Tim Harrington and I have just completed a two-year study of what governors, parents, heads, councillors, LEA officers, community groups and agencies in four LEA areas and senior managers of national agencies think about these issues.* Participants in the four case-study authority areas (Hampshire, Harrow, Kent and Sheffield) felt strongly that local social, political and economic differences between areas exist and have an impact on local school systems and communities.
The community for the school system is potentially limitless. As one head put it: "The immediate communities I serve are children, parents and governors, and through governor representatives, parish and district councils. Beyond this there is nobody totally outside the remit of the education service." A local school system, with its limited resources, has to set about identifying which relationships with which individuals or groups it should take into account and whose potential needs and interests give them a legitimate stake. Understanding stakeholding in school systems means being clear about who counts, which needs matter and who decides these things.
Our study traces the relationships between these issues and identifies the potential stakeholders and needs which governors, LEAs and government agencies might take into account. It shows how the priorities adopted within each area vary: how people in the Kent and Hampshire schools system want to be able to respond to schools and employers in France; how people in Harrow wish to take into account its diverse ethnic communities; and how Sheffield gives a distinctive emphasis to future parents and pupils and the very active local trade union movement.
The study identifies community needs which may be obscured by the complicated network of agencies responsible for meeting them and the different views about which stakeholders and needs are significant. It also explores the differences and tensions between local and national perspectives.
We shouldn't be surprised that the Government participants favour the need for competition and parental preferences and see stakeholders as parents and pupils. But setting this alongside the much broader groups of stakeholders and needs and the more complex patterns of connections between them emphasised by local participants is illuminating. Those who live within local communities showed that identifying local potential stakeholders is a good starting point, but that it is also necessary to understand the connections between them. It was the dynamic connections between stakeholders, purposes and needs which gave us a practical grasp of that very abstract entity, the local community. And the preference of national agencies for discounting all connections but those chosen by individual schools ignores this dynamic.
This tension can be illustrated in relation to safety. Local participants emphasised the need for safety as a high priority. They thought this need encompassed but extended beyond the needs of individual parents and what individual schools can achieve. They wanted collective efforts to ensure that all schools had access to buses with seat belts. They wanted fast local intelligence networks capable of providing early warnings to all schools about prowlers - they didn't like the fact that an individual school was able to opt out of such a network. They also wanted collective efforts spanning all the schools in an area, their neighbours, religious groups, employers and formal agencies such as the police to tackle safety. They thought that the community as a whole needed behaviour policies which would hold force across a school system. They saw all the schools in an area, local youth education providers, employers and school neighbours as having a legitimate stake in such a development.
Central government participants viewed such perceptions about community networks with great scepticism. They thought that issues such as behaviour policies were exclusively matters for individual schools and some were concerned that matters of safety were often raised in order to build bureaucratic empires.
Such differences inevitably led our participants to different views about the right way to meet needs. Local participants wanted a local third party to ensure co-operation. They also wanted a mechanism to ensure that the needs of the broader community are taken into account. They felt that partnerships between LEAs and schools could achieve this and that only a light touch was needed from the LEA. But they were concerned that individual governing bodies could not and would not do it unless governors were required and helped to take the needs of the whole community into account.
By contrast, national participants saw the mechanisms of open enrolment, formula funding, delegation to schools, annual governor reports and meetings with parents as being sufficient for meeting community needs. They were opposed to mechanisms for encouraging collaboration except where these are determined by individual schools.
This is just one example of different responses to stakeholders. Our project highlights many more, including several where local and national perspectives are more closely aligned. But the differences between areas and between local and national perspectives made us feel that, periodically, a more systematic look at community needs and stakeholders is necessary.
We have developed models which would allow governors, LEAs and government agencies to carry out such analyses quickly and practically. They should do this soon because our study showed that important community needs have been obscured by the storm of recent reforms.
Philippa Cordingley is an independent researcher and consultant. *Schools, Communities and LEAs: learning to meet needs (Association of Metropolitan Authorities).