Raising the roof on the people's school

The new community initiative is a chance for a radical rethink, say Julie Allan, Margaret Doran and Greg Mannion.

THE new community schools initiative in Scotland has provided each local authority with the opportunity to think imaginatively about maximising participation, improving multi-agency working and enhancing learning, health and welfare.

Castleview New Community School, which involves the catchment areas of Raploch primary, St Mary's primary and Holy Trinity primary, was established officially in April last year. In seeking to localise the initiative, Stirling has established its own outline targets, while also responding to the "essential characteristics" set out in the Scottish Office prospectus.

Although the local and national targets are broadly similar, with a common focus, for example, on the family, integrated provision and community participation, Stirling has continued to prioritise children's needs. It has also undertaken to engage with participants within Castleview to identify further priorities and targets.

The partnership between Stirling Council and researchers at Stirling University's Institute of Education, established over the past five years, has been extended to include an evaluation of Castleview. Previous research has been directly related to the council's policies on raising achievement and children's learning. The evaluation of the initiative at this stage may seem precipitate, but is recognised by both the researchers and sponsors within Stirling as having three crucial roles.

First, as a local evaluation of a national strategy, it identifies the distinctive features of the Stirling model. Second, it seeks to ensure that as many participants as possible have a say early on in the establishment of new community schools. Finally, it enables identification of the kind of evidence that will make it possible, at a later date, to form judgments about whether these schools have made a difference to those within them.

A range of users and providers - children and young people, parents, other adults, managers and other professionals - were interviewed individually and in groups and similarities and differences in their responses were explored.

Many of the purposes - the importance of improved interagency working, increased participation and empowerment and addressing education, social and health issues - were shared among locals and professionals. Other purposes received greater emphasis from one particular group. Locals, for example, were concerned about housing, drug abuse, unemployment and the local infrastructure.

They also stressed the importance of improving the environment for leisure and learning, reducing vandalism, improving safety and strengthening relationships among pupils.

Professionals, on the other hand, highlighted the importance of an integrated service which placed children's needs first. They considered it necessary to respond to Government prioriies of improving social inclusion and attainment in literacy, numeracy and information technology, but also sought to prioritise those in greatest need.

Should we be concerned that the exercise has not produced an exact consensus over the nature and function of a new community school? Probably not. What seems to matter more is that the process of finding out is an important step in maximising participation.

Second, what account will be taken of these differences in purposes? A variety of consultation arenas are already in place. One example is the community liaison group, with representatives from the school boards, nursery and family centres, children and members of the community.

Finally, how will we know if the new community initiative is working? Clearly, there will be a need to demonstrate how far local and national targets have been met, but locals and professionals have also identified ways in which they will judge their new community schools, which extend beyond the hard measures of, say, attainment. This will involve shared targets that reflect the whole child and the full range of educational, health and welfare entitlement.

The council wants personal learning plans to be owned by the student and to involve measuring progress against social and community activity as well as the more traditional areas. This has been supported by imaginative staff development with an emphasis on work shadowing. This has given health visitors, teachers, social workers and community workers the opportunity to view support for the child from the perspective of another profession, and then to share their experiences.

The interesting feature has been that when working with the other professional, the child, rather than the set of professional tasks, is more clearly in focus.

The aim is that the enhanced awareness is taken back into the classroom, or the social work case conference. This work is being augmented by accredited postgraduate modules at Stirling University. The next step will be to involve community participants in staff development.

Plans are being made to extend the initiative to Wallace High and St Modan's High. Stirling has sought to establish its own sustainable version of new community schools. For this council, the initiative represents a natural extension of existing policy on children's services, which prioritises children's needs. But it certainly brings some new challenges in terms of maximising community participation and integrating the provision of services.

As one local put it, the initiative is about control over one's own circumstances and having choices and this implies some rather different relationships between local authorities and communities. Stirling considers such radical rethinking to be worth striving for.

Julie Allan and Greg Mannion are in the Institute of Education, Stirling University. Margaret Doran is head of services to schools at Stirling Council.

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