Bringing the community into school

What is a community?

At the heart of every good community lies the motivation and commitment behind a group of united people, people who share a common purpose. Several questions will be presented during this article which highlights firstly; what is a community? How do we know if a community is successful? What role do we play as educators in leading community-school initiatives? And finally, how do we overcome non-conformity to create cohesion and vision amongst ‘hard to reach’ participants within the community?

As an experienced teaching practitioner, the challenge that underpins successful collaboration in sharing beliefs and vision with parents, carers, business leaders, high profile public figures and local authority members would be to share values and experiences. The ones that ensure equality of opportunity through education is the binding agent in the foundations of modern and enlightened society.

Education, to me, is the most effective way to get it ‘right for every child’ and allow them to reach their potential. Driving social justice through education opens doors to encourage learners to realise this potential. In ‘our’ classroom, children are provided with learning opportunities to examine how good education is a passport to a good life. They learn skills to embrace challenges and change in a very diverse global world and understand that the skills learned in ‘real life’ situations result in employment with meaning, where they can reflect on their community and sense of belonging. Sharing a common purpose from a young age lends itself to how they conform as well-balanced citizens.

Creating and maintaining links through parental engagement requires a great deal of thought, and breaking down barriers between home and school can be daunting for teachers and parents alike. Many discussions that have taken place with parents over recent years have identified disengagement as being the result of poor or negative experiences during their own school days. This, for many parents, is the major barrier facing them when engaging with schools. Curriculum reform has changed perceptions of how educational interactions were once teacher-directed in the acquisition of skills through a very rigid education prescription, and now the onus is very much placed on pupils directing their own learning and how they are encouraged to become engaged in stimulating ‘real-life’ learning opportunities where critical thinking and problem-solving skills are required.

Parents are required to be aware of their child’s out of school experiences to enable them to use these as the basis for facilitating future learning; likewise, children and teachers need to understand the value behind these experiences to ensure all barriers are removed with a clearer indication of ‘home-life’ if structured learning opportunities are in use. Ways to overcome all barriers will inevitably cultivate an openness to communicate without prejudice and create opportunities to invite families into the classroom to spend time ‘sharing the learning’. This at Bannockburn Primary is known as Family Time!!

Family Time occurs once per month when parents, carers and grandparents are invited into class to participate alongside their children. Each month the visits, which are teacher-led, consist of literacy or numeracy themed lessons. Feedback from these sessions is very positive, with a very high turnout. Parents often feel rejuvenated and value their new learning experiences.

Tapping into the skills and expertise of the wider community….

Viewing the ‘community’ as one of the most valuable resources available in schools helps children to acquire important new concepts that send positive messages about education and the work of community figures. Sharing a vision and forging positive relationships with the community highlights the ways in which the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence builds on ‘real-life’ experiences, pupil directed learning and creating active learning communities that enhance pupil learning and how teaching can be delivered in order to ensure learning happens effectively. Engaging community groups, in turn, would allow for specific learning to occur out-with the classroom setting and highlight the role in the teacher plays in restructuring routines and recognising that student ability is contingent on their mental and physical well-being and that of their families. Bridging gaps between school and the community not only develop teachers’ awareness of the local community but are meeting the broader needs of families through the provision of non-educational opportunities and also opens doors by expressing a desire to unite and assist community members. This invite again breaks down barriers.

The community is not limited to parents and the immediate neighbourhood but to those who are active in the business. Interactions from all are depended on not for the need for concrete knowledge and expertise but also for commitment and advocacy in supporting the efforts that are required for raising attainment and driving school improvement. Creating a shared vision and encouraging everyone to be self-reflective ensures that a ‘community’ is formed and programmes of change are challenged collectively for the good of the children.

Ventures which I have previously led are, hosting informal Parental Workshops. These are curriculum-based learning sessions for families that were requested as a result of parent questionnaires. Several parents highlighted gaps in their own education and misconceptions about historical teaching methods that didn’t articulate the creativity of today’s 21st-century classrooms. More recently, I have been set with the challenge of leading a group of curious practitioners in an initiative known as Developing the Young Workforce. Although at an early stage, this project aims to make valuable workplace connections with a vision of building capacity and sustaining employment and training opportunities for tomorrow’s young workforce. It will also act as a vehicle that will hopefully emphasise the need for basic academic qualifications and be the drive-in raising attainment within Bannockburn Primary and the wider Stirling Council Authority.

A ‘successful’ community surely must start with education? Education is the holistic view in developing and understanding the multi-disciplinary approaches required in promoting inclusion, citizenship and social justice. Relationships between individuals on a local, regional and global level must be principles that underpin the education driven by human actions in valuing life through diversity.

Citizenship, although politically contested, identifies traits of the notions of a well-behaved society member and the call of a social movement; the ethical and moral judgements that we regard as doing ‘the right thing’ (integrity) to make the world a better place. Currently, schools support developments in sustaining citizenship and encourage learners to become actively involved in governing citizenship programmes of learning and promote participation in community-based caring activities and charitable work. In my opinion, this emphasises their ‘membership’ in the community and the importance of pursuing individual interests and injecting values to help define personal identity.

An area of citizenship that has arisen in my thought process whilst planning this piece of work was the issue of Fundamentalism, multiple identities and communities. Working and living in a world of adversity, it is of utmost importance to recognise religion and its assertion of moral importance within the community. Fundamentalism had adverse effects on community involvement and employed structures of law to attempt censorship and control over the benefits of citizenship. Castells,1997 claimed ‘contemporary fundamentalism is a response to the issues of identity raised by globalisation’. His studies detail ‘the perceived need for social actors for clear identities and behavioural guidelines in a world of rapid social change’. Identities, therefore, can be seen in this case as being paired up with social behaviour and roles that are dictated by higher authority, thus suppressing the opportunity for mutual engagement in community activity.

Many writers argue that identities are enforced, a deeper moral understanding of local and global identity needs to be investigated, and concepts of citizenship and community are recognised.

Our role as educators in driving community-school initiatives stems from an increased interest in community involvement. Family learning and the impact of involving community groups in raising attainment have influenced positive links and successful home-learning environments. Effective family practices, when married alongside school research and partnerships, inevitably create an inclusive environment that enhances learning but also provides the necessary skills to allow every child to realise their potential in the ‘real world’.

Responding to diversity in our learners, staff, parents, and partners inclusively is a very daunting aspect for any teacher, but being careful in addressing traditional assumptions about learning developments in community-based initiatives can promote collaboration, engage learners and support teachers’ critical judgements. By building community partnerships, many educational establishments struggle to maintain meaningful relationships. This is possibly a result of a lack of knowledge and awareness of where the community is? Who they are? What are the parent’s values and beliefs? And equally important, do schools know what the communities’ interests are? Part of my Working Party’s remit is to ensure that my colleagues and I are able to identify these fore-mentioned questions in our desire to be ‘successful’. I am aware that as a school, vital relationships and sustained partnership links within the community have been established, and I am loyal and supportive of the developments in bringing the community into the school. Success in this area will ensure partners work collaboratively, not contentiously, to increase and continue to improve positive interactions.

‘Hard to reach parents’…

Despite there being an obvious, if not increasing, interest in community involvement within my existing school, examining ways to maintain this lies solely in the motivation to ensure connections and opportunities are available to all. Three predominant areas that are corner-stoned by community involvement are; increasing learner success (academic and personal), supporting developments and enhancing school quality and standards of learning and teaching opportunities. Activities should reflect the motivation required for all three areas led effectively, of course, by a highly motivated leadership team. Today fighting austerity highlights a school’s desire to be successful but more often than not, leaders find themselves caught between the proverbial ‘rock and hard place’. Accountability for learning within an inclusive school environment versus budget cuts promotes the importance of community involvement.

‘Hard to reach’ parents is an ongoing concern for school leaders, and the first underlying question that should be clarified is; Is it ‘hard to reach parents’ or hard to reach schools? The term ‘hard to reach parents’, as discussed by Crozier & Davies, 2005 claimed this phrase was used in reference to parents who are ‘socially excluded’ (ref previous section on fundamentalism). In their work, parents were described as ‘impenetrable’ by teachers. Parents responded by claiming they knew very little about the education system resulting in them feeling alienated and uninvolved in the school community. Cultural differences were the reasons why these parents were labelled as ‘hard to reach’, but in reality, the notion of this place all blame on them for non-conforming. In a modern, pro-active school, cultural interference would be prescribed by school policy and a framework for social inclusion implemented. With reference to the phrase ‘hard to reach’, a question that lies to the forefront of my involvement in developing community partnerships would be first, not questioning what barriers are present that initiate non-engagement but more with the onus on the school by investigating…. Why are we hard to reach?

From a learners’ perspective, through discussions with my current Primary 6 class, it was revealed that information from school rarely reached the hands of parents, and although most learners did share details of their learning and school-based activities, it was apparent that some did not want to involve parents in their learning and were keen to separate school from home. This mirrors my previous statement about parents having negative experiences from their own school days, but also learners felt that their parents would not understand the context and complexity of their education. This results in the possibility of parents feeling excluded making them appear to exude traits of being unfriendly or non-accessible to the school. Effective and purposeful leadership and an implemented structured policy regarding home-school relationships will allow educators to ‘reach out’ to all parents are of paramount importance.

In reflection of my own practice, I argue that rather than matching parents to our school values, is it not the moral obligation of the school to seek out any potential gains that these parents could offer to learners and the school repertoire? And although within education policy, there is an assumption that initiating involvement lies with the parent, it is imperative in all cases for schools and leadership teams to be responsive to parents and share the balance of power in exhibiting the schools’ expectations.

In summary, bringing the community into the school requires a huge amount of effort. It would be easier, in my opinion, if a struggling school requires overhauling, but when a school is successful in many areas of improvement, leadership, and the ethos is to create, it can be difficult to recruit new community members, namely parents, to share in this recognition. Previous poor experiences of education and negative relationships with professionals can often erect huge barriers for non-engagers, with long term effects. Strengthening an existing successful school and collaborating together to unite the community in developing and sustaining ‘real life’ learning experiences is one indication of how valuable the community can be. Partnerships allow for focus on a range of opportunities that will promote school readiness, consistency in attendance and punctuality, parental engagement and, more importantly, the health and well-being of children and their parents.

Realising ‘success’ as a community provides support to the challenges faced by families and empowers learners to achieve academic success, no matter how big or small. Partners are also involved in decision making, planning and implementation of engagement activities. The purpose of bringing the overall community into the school can be measured through expanded learning, career and citizenship choices, and health and social support, all with a vision of sharing the power and providing effective solutions for tomorrow’s future.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 Edition of UKEdMagazine

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Jackie McKay @JMcKay1972 is a creative and highly motivated teacher at Bannockburn Primary School, Stirling. She is enthusiastic and keen to drive new initiatives to enhance learning and raise attainment.

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