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What is a community school? How has theory and practice developed?

contents: what is a community school? · the development of the community school · texts and references · acknowledgements · how to cite this piece

A great deal has been written about community schools – especially in the period between 1970 and 1990. However, much of the literature tends to be repetitive and highly descriptive. What we find are endless accounts of how this school or that project was a great success – often written by the headteacher. No adequate attempt to provide a history exists; nor is it possible to find a sustained critique of practice.

What is a community school?

In a review of the literature, Tony Jeffs identifies some possible characteristics of a community school:

Openness: Advocates tend to define community schools by what they are not rather than what they are. Community schools, we are told, offer an alternative to so ‘much that is narrow, segregating, and inflexible in the traditional school’ (Jackson 1980: 40); that they are not closed and insular but ‘open’. Indeed according to Finch (1980: 224) ‘it has to be an open school’ or it ceases to be a community school. This notion of ‘openness’ cannot isn’t just at the level of rhetoric – it influences classroom practice, administrative process and the design of purpose-built community schools. Examples include:-

  • absence of fences or walls keeping students in and the public out;
  • retention or creation of public rights of way passing through the school site (in some cases the building itself) and placing the school astride natural thoroughfares between estates or neighbourhoods;
  • locating public utilities i.e. shops, libraries, job shops, leisure facilities, on campus;
  • building on central rather than peripheral sites i.e. adjacent to the market square;
  • open plan teaching areas.

Fusing: Simply being ‘open’ is not perceived to be the ultimate aim. Halsey (1972), Poster (1976) and Toogood (1984) all stress that ultimately the school should fuse with the community. Toogood talks of the need for schools ‘to explode into the community’ (1984: 78); Midwinter (1973: 56) of the two blending serenely together; whilst Halsey claims that

the community school seeks to obliterate the boundary between school and community, to turn the community into a school and the school into a community. (Halsey 1972: 79) .

Sharing, collaboration. Besides openness and fusion it is possible it identify other ‘persistent ideas’ (Wallis and Mee 1983) and distinguishing ‘elements’ (Nisbet et al 1980) in the literature. All are embedded within distinctive forms of practice which promulgated by the community school movement.

For many people community schools are synominous with the idea of shared facilities and collaboration with other agencies and groups. The classic example here is the school that that gains additional monies by agreeing to open up its sporting facilities for use by local people. For many local authorities, especially in local areas, the idea that capital and running costs for expensive plant could be shared was attractive.

Linked to this are two associated ideas

  • encouraging collaboration with statutory and voluntary welfare agencies; and
  • the development of the school as a resource base for social and community action.

Democratization: A further element in some of the rhetoric (but less of the practise) is the idea that community schooling involves the democratisation of internal structures and creation of mechanisms for the external community to influence school policy. Examples of this would be the development of schools councils involving students and staff; the fostering of various parents groups; and even suggestions that the school needs to be regarded more as a sort of community association with the governing body including representatives of all the key stakeholders.

Curricula innovation: The above notions have obvious knock-on effects for the way the curriculum could be approached in such schools. Ideas of ‘fusing’ and sharing may encourage people to look to the local community or neighbourhood as a key reference point in building the curriculum. this was certainly the line advocated by Midwinter in the Liverpool experiment in the early 1970s. Here the idea was that curricula innovation was needed to ensure heightened relevance for students and opportunities for increased linkages with the wider community.

To these characteristics we can add a further two:

Lifelong education: There is also an abiding idea that schooling should not be just for children – it should be open to all. We can see great echoes of Basil Yeaxlee talked of as lifelong education in what Henry Morris has to say of his vision of the Village College:

As the community centre of the neighbourhood it would provide for the whole man, and abolish the duality of education and ordinary life. It would not only be the training ground for the art of living, but the place in which life is lived, the environment of a genuine corporate life. The dismal dispute of vocational and non-vocational education would not arise in it. It would be a visible demonstration in stone of the continuity and never ceasingness of education. There would be no ‘leaving school’! – the child would enter at three and leave the college only in extreme old age. It would have the virtue of being local so that it would enhance the quality of actual life as it is lived from day to day – the supreme object of education… It would not be divorced from the normal environment of those who would frequent it from day to day, or from that great educational institution, the family… The village college could lie athwart the daily lives of the community it served; and in it the conditions would be realised under which education would not be an escape from reality, but an enrichment and transformation of it. For education is committed to the view that the ideal order and the actual order can ultimately be made one. (Morris 1925: Section XIV).

Schools as self-financing production units: In a number of southern countries this can be added as a further characteristic. One approach is were the school produces a commodity, e.g. rice or livestock, and then sells that on the open market. Another is that the production of services is rendered by the school to the community in return for payment, e.g. harvesting, transportation of goods, soil cultivation, etc. (Hawes and Stephens 1990).

