conference, phone your school and pretend to be a parent who has a problem. Ask to speak to the head. Do the admin staff know where you are? Does someone take responsibility for the call, or are you told to ring back later?

Are you a good neighbour? Do you know who your immediate neighbours are? Have you met them? Do you let them know about school events that might cause extra traffic or noise? Good fences make good neighbours. What are yours like?

Do you have a complaints procedure? For pupils and parents? Have you tried allowing the pupils to draft the school rules?

How do you organise parental consultation? Do you favour the cattle-truck approach and run a parents' evening that allows harassed mums and dads three-minute interviews with knackered teachers at the end of a hard day? Or do you run a flexible appointment system in which parents have enough time to speak to a teacher who actually knows the child in question?

How much community use is there of your school building? It should not just be used for PTA meetings or the school play, but for other community groups that may have no obvious connection with the school.

Have you ever sent out one of those mealy-mouthed trip letters that says that if parents insist on their right to a free place (as the law allows) the trip may have to be cancelled? If the outing is genuinely educational, why isn't it available to all?

When parents and pupils raise money for the school, who decides how it is to be spent? Does your policy bear any resemblance to that of the Midlands school in which money raised by pupils' sponsored walks went into a minibus fund but the shiny new vehicle is not available for use by the community? Are your break and lunchtime supervisors there to ensure that children behave? Or to ensure that children can play in safety? If it's the latter, are they trained first-aiders? How much do you spend on training and resources for break and lunchtime play?

Have you focused teaching resources on Year 6, or on the crucial CD GCSE boundary, to boost league-table performance? Have other groups of pupils suffered as a result?

Finally, are admission arrangements open and transparent? Do you work with other schools to ensure that all local children get a place near them?

Schools that have fallen at some of these fences will cry foul. They will claim that they don't have the money, staff or space to change their policies. Well maybe. But allocating resources is simply a matter of setting priorities.

Community-focused policies to deal with the above issues are in place in schools all over the country. Implementing these does not necessarily present insurmountable difficulties, although it does show whether the school puts parents and pupils first.

The pay-off lies in improved relationships, fewer misunderstandings, better attendance - and, yes, better results.

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