In a fascinating initiative, over 150 Scottish schools were due to develop more integrated services to raise attainment and promote social inclusion. Will they work?
The new community schools initiative in Scotland has, not unexpectedly, been spun and trumpeted as a significant attack on a ‘vicious cycle of underachievement’. They are a key aspect of the Government’s strategy to promote social inclusion and to raise educational standards. This is how Donald Dewar (then writing as Secretary of State for Scotland) put it:
Giving children the opportunity to realise their full potential, so that they leave school with relevant skills, well motivated and with high self-esteem, equips them for adult life and reduces the risk of social exclusion. For too long, too many children have been condemned to repeat the cycle of deprivation, educational underachievement and failure. Their life chances are reduced at an early stage. The disaffection with school which follows has been tolerated. The wider barriers to learning that can prevent children realising their potential have not always been addressed in a properly co-ordinated fashion. Access to the necessary support has not been available when and where it is needed. It is time to make a step change….New Community Schools will embody the fundamental principle that the potential of all children can be realised only by addressing their needs in the round – and that this requires an integrated approach by all those involved. Barriers to learning must be identified at the earliest stage, and intervention must be focused, planned and sustained. A range of services is necessary to assist children overcome the barriers to learning and positive development — family support, family learning and health improvement. New Community Schools will ensure that such expert advice and support is at hand -not at the end of a referral chain to other agencies. (Scottish Office 1999: 2)
In Scotland there has been a longstanding commitment to community education. The new community schools initiative draws upon aspects of this tradition and looks to the experience of full-service schooling in the United States. Four elements are highlighted:
- The integrated provision of school education, family support and health education and promotion services.
- Clear management arrangements for the integrated delivery of services. Drawing upon the experience of full-service schooling, some effort has been made to avoid an inappropriate centralizing of control (in the hands of the head teacher).
- The adoption of strategies to encourage students and parents, together and separately, to develop positive attitudes to learning.
- A focusing of support on the family unit to ‘encourage and bring out the best in both parent and child through family learning and the development of positive parent-child interaction’ (Scottish Office 1999: 5).
By October 1999 over 30 local authorities were running projects with some 150 schools involved. Some of the local initiatives are based on larger, individual, schools, many focus on school clusters (often a secondary school and the primary schools associated with it). Two further phases are scheduled in April 2000 and April 2001. The aim is to fund at least two pilot new community school projects in each local authority (at a cost of £26 million over the three financial years from April 1999 (Scottish Executive News Release SE0925/1999).
Essential characteristics and likely features
Below we have extracted what the Government sees to be the essential characteristics and the likely features. It can be seen from these that the initiative is very much in line with other aspects of New Labour policy. There is a strong emphasis on:
- Raising education standards as measured by SATs and the attainment of qualifications, and through things like attendance rates.
- Targeting individuals and developing personal learning plans (in England there is a parallel initiative in the form of learning mentors).
- Coordinated provision and so-called ‘joined-up’ thinking (mirrored, again in England, but to a lesser extent, in the development of the youth support service).
For informal educators there is an explicit and a welcome recognition of their role – although there may not be a full and embracing understanding of their orientation and ways of working.
New community schools – essential characteristics
According to New Community Schools. The Prospectus (The Scottish Office 1999), the following essential characteristics are required in New Community Schools participating in the pilot programme.
New community schools – likely features
As well as these essential characteristics, New Community Schools are likely to have most if not all of the following features. They are likely to:
Here I want to focus on five key issues arising from the proposals and the experiences of early projects, and full-service schooling generally.
The focus on personal learning plans and individualization: The proposals fall in line with other elements of government policy around lifelong learning, learning mentors (Excellence in Cities) and the connexions strategy. There is an increasing focus upon targeting interventions at named individuals rather than working to enhance the readiness and capacity of groups and communities to better meet their members’ needs. An assessment is to be made of individuals soon after they enter education and a programme including targets for attainment will be agreed and regularly reviewed. Alongside this a form of casework is proposed as the dominant way of working. People are identified who are in need of intervention in order that they turn away from engaging in high-risk activities; re-engage with the schooling system; and/or to deal with their troubles.
An orientation to treatment, therapy and remedial action: While there is a significant element of additional educational activity, the overriding impetus is directed toward ‘treatment’. Given the roots in full-service schooling it is perhaps not surprising that medical or treatment models look like predominating among support services. The focus is upon the behaviour of individuals. Action is, thus, taken to try to change it in ways that are acceptable to the schooling system. The problem here is that what are in effect deeply political or public issues can easily get treated at the level of private troubles. There is a danger of pathologizing people. This is not to argue against the provision of support services, simply to say that they need to be balanced by work that attends to the public issue. In this case we need to look at the impact of poverty and the widening gap between rich and poor; of racism and political exclusion. In many respects this is a rerun of a tension that runs through many initiatives – but this does not undermine its importance.
Who manages? Head teachers have not been keen historically to have work happening in schools over which they have little control. However, there are significant barriers to them managing the sort of support services associated with the new community schools. First, the vast majority of them have little professional expertise or background in such services. This means they are simply not in a position to oversee, for example, the clinical decisions of medical professions. Second, there are clear questions of liability should things go wrong. (Schools acting alone would probably find it disproportionately expensive to insure any comprehensive range of health activities). Third, there are significant potential conflicts of interest especially around the ‘image’ of the school and the sorts of advice and service that may be necessary around sexual activity, drug usage and so on. The current round of proposals do seem to take some of these concerns. Local authorities have been encouraged to appoint an ‘integration manager’ to manage ‘the delivery of integrated services within the New Community School or the New Community School cluster’ (1999: 29).
Outcome orientation: As we have seen in relation to schooling and other areas of welfare there has been the growing use of fairly crude outcome targets by which to judge the activities of agencies and individuals. The focus on examination and SAT attainment within schooling, for example, means that other key aspects of the education process get sidelined. There are significant problems associated with product approaches to curriculum – so much of the richness of educational encounters cannot be captured within this focus. Furthermore, the concentration on achieving a particular outcome can easily encourage undemocratic practices and outcomes. Classically, within the new community schools, interventions are to be assessed on a narrow range of outcomes – rather than on any contribution made to the quality of civic life, personal flourishing or social relationships that arise out of the the process of informal education. Targets for the new community schools are to be specified in at least the following areas:
- raised attainment (in terms of an increase in the percentage of students attaining particular qualifications or 5-14 levels, or an increase in the number if students attaining each measure).
- raised attendance and reduced exclusion.
- improved service integration.
- improved learning.
- improved social welfare.
- improved health.
While some of these may be open to some sort of process assessment and concern with formal attainment, given experiences elsewhere it is still likely the focus will be on matters like attendance, qualification and upon other indices around health and social service referrals.
The failure to fully draw upon Scottish traditions of community education: Last, but not least, there is a rather sad setting aside of fundamental notions around community development which have formed a significant part of the Scottish Scottish community education tradition. The proposals, for all their talk of community, remain rather school-focused. This, when combined with the individual orientation, indicates the narrowness of the government’s understanding (or operationalizing) operating ‘social inclusion’. Any reasonable policy initiative in this area must look to the strength of groups, networks and associations within local neighbourhoods, people’s participation in political systems, and the whole area of employment, education and training.
Scottish Office (1999) New Community Schools. The prospectus, Edinburgh: The Scottish Office.
© Mark K. Smith. First published December 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014