Stop dictating, start relating

27th July 2018 at 00:00
To harness the full potential of connected communities, it’s necessary to reject labels and put yourself in the shoes of the people you serve, says Simon Feasey, former deputy headteacher of a Tes primary of the year

When asked to present on the work my school had done around community cohesion at the Achievement for All regional conference at Grinkle Park in North Yorkshire, I was delighted. Accompanied by my co-presenters Richard (father of six children at our school) and Michelle (mother of three of our pupils), I took my seat to listen to the opening address, delivered by the director of education for Redcar and Cleveland.

He talked through a series of slides containing statistics relating to our local area; a sort of “state of the borough” address, featuring life-expectancy indicators, crime figures, literacy levels and so on. My co-presenters and I listened as the director continually flagged up the area our school serves as poorly performing on all counts.

The director did not share the fact that the school serving this area (our school, Caedmon Primary) had just won the accolade of primary of the year in the inaugural Tes Schools Awards.

He may not have known. But we had received the award, according to the judges, because we were “a truly community-based school with great achievements”.

Once the director finished, we took to the stage and talked about our community. The response was phenomenal. Richard and Michelle were mobbed during the lunch break. They were like the new kids in school; everyone wanted to sit next to them.

I have never been the best teacher in the world, but I’ve had an interest in working with our community from the very beginning and, as a leader, this has developed into something of a mission.

Our young people need wide networks of support around them, and I believe that schools can be instrumental in developing the whole community’s capacity to better support young people.

Positive parental involvement

So what does it mean to build community capacity? There is an ever-expanding field of research telling us that parental involvement with schools has a positive effect on children’s academic achievement and aspirations. However, research also tells us that there is no one-size-fits-all intervention for supporting parental engagement. Not all parents are the same, have the same needs, face the same barriers or share the same understanding of what engagement looks like.

It is easy for school leaders to make assumptions about groups of parents based on very little knowledge about them or their situation; this is particularly the case when parents and teachers do not share the same world views, experiences or social capital.

I believe that the current dominant paradigm of school and community partnership is deficit-driven. It asks: what is wrong and what is required to fix it? I advocate moving, instead, towards the view that all communities have assets, skills and resources but also constraints that limit what is possible.

As the US community organiser Saul Alinsky said in his book Rules for Radicals (1971), “The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community.”

Solidarity and vulnerability

Community-building requires active negotiation, so school leaders must put themselves into the situation of those with whom they are hoping to foster solidarity.

This will make us feel vulnerable. But leaders need to embrace that vulnerability because this is the process that leads to socially engaged, connected communities.

Building community capacity is a process that requires interrogation of power as a concept. It challenges us to approach parents with dignity and as full citizens, above condescension and colonisation of the home. Let’s have none of this “hard to engage” nonsense – resist labelling people and create space to hear their stories, allowing them authorship.

We should aim to build school communities that establish “relational power”, which – as defined by professor of public policy and public affairs Mark Warren in 2011 – means emphasising power “with” others, rather than “over” others. It means building “the power to accomplish common aims”.

From here, we can begin to reflect on and develop the skills inherent in good dialogue, and, as a result, can create horizontal relationships based on mutual trust.

Delving into these areas is not the norm in our schools. It is unlikely to feature on professional development planning schedules, and it requires time, which many leaders may feel they do not have.

However, it is essential that we build authentic community-wide partnerships in which all spheres of influence overlap if we are to provide students with the support they truly need.

It’s time that schools learned to harness the full power and potential of connected communities. That starts with interrogation of power, improved dialogue and with school leaders putting themselves into the shoes of others within their communities.

It starts with asking people like Richard and Michelle to stand up and take to the stage.

Simon Feasey is the former deputy headteacher of Caedmon Primary School in Middlesbrough and a community capacity-building coach

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