How schools and communities can work together more closely

Schools urgently need more funding, but they also need more scope to mould pupils into better-rounded members of society, writes Fiona Carnie

It is at last becoming clear to the general public that schools are in crisis. Budget cuts are taking their toll and there is talk that education may be a decisive factor in the next election. The penny is dropping.

Now is the time for all of us who work in education to be clear that this crisis is not just about money.

Thirty years of neoliberal policy have done immense damage to teaching and learning, and schools are not fit for purpose if that purpose is to foster well-rounded young people who are able to play their part in creating a dynamic, fairer and more sustainable world. What was once one of the finest education systems in the world has been diminished by valuing what we measure rather than measuring what we value.

The Scottish and Welsh governments have rejected Westminster’s top-down, narrow model of education and are forging very different paths built on the professionalism of teachers. Countries such as Finland and Denmark have long known that children can only thrive if people feel valued. Their schools are organised in such a way to ensure that this happens. One national exam at the end is seen as enough: children do not spend their entire education journeys being tested to within an inch of their lives.

Why shouldn’t we all take responsibility for our children?

With this heightened profile in England comes an opportunity. An opportunity for schools to build alliances with their local communities to reclaim education as a vibrant, creative, future-facing endeavour in which people – both children and adults – matter.

In an innovative project in Israel called ‘Education Cities’, educating the next generation is seen as the responsibility of the whole town. Businesses, charities, arts, sports and environmental organisations work in partnership with educators to provide a broad and meaningful curriculum within and beyond the school gates. Education relates to real life and children see the point.

In Estonia, an ‘Ideas Festival’ brings together educators, local people and politicians to explore how best schools can meet the needs of children in our fast-changing world. It has led to local people going in to schools to share their knowledge and skills. In Holland an inspiring new approach, ‘Parent Involvement 3.0’, ensures that all parents are treated as genuine partners in their children’s education.

Why shouldn’t we all take responsibility for our children? There are many adults – retired people, unemployed people and students looking for relevant work experience who would willingly give some time if they were but asked. Why don’t organisations and businesses see education as part of their corporate social responsibility? As the old proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child”.

Until such time that parents realise that the politically driven agenda of choice, competition and privatisation, has been placed above the wellbeing of children, no amount of money ploughed into school budgets will make much difference. Until such time that voters understand the damage caused to schools and young people by three decades of regressive education policy, there is little hope of positive change.

We know that the NHS is in crisis because we see it with our own eyes. We know that prisons are at breaking point because we read it in the media. But the daily reality of schools is hidden. It is time to invite policy makers, journalists, social commentators and anyone who cares about education into schools to understand what is happening, to talk to teachers and students, and to ask school leaders how much freedom they have to do what they think is best for the children and families in their communities.

We need a new way forward: one which puts children first. Money helps, but ultimately this is about listening to teachers, children and parents and developing shared values, a common vision and educational approaches that meet the needs of local communities. We must rebuild our schools from the bottom up.

Fiona Carnie is director of Alternatives in Education

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