Now just to what extent these characteristics are present in any one school is a matter for some debate. Many carry the title community school or college with only a nod in the direction of these ideas. But these notions do provide a useful benchmark for debate.

The development of the community school

British and Irish writers tend to identify Henry Morris as the founder of the community school viewing the publication of The Village College. Being a Memorandum on the Provision of Educational and Social Facilities for the Countryside, with Special Reference to Cambridgeshire (Morris – 1925) as when the idea took flight; and the opening of Sawston Village College, in 1930 as when it acquired substance. American counterparts with similar confidence, unanimity and parochialism, maintain:

Between 1932 and 1935 … Frank Manley, physical education and recreation supervisor in the Flint (Michigan) public schools, presented some ideas on how the schools could begin to solve various community problems, Mr Mott (a local philanthropist) agreed to help. Thus, in 1935 the Mott Foundation contributed an initial $6.000 to the Flint Public Schools for purposes of a greater utilization of the school facilities and the community school concept was born. (Hiemstra 1972: 34-35)

Actually, as Jeffs points out – neither are correct – we need to look back to Robert Owen and New Lanark, and to other pioneers in the nineteenth century. From this point it is possible to identify a number of overlapping phases in the development of community schooling:

Early experimentation: Robert Owen, William Lovett and N. F. S. Grundtvig:The development of the New Institute and New Lanark (1816) by Owen, educational developments such as the National Hall (1842) under the influence of Lovett; and the growth of Folk High Schools in Denmark through the work of Grundtvig.

The emergence of ‘dual use’: In Britain, during the second half of the nineteenth century many Board and Church schools operated in ways that would qualify them today for ‘community status’. As Jeffs (1994) has identified, in some rural areas schools were designed to serve also as a place of worship and as a community centre. Examples also exist of schools providing a venue for social activities, adult education programmes, ‘return-to-learning’ classes for ex-pupils and sponsoring welfare services such as second-hand clothes stores, health clinics, meals, youth provision and summer play programmes. Dual use of school premises had been growing in the USA since the first recorded example of a purpose-built unit in 1810. Prior to 1900 the term community school was already in use, especially in rural areas, where school boards provided land, extensions and facilities for community usage (Jeffs 1994). In 1907 community centers based on schools were started in Rochester, New York in 1907 under the direction of Edward J. Ward – and became popular in other localities (see community centres).

Village colleges / the Flint experiments: With the development of village colleges in Cambridgeshire under the leadership of Henry Morris in the 1930s and Frank Manley’s innovations in Flint, Michigan funded by the Mott Foundation at a similar time we see the establishment of ‘benchmark’ institutions and programmes within state systems. The latter provided many of the defining features of the community schools and colleges that appeared in England in the early 1970s. This included the development of a range of communal facilities on school sites, and some shifts in the way that schools were governed and run.

Expansion – community colleges and compensatory education: There were two war waves of community schooling in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. The first was an expansion in rural and suburban areas – the best known of which being Stewart Mason’s (1949) work in Leicestershire; and then, in the aftermath of the Plowden Report (1967), their appearance in inner-city localities. Here the work of Eric Midwinter (1972; 1973) was especially influential. (See also Halsey 1972).

Community schools as schools built and run by communities for communities:Community schooling has developed in a number of southern countries as an alternative to more expensive forms of provision for basic education (see community education and development). Hawes and Stephens (1990) review some of these developments and look to the shape and programme of institutions; teachers as animateurs; and schools as self financing production units.

Full-service schooling and the ‘new community schools’: In the late 1970′s and early 1980s there were a number of innovative school-based health programmes that have developed into something of a movement in the United States. However, elements of what now passes for full-service schooling have been a part of practice in the USA for a number of years. The primary model put forward by Dryfoos is that of the school-based health and social services centre: ‘space set aside in a school building where services are brought in by outside community agencies in conjunction with school personnel’ (1994: 142). They are to be ‘one stop, collaborative institutions’ (ibid.: 13) (see full-service schooling). The notion has been picked up in Scotland in the form of new community schools – and is informing discussion of the place of the school in urban regeneration and raising educational achievement in England (see, for example, the learning mentor initiative).

Selected texts

The bulk of the general texts are edited collections, the content of which is a little variable, but each has its strengths. Of the others, Wallis and Mee (1983) is a useful, but now dated, research study; Cowburn (1986) provides an overview of English developments and then moves into the exploration of case studies; and Poster (1982) follows a wider review of developments with a focus on management. All of which adds up to a large gap in the literature which, hopefully, should be filled by Tony Jeffs’ forthcoming study of community schooling. I have included Hargreaves’ important (1982) discussion of comprehensive schooling as its focus overlaps with the concerns of a number of the writers listed here.

