At your service

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Sure Start has drawn those cut off from education into the system. Perhaps schools should learn from it, writes Margaret Lochrie

The debate still rages over whether the expansion of Sure Start will dilute this pioneering programme for families of young children or take it to greater strengths. One thing is certain: it has empowered parents. Some of the most interesting voices in the debate have been those of Sure Start parents, galvanised to defend their rights of ownership to neighbourhood services for themselves and their children.

Sure Start should also be understood within the tradition of community development and education, which under New Labour, has enjoyed a renaissance, with local programmes designed to attract hard-to-reach adults.

Middle-class choices such as fitness, aromatherapy, cooking and nutrition, have been successfully linked in disadvantaged areas with family programmes, ICT training and other courses, to support child and adult development and to help people into work.

More than this, in making links between education, regeneration and social change, Sure Start programmes have introduced a process of change, not just in the lives of individual families but in the community as a whole. They have tried to confront economic and educational inequality, celebrated diversity and moved away from hierarchical forms of organisation.

It is not difficult to understand why programmes like these are so popular.

They are about children and family relationships, so central to people's lives. They concern feelings as well as ideas, draw on the solidarity of the group and have practical application in daily lives.

But why restrict these benefits to adults? The ladder of opportunity for every child, which state education was intended to provide, has not fully materialised. Perhaps this is partly because our education system dissociates the child from the context of family and community and from children's own perspectives.

The idea of the community school is not new, but parental involvement is often seen as a largely middle-class phenomenon, and schools too often dictate terms of engagement.

The extended schools initiative - with its emphasis on community regeneration and family learning and support - is a response to this. In some of the pilot schools, there was an attempt to bring about a transformation in attitudes and culture. However, only a few schools involved community members on management teams.

In France, in the nurseries of the Association des Collectifs Enfants Parents Professionels, parents are involved in governance but also have to cook for the nurseries on a rota. Off-putting, perhaps, but this requirement underlines the mutual nature of the partnership between parents and professionals.

UK researchers have imagined what community-focused provision should look like. Willingness to reverse conventional ways of thinking is the key - for example, not thinking of learners as hard-to-reach, but considering whether the provision itself is unwelcoming.

The same willingness to abandon convention might lead to redrawing the traditional lines between schools and communities and between parents and teachers. This approach, seen in Sure Start, is less about reaching out to the community and more about putting the school at its service. This thinking could bring the needs of children and adults and the aims of schools and communities into closer alignment.

Margaret Lochrie is director of Capacity, a children's services think-tank

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