The ecosystem within a school and the wider community needs to be effectively managed in order to maximise its potential.

In our approach to school improvement we describe how in order to take the correct course of action to bring about improvement, we need to select an activity which takes into account time, place and disposition.

In our global updates during the lockdown we described how the role of schools was widened, particularly for those serving more challenging communities, to include elements of health and social care. For example, schools were providing food banks for parents of disadvantaged students, IT equipment and internet links for those students without them, testing students and teachers for COVID and enhancing wellbeing programmes to mitigate the growing number of students diagnosed with mental health issues. Though schools had a degree of variance in their actions, place was a determining factor in what actions schools took.

A school’s ecosystem

In the reflective articles in this journal we have proposed a way of describing the wider elements which make up a school’s place as its school ecosystem. In our model, this system is made up predominantly of pupils, parents and carers. However, other groups such as the health – particularly mental health – services, social services and social-oriented charities, the police and other groups also come into a school’s ecosystem. In addition, local housing, potential employment and potential employees also populate it.

The ecosystem is by its very nature integrated with several elements working at once. The coordination of these elements to the benefit of students often falls upon the school and in many cases it is the school that triggers the integrated action for this purpose. Child safety being a case in point.

The important part played by parents is clearly illustrated by the below list of factors OFSTED in Feb 2022 identified as contributing to low attendance of pupils after the lockdown.

  • Parents of young children (in Nursery and Reception) do not think it important for them to attend regularly at that age.
  • Parents did not have a good experience of school themselves and do not see the importance of attendance.
  • Attendance data is misunderstood by parents. While 90 per cent might be a good number as a mark in a test, in attendance terms it means the pupil is missing school on one day every fortnight.
  • Basic routines are not in place at home, leading to lateness, which can lead to non-attendance, through embarrassment or frustration.
  • Parents are unable to persuade their secondary-age children to attend school, even though they understand the importance of doing so.
  • Older pupils’ non-attendance is affecting that of their younger siblings – the whole family then stops attending. 
  • The pupil is a young carer.
  • There are financial barriers, for example parents being unable to afford transport to school or a school uniform.
  • Pupils are anxious about attending school.
  • Parents feel generally anxious around other people, or have fallen out with other parents, sometimes on social media, and do not want to encounter them while bringing their child to school.

Energy flow with in the school ecosystem

The interface between the school and the elements which make up its ecosystem takes energy to function, much of which is positive, although neutral and negative energy also plays a part.

All this inflow and outflow of energy has to be managed by the school. In some cases it can be regulated via the likes of parents’ evenings, annual health checks and careers events. However, other energy flows are demand-driven from the elements in the ecosystem. These are often the most critical. Here, the effectiveness of the connectivity of the school and elements of its ecosystem is critical.

Schools understand the value of positive energy from its ecosystem and thus will actively seek to take advantage of this through its connections. In some cases, as the work of reconnect London has demonstrated, the energy provided can not only have a positive effect on the school’s performance but on the other  elements which make up the ecosystem.

On the other hand, in some cases the lack of positive support from the other parts of the ecosystem can be so draining on the school that they find it hard to gain the inertia to counter this and so survival rather than improvement becomes the norm.

A large amount of the connectivity is made up of relationships between school staff and others. As we know from our approach to school improvement, for this to thrive there has to be trust which is built from the development of moral capital. There also needs to be the knowledge, social and organisational capital. However, moral capital is the key.

Often staff working with the other elements are dealing with critical issues in their students’ development and mutual trust is crucial. As the effort required to build new relationships can be debilitating on staff’s reserves of energy, stability in these relationships is desirable.

There will be cases where the school’s ecosystem is so drained of energy that it is unable to improve if it is solely reliant on its own actions. In these cases there needs to be recognition by those in charge of the school system and an integrated programme of action implemented to transform the situation.

Finally, an effective school ecosystem is something school leaders should all strive for. Without it, our pupils are unlikely to receive an education which represents the wisdom of the education community.

We hope this reflective piece has helped you consider the interface that you have with those services and the community you work with. We know some of our readers spend their day-to-day work at the point where the school’s work integrates with others whilst many staff come into contact less frequently.

Take care and stay safe.


Professor Sir George Berwick, CBE