Overviews of community schooling

Allen, G. et al. (eds.) (1987) Community Education: An agenda for educational reform, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Substantial collection of variable material which attempts to clarify key ideas, critically examine aspects of practice and explore elements of the personal and political in practice. [Out of print].

Allen, G. and Martin, I. (eds.) (1992) Education and Community. The politics of practice, London: Cassell. 152 + viii pages. Part one critiques various aspects of community education; part two examines a number of different aspects of practice including access, parental involvement, LEA policies, community care and networking; part three explores education, community and citizenship.

Clark, D. (1996) Schools as Learning Communities. Transforming education, London: Cassell. Examines the nature of community education and the process of communualizing education. Argues for the development of a ‘new curriculum code’ that is ‘synergistic’ (bring community and education together). As the title suggests it is still school-focused.

Cowburn, W. (1986) Class, Ideology and Community Education, Beckenham: Croom Helm. 235 + xiv pages. Critique of community education and community schools; and an exploration of possibilities for adult education. Defines community education to describe those ‘mainstream educational changes being organized around community schools and community colleges’ (p.3). Uses several case studies. [Out of print].

Fletcher, C. and Thompson, N. (eds.) (1980) Issues in Community Education, Lewes: Falmer Press. 214 pages. An examination of developments in community education upto the 1980s. Includes material on some key tensions and descriptions of practice.

Hargreaves, D. H. (1982) The Challenge for the Comprehensive School. Culture, curriculum and community, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 244 + x pages. Important discussion of comprehensive schooling. Hargreaves argues that a fairer society can only be achieved if we make a fundamental reappraisal of the comprehensive school curriculum and the UK system of public examinations. This, in turn, requires a fundamental rethink of the organization of schooling and the nature of the teaching profession. Chapters on the two curricula of schooling; the decline of community; examinations and the curriculum; the culture of individualism; the curriculum and the community; a proposal and some objections; the culture of teaching; and teachers and the future.

Nisbet, J., Hendry, L., Stewart, C. and Watt, J. (1980) Towards Community Education. An evaluation of community schools, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press. 136 pages. Major study of community education in Grampian Region. They argue that community education has six distinctive elements: mutually supportive relationships between school and community; shared facilities; community-oriented curriculum; lifelong education; community involvement in decision-making and management; community development. [Out of print].

O’Hagan, B. (1991) The Charnwood Papers. Fallacies in community education, Ticknall: Education Now. Explores a number of fallacies concerning policy, the subversiveness of community development, positive discrimination, non-directiveness, the school as a site for youth work, home-school partnerships, national curriculum and power.

Poster, C. (1971) The School and the Community, London: Macmillan. 126 pages. Introductory text that traces the history of community education (basically starting with folk high schools and village colleges); argues for the significance of community education; and explores different ways in which schools can relate to their local communities. Examines youth work, adult education; and, then, new developments.

Poster, C. (1982) Community Education: its development and management, London: Heinemann. 184 + viii pages. The first half of the book is a discussion of the development of community education in England from Morris onwards. One chapter surveys ‘overseas’ developments. The second half explores different management issues.

Street, P. (1997) Managing Schools in the Community, Aldershot: Arena. 184 + xi pages. Examines the management implications for developing community involvement in schools. Includes some guidance on how this can be achieved. Chapters on the nature of community schools; going community; planning for action; a living community school; school and the community; management plans and budget management; paying the bills; ‘smooth operation’. Basically a ‘how to do it’ book with checklists and advice.

Wallis, J. and Mee, G. (1983) Community Schools. Claims and performance, Nottingham: University of Nottingham. 81 pages. Brief survey of the area based on a literature review and empirical work. Sets out some questions, discusses some definitions, and examines the curriculum and work patterns of adult/community educators.

Case studies of community schools

I have chosen case studies that are both interesting in what they describe, and that add to our theoretical understanding. This narrowed down the number of texts rather sharply. Each of the books chosen has its shortcomings – but are worth seeking out.

Bremer, J. and von Moschzisker, M. (1971) The School Without Walls. Philadelphia’s Parkway Program,New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 295 + xiv pages. Account of the early days of an experimental programme to establish a high school based in various agencies and institutions in the city. There was no centralised building; students formed self-governing groups which met for regular tutorials and meetings. They were responsible for choosing their own curricula and were taught by business people, workers, city officials, parents, and librarians where they worked. The ‘school’ library was the public library; and might go down the road for ‘maths’ in a local business. The emphasis was on self-directed learning. There are chapters on organization, curriculum, faculty, a student’s day, evaluation, finance, history.

