Extending schools seems to be the new big thing. Every local education authority will have at least one extended school by 2006 and the Government wants every child to have access to one by the end of the decade. Whether it's extending the school day from 8am to 6pm, extending the use of school facilities to the local community, or using schools to site a range of children's services, the emphasis seems to be to transform schools into what Margaret Hodge, the Minister for Children, calls "a valuable practical resource for children, parents and the local community".
Who could argue with that?
But some critical reflection is needed. Extended schools have an ideological dimension that threatens to divorce schooling from its educational moorings and make a range of instrumental social demands that have little to do with imparting knowledge and skills to children.
Schools are being charged with the onerous task of holding together the fabric of unravelling communities. Fast on the heels of teachers being asked to solve the problems of everything from youth apathy, teenage pregnancy and obesity through lessons in citizenship and personal, social and health education, now the Government's Teachernet website talks of extended schools' vital role in promoting community cohesion and regeneration. In December Ms Hodge argued that extended schools would eventually become "hubs of local communities" in the way that churches and community centres had been in the past.
There is the rub. Over recent years, policy circles have been engaged in a frenzy of think-tanking about how to glue together fragmented communities and find new means of mediating the relationships between politicians and a fragmented populace now that institutions that traditionally did so are in decline. You can see why hi-jacking schools might be a tempting means to an end in such a project. As universal facilities, which all children have to attend by law, they provide a handy conduit for the authorities to attempt to forge new connections between and with those children's parents.
Extended schools certainly seem obsessed with "parental involvement", whether through family literacy schemes, parenting classes or simply attracting mums back to school with the prospect of free use of the gym.
Leave aside the morality of using kids to get to their parents, is it really feasible that dragooning parents through the school gates will build anything other than a shallow and artificial version of community? Real community engagement may well be a by-product of a school. Parents, businesses and community groups may well share a commitment to local kids'
education but this is based on a school's distinct role as a place of learning. Once schools try and sell themselves as community friendly "one-stop, drop-in, multi-service sites" for one and all, there is little of educational worth for the community to become committed to.
My second and more worrying concern is that despite the rhetoric, the thinking behind extended schools implies a loss of faith in members of the community. The expectation seems to be that community relations in extended schools are mediated and managed by an army of third party professionals, as though local people can't be trusted to run their own lives without official guidance. Grown adults are patronised and treated as children who need to attend classes, be inculcated with the good habits of community or seek help from counsellors.
This inbuilt distrust of the community is unsurprising. After all the initial impetus of bringing together local support services in extended schools was the official response to the death of Victoria Climbie. The "Every Child Matters" Green Paper highlighted schools' role in ensuring that the welfare and safety of every child is monitored as part of the child protection system. This implicitly means every parent is under suspicion and suggests that the extension of schooling is as much about surveillance of the community as it is about enriching community ties. Some extended schools hold weekly meetings with their on-site nurse, policeman, student services manager, attendance manager, learning mentor, anti-bullying consultant, social worker and headteacher to discuss and monitor every pupil - and their families - for potential problems. But if anything is likely to be counterproductive to cohering communities, it will be if those who work in schools start pointing accusing fingers at increasing numbers of parents as a threat to their children.
Finally, if schools house a myriad of children's services and rebrand what they offer as 'Educare', this inevitably confuses their role. If you want Shakespeare or geography, you would not expect social services to deliver it. Conversely, schools are ill equipped to tackle social care and should be wary of watering down their unique educational contribution to the community by taking on new tasks.
And if teachers really want to do their bit for the community they should butt out of the lives of the adults and concentrate on their area of expertise - that is, introducing our children to the wonders of knowledge and the mind.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas