Working together for a fuller service;Platform;Opinion

13th November 1998 at 00:00
New community schools must learn from the mistakes of previous generations, says Martin Vallely

LAST WEEK'S announcement by the Government on new community schools emphasises the need for new ideas, new targets and a new approach. The model marries specific targets in familiar areas, such as attainment and attendance, with a renewed emphasis on the importance of addressing children's needs "in the round", including effective involvement with parents and communities.

New community schools also need to address important developments including the promotion of children's rights, improved service responsiveness, rising consumer expectations and the implications of communication technology for integrating services over dispersed geographical locations.

We must learn from the mistakes of previous generations of community schools which, despite important achievements, failed to deliver a model for integrated working. They were provider-led and, consequently, over-emphasised access to what was provided at the expense of innovation to meet needs. They did not generate common commitment with social work and health services and were victims of internal conflict between the ethos of school education and community education. They also failed to establish cost-effective models for interdisciplinary management.

In broad terms community schools suffered from a failure to establish a dialogue in advance with parents, young people and partner agencies to establish what was required, what would make it work, the appropriate location and the way to deliver and manage services. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that typically they were developed in large secondary schools, often at some distance from many of the families they served and perceived as alien or irrelevant to many.

Early intervention has demonstrated that schools can make a difference for children in the most deprived communities. Meanwhile, the extension of pre-school education and the national childcare strategy provide a context within which to redefine relationships with parents to secure their engagement in education and in a nurturing partnership for learning and child development.

It is encouraging that the roles of primary schools are highlighted in the announcement. However, it is perhaps surprising that secondary schools feature so prominently in the projects chosen to lead the way. Similarly, although the particular benefits of a full-service approach for children with special educational needs are self-evident, it is disappointing that special education has not featured in discussions to date.

It is critical that social work agencies, the health service, community organisations and other partners have a sense of ownership of the new approach. It will not work if they are implicitly treated as the handmaidens or customer care agents of the school. And unless a major part of the project is the development, enrichment and ultimate transformation of schools and education services themselves, we will fail to address the real challenges of poverty, inequality and exclusion and the opportunities to create learning communities.

Should we look to new community schools to replace existing structures for education, health and social work? The potential disruption of wider service and professional networks in social work and health, the requirement to respond to continuing changes in needs and the potential costs of restructuring suggest this may not be a fruitful path to follow. New community schools must also operate in an ethical framework which safeguards the child's best interests and the child's rights to be listened to and to privacy and confidentiality. In practice, determining the best interests of a child is often problematic.

It is not uncommon for different agencies to emphasise and protect different aspects of the child's interest. However imperfectly, separate structures do support this pluralism and help to ensure all relevant issues are taken into account, safeguarding against premature professional consensus. It would be much more difficult to achieve this balance within a single all-embracing institution.

At the very least the different standards of day to day confidentiality operated by different disciplines would need to be addressed. For example, if the new community school is seriously to engage young people in addressing risk behaviours associated with teenage pregnancy and substance abuse, relevant codes of practice will need to be developed in consultation with all interested parties to ensure the necessary levels of confidentiality.

Not least, young people themselves would need to have a major say if such measures are to be seen to be relevant and credible.

Although it is fundamental to protecting children's interests, pluralism can also be a weakness. Separate service budgets and targets can frequently create a major barrier to integration, encouraging one-way thinking and practice. The new community school provides an opportunity to overcome this; but only if the issues of cross-service control and accountability are addressed.

The key to achieving a full-service effect is to ensure accountability for specified targets for social inclusion, while offering communities and service partners real choices about how to achieve continuing progress in the light of changing needs and opportunities. Developments would be located in a variety of settings: a pre-school agency, primary school, special school, community library, a shopping centre or the secondary school. This approach would support continuing responsiveness to change through community and consumer accountability and partnership.

Martin Vallely is professional services manager with Edinburgh City Council's education department. He writes in an individual capacity.

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