Civic role of schools extends outside the gates
In central London, the civic role of schools has been highlighted as a positive step towards pupil development.
The positive impact schools can have in the wider community is the subject of a recent report by Dr Katherine Vincent, ‘London Leaders: Beyond the Classroom’. In it, she describes how a group of London Schools access their ecosystem to assist them in improving the performance of their disadvantaged pupils.
Part 1: London Leaders: Beyond the Classroom
Reconnect London is a practitioner-led network which aims to build leadership capacity within the London school system and improve its ability to address disadvantages, by strengthening connections between schools and helping them to share knowledge and expertise with each other. Our recently published report, ‘London Leaders: Beyond the Classroom’, explores the extent to which London schools are engaged in leadership activities that go beyond the classroom, and beyond the school gates. As well as highlighting the complexity of the work that school leaders are doing within their contexts, the report also emphasises the extent to which schools have come to take on a crucial role as part of civic infrastructure within local communities.
The importance of schools’ wider work, and its impact beyond the classroom, came to greater prominence in 2020-21 following the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. During that time, school leaders became civic leaders within their local communities, remaining open when many other services were closed and becoming distributors not only of learning materials but also of food packages and other essential resources. As a result, there was increased awareness across the UK of the contribution which is made by schools to children’s social, emotional and psychological development, and a realisation that this may be as important as their impact on academic learning. This report builds on that awareness, by providing a series of case studies which describe some of the work that is being undertaken by successful London schools to respond to the particular opportunities and challenges that exist in their local contexts.
Central to the report is the concept of ‘context-responsive leadership’. This refers to the way in which school leaders adapt their leadership practice, and the provision offered by their schools, in response to the contexts in which they are working.
For example, one of the case study schools, which serves a community with significant levels of socio-economic disadvantage, has worked with the Child Poverty Action Group to devise a whole-school strategy aimed at supporting families living in poverty, including a free breakfast club, subsidised after school provision and a school uniform exchange. In this school’s local context, this provision is necessary because it creates the pre-conditions for school learning: unless basic needs like hunger and clothing are met, children cannot engage with the school curriculum.
The provision offered by the case study schools goes far beyond their responsibility for delivering the curriculum and ensuring pupils have access to high quality pastoral care and support. One of the schools, in partnership with the local NHS trust, has a wellbeing centre with co-located mental health, counselling support and wellbeing services. Another has a family support worker who runs workshops for parents advising them on issues such as how to access housing benefits, manage their finances and reduce energy costs.
While this provision often takes place outside the classroom, in the case study schools it is not perceived as a secondary activity which is supplementary to the school’s ‘core business’ of educating pupils within classrooms. Rather, it is felt to be an essential part of the way in which schools prepare pupils for learning and ensure they are able to participate in school life in a meaningful way.
The report draws attention to the importance of local partnerships and the many different ways in which London schools work collaboratively with other schools and with other organisations. This includes local authorities and academy trusts, as well as local health services, universities and a wide range of charities and corporate partners. This resonates with the vision that has been developed by the Confederation of School Trusts (CST) for the potential role of schools, and school trusts, to provide a new form of ‘civic leadership’, sitting at the heart of their communities, bringing together different types of provision for the benefit of local children and thereby making ‘a strategic contribution to the greater common good’ (CST 2020).
During the Covid-19 pandemic, school leaders made a significant contribution to local collaborative efforts to support the most vulnerable. In this way, they were able to have a positive impact beyond the usual scope of their work, building on existing partnerships and establishing new ones. Three years on from the start of the pandemic, London school leaders are faced with a difficult set of external circumstances, as the sector grapples with cost pressures, industrial action and concern about decreased achievement, attendance and wellbeing. By sharing examples of effective practice, we hope this report will contribute to appreciation of the wider work of schools and understanding of approaches that can make a difference in schools serving disadvantaged communities.
Dr Katherine Vincent is Director of Reconnect London, based at Mulberry Schools Trust, Richard Street, Commercial Road, London E1 2JP.
We would like to thank Katherine for sharing her report with us. She completes her summary in the next article. For more information about Reconnect London, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Take care and stay safe.