Carspecken, P. F. (1991) Community Schooling and the Nature of Power. The battle for Croxteth Comprehensive. London: Routledge. 212 + xiv pages. Account of the struggle for control of the school (1982-84) interlaced with analysis. He examines the perceptions of the different actors and participants; issues in the control of schooling (the role of teachers, students, local community members, politicians etc.); and the energy and knowledge necessary for radical projects.

Gordon, T. (1986) Democracy in One School? Progressive education and restructuring, Lewes: Falmer. 278 + viii pages. Study of an English Community School (Countesthorpe). Chapters examine formal education as state apparatus; restructuring, resistance and the development of schooling; progressive education; the nature of the school and its participants; individualization and professionalization; student careers; sex-gender and sexism; vertical teams. The interactions and tensions in an experiment such as this make for interesting reading. Useful to read alongside an edited collection put together by the Principal: Watts, J. 1977) The Countesthorpe Experience. The first five years., London: Unwin Education. 217 pages. Contains contributions by students, staff, local people, and outside observers.

Holmes, G. (1952) The Idiot Teacher. A book about Prestolee School and its headmaster E. F. O’Neill, London; Faber and Faber. 200 pages. Affectionate and insightful account of O’Neill’s extraordinary time (1918 – 1951) at Prestoless Elementary School (for students aged 3-15) at Farnworth, Lancashire. As well as transforming the routines and rituals of schooling into a community with an emphasis on self-activity, O’Neill was able to work with local people to develop a play centre (with magic garden), youth centre and community centre.

Smith, L. M., Prunty, J. P., Dwyer, D. C. and Kleine, P. F. (1987) The Fate of an Innovative School, Lewes: Falmer. Major study of an American ‘innovative’ school that pays attention to its relationships with local communities.


Burton, H. M. (1943) The Education of the, Countryman, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Dryfoos, J. (1994) Full –Service Schools. A revolution in health and social services for children, youth and families, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Finch, E. (1980) ‘The Open School’ in A. Fairbairn (ed.)The Leicestershire Experience, London: Heinemann.

Fletcher, C. (1984) The Challenges of Community Education, Nottingham: Nottingham University Dept of Adult Education.

Halsey, A. H. (1972) Educational Priority Volume 1: EPA problems and policies, London: HMSO.

Hawes, H. and Stephens, D. (1990) Questions of Quality. Primary education and development, London Routledge.

Hiemstra, R. (1972) The Educative Community: Linking the Community, School and Family, Lincoln, Nebraska: Professional Educators Publications.

Jeffs, T. (1994). ‘Commmunity education – the school’, Lifelong learning unit 3. London: YMCA Geprge Williams Collge.

Jeffs, T. (1999) Henry Morris. Village colleges, community education and the ideal order, Ticknall: Educational Heretics Press.

Mason, S. (1949) Community Education, Paper submitted to Leicestershire Education Committee April 1949.

Midwinter, E. (1972) Priority Education. An account of the Liverpool Project, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Midwinter, E. (1973) Patterns of Community Education, London: Ward Lock.

Moller, J. C. and Watson, K. (1944) Education in Democracy: The Folk High Schools of Denmark, London: Faber.

Morris, H. (1925) The Village College: Being a Memorandum On the Provision of Educational and Social facilities For the Countryside, With Special Reference to Cambridgeshire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nisbet, J., Hendry, L., Stewart, C. and Watt, J. (1980) Towards Community Education: An Evaluation of Community Schools, Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

Pluckrose, H. (1975) Open School, Open Society, London: Evans Brothers.

Poster, C. (1982) Community Education: its Development and Management, London: Heinemann.

Rée, H. (1973) Educator Extraordinary: The Life and Achievements of Henry Morris, London: Longmans.

Rennie, J. (1985) British Community Primary Schools: Four Case Studies, Lewes: Falmer.

Seaborne, M. and Lowe, R. (1977) The English School: Its Architecture and Organization – 1870 – 1970, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sharp, J. (1973) Open School, London: Dent.

Swainson, D. (1985) The Management of Rural Community Schools, Taunton: Somerset County Council.

Toogood, P. (1984) The Head’s Tale, Telford: Dialogue Publications.

Wallis, J. and Mee, G. (1983) Community Schools: Claims and Performances, Nottingham: University of Nottingham Dept of Adult Education.

Watts, J. (1980) Towards An Open School, London: Longman.

© Mark K. Smith 1996. 2010


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How to cite this article

Smith, M. K. (1996, 2010). Community schools and community schooling’, the encylopaedia of informal education. [http://infed.org/mobi/community-schools-and-community-schooling/. Retrieved: insert date].

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