Pupils need to bridge and bond
Communities must rally round their schools if they want them to succeed, according to the keynote speaker at a meeting of education ministers from developed countries in Dublin, yesterday.
Pupils' test scores and drop-out rates are better predicted by the extent of local support networks than the quality of the teachers or the money spent on each pupil, said Robert Putnam, Harvard university professor of public policy.
The adage "it takes a village to raise a child" has never been more relevant, he said, but some "villages" may do a better job of raising and educating children than others.
Speaking at the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation's forum on education and social cohesion in Dublin, Professor Putnam urged the ministers to think about the risk of fractured communities.
"Quite simply," he said, "policy- makers concerned to raise educational standards need to be as concerned about the social context of education - both inside and outside the school walls - as they are about computers, textbooks and teacher certification."
Supportive community networks cannot be taken for granted in an age when ties to family and friends, civic associations, political parties, labour unions and religious groups have been weakened in many advanced countries.
Professor Putnam told the forum that pupils from minority and impoverished backgrounds are disadvantaged educationally because they lack access to such "social capital".
Within schools themselves, "it is widely recognised that peer networks among students have a powerful effect both on aspiration levels and on the educational process", he said. One distinctive feature of high-performing schools is a climate of co-operation within the school community.
Under-performing schools have been helped by fostering community links.
Mentoring from professionals from outside school has also been effective, bringing skills, experience, energy and caring into the school.
Links need to be built within social or ethnic groups (bonding) as well as between groups (bridging). "A society that has only bonding and no bridging looks like Bosnia or Belfast," Professor Putnam said.
He added that young people in all countries must be equipped not merely with intellectual skills and knowledge but also with team and networking skills.
On the other hand, education can also improve social cohesion. "More educated people have wider, deeper, stronger social networks and participate more in social, community and political life," Professor Putnam said.
Participation in extra-curricular activities at secondary school strongly predicts an adult's community involvement, even 30 years later.