Few authors have evoked a life of social atomisation as convincingly as Dickens and, of his many dysfunctional characters, none has been so completely isolated as Old Dorrit, imprisoned behind the gloomy walls of the Marshalsea.
It seems appropriate, then, that the Charles Dickens Primary School in Southwark, just around the corner from the site of the long-demolished debtor's jail and a stone's throw from the author's former home, should have been asked to help stage an ambitious experiment in community building. More fitting still, money and the lack of it remain key factors.
The school is taking part in a time bank, a cash-free network of transactions allowing parents and pupils to exchange their time and labour for the equivalent time and energy of others. Urdu lessons are exchanged for painting and decorating, hours spent hearing the children read can be traded for the same number of hours baby-sitting or gardening.
There are plenty of formal spin-offs for the classroom, most obviously when it comes to citizenship and business education. But the overwhelming point of this time bank is to connect parents with the school by placing it at the hub of the trading network.
Last term saw the creation of six school-based time banks, including Charles Dickens, in an initiative sponsored by the Institute for Public Policy Research - a think tank better known for left-of-centre policy formulations than for classroom experiments. The time banks also have the close support of another think tank, the New Economics Foundation, which has considerable experience of local regeneration schemes. Alongside the time banks, six more schools are running Local Exchange Trading Schemes, or LETS, again with the aim of building a sense of school community. The two approaches are similar: both have their origins in the US and are sometimes dismissed as well-meaning forms of hippie democracy. But they can certainly prove effective, on a small scale at least, by allowing otherwise disenfranchised people to play a fuller role in their communities.
LETS schemes are much the more established of the two, relying on tokens or credits as a direct cash alternative for goods and services (they have on occasion attracted the attentions of the tax man). Time banks are newer, and have a slightly different basis. Devised in the 1980s, they dispense with credits, relying instead on people's desire to be involved in the community and their willingness to put in time and labour as the price for that involvement. One hour of one person's time is judged to be the same value as one hour of anybody else's. In contrast, a LETS scheme will tend to see a market value attached to a particular type of product or service; an hour of plumbing, for example, could be judged the equivalent of five hours of weeding.
"The idea of the time bank tackles a very fundamental problem with parents in a school of this sort," says head teacher Elizabeth Owens. "There has been a lot of population migration into the area, bringing many cultures and many backgrounds. People can easily feel dislocated, that they have little to offer, and are tempted to put themselves down. We hope we'll be giving them the confidence to know their own skills and to know their own value to other people."
At Charles Dickens there are parents running computer classes and offering translation skills - much needed in a school community with 32 different languages. Some are willing to hear reading, others to teach knitting or carry out the much-neglected art of sitting down and listening to others.
There are other, less immediately tangible benefits. All the evidence shows that a school community with committed parents is more likely to prosper academically as well as socially. It is also a way of helping parents to stay in touch with their children. Intriguingly, one of the teachers at Charles Dickens, Florence Bankole, comes from a Nigerian village where, she says, this sort of mutual support is taken as a basic.
Liverpool is at the heart of the LETS experiment, the other arm of the IPPR project. Shorefields Community Comprehensive in Toxteth, Liverpool 8, has based its involvement on the needs of a small group of sixth-formers who are low on confidence. Larry Wilson, the school's deputy head, describes it as "a structured initiative that integrates them with their peers".
Students have, for example, been able to offer football training for other pupils, and web-page design and basic ICT for adults in return for LETS credits. These are known as EAZlets, thanks to the involvement of the Dingle Granby and Toxteth Education Action Zone.
It has only been up and running for a few weeks, but already the school is bringing in younger pupils by using LETS to structure a swap-shop in goods.
Mobile phones are banned and all transactions scrutinised. "No one is swapping dad's Rolex for a signed picture of Michael Owen," says Larry Wilson. For the sixth-formers, EAZlets are important for business studies.
Lower down the school it feeds into citizenship and, the hope is, it will regulate the sort of exchange in goods which can otherwise lead to extortion.
More ambitiously, the school hopes to use LETS to strengthen links with their feeder schools and to help with some community building. The scheme has already managed to involve a range of businesses.
For Stuart Hetherington, headteacher at nearby Beaufort Park Primary School, the introduction of LETS has helped use the same parental enthusiasm which recently helped save the school from closure. One of the parents acts as "broker", keeping a tally of who is owed how many hours from the bank. Parents have been helping in the classroom and running school trips and after-school clubs. The teachers are also getting involved, contributing some of their own time and energy. If it continues to go well, Shorefields hopes to extend LETS into the field of employment skills, encouraging adults in the community to share their craft and trade knowledge with the pupils.
The scheme is an unusual departure for the IPPR, which has rarely engaged in this sort of action research. "It's a risky project for us," says Joe Hallgarten, education researcher at the head of the project. "But that's the nature of innovation. If you want to make change happen you need to go beyond theories and engage in practice." He describes it as a way of reaching parents beyond the normal pool of volunteers, and allowing them to have an impact on school culture.
If such initiatives are new for the IPPR, they are familiar territory for the NEF, which has agreed to support the time-bank schools in the coming months. British time banks started by working with older people, but the NEF is now attempting to involve teenagers, too. In Angell Town, Brixton, for example, a group of younger pupils has been working with the Old Vic theatre at Waterloo and is planning a production there, and in Tower Hamlets teenagers have been working with their school in return for refurbished computers. "It's an opportunity for young people to really demonstrate what they can contribute in a positive way," says Sarah Burns, who co-ordinates the NEF's time bank involvement.
It could be objected that such initiatives are not technically time banks at all because the students are more interested in rewards than in other people's time. The NEF replies that successful results are more important than theoretical purity. "These schemes may seem 'untidy' or 'messy'," says Sarah Burns, "but that's life. Real life is messy."
Institute for Public Policy Researchwww.ippr.orgeducationNew Economics Foundationwww.neweconomics.org