New community schools in Scotland

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.

  • A focus on all the needs of all pupils at the school. Their social, emotional and health needs will be considered. Proposals must demonstrate that, from the viewpoint of the service users (the pupils and their families), the New Community School will offer a coherent range of services. All pupils will have a personal learning plan.
  • Engagement with families. Empowering parents and family members to raise their expectations of their children and themselves. In most cases this will include the development of a family support service at the school. Outreach to parents must be planned and provided.
  • Engagement with the wider community. The development of a New Community School will provide an important opportunity and mechanism to build the capacity of the local community. Authorities should consult the local community in the initial preparation of the bid and the subsequent development of the New Community School. Proposals must set out the steps taken and planned to involve the local community in the bid and what is proposed by way of continuing community and family involvement, for example through community representation on a local steering committee. The role and potential of the School Board should also be considered.
  • Integrated provision of school education, informal as well as formal education, social work and health education and promotion services. This will require a new approach and level of inter-disciplinary team working – ensuring that the team can intervene quickly and effectively in support of the child or the family. These are likely to be the core services – but authorities are encouraged to consider other services and be innovative and flexible in their approach. The involvement of local GP practices and health professionals with a key role in improving child health – health visitors, for instance – should be explored. The voluntary sector has much relevant direct experience and expertise in aspects of the role of the New Community School and therefore has a significant role to play. The business and industry sectors can play a significant part. In their proposals, authorities should therefore set out the role and contribution of these sectors.
  • Integrated management. Proposals must show how integration will be achieved. At the minimum, proposals should set out a management structure which includes a single reporting and accountability framework within the New Community School for all of the core services involved. It is for authorities to devise a framework appropriate to their own circumstances. One possibility would be the establishment of a steering committee chaired by the head teacher, with staff reporting to and accountable to that committee as well as, if so desired, to their parent services. The management structure could be supported by an integration manager…
  • Arrangements for the delivery of these services according to a set of integrated objectives and measurable outcomes. It is likely that many services will not have been delivered at or through the school before. In most instances, co-location in some form is likely to be a significant feature. This is because co-location provides the most straightforward opportunity to ensure coherence of service provision for the school’s pupils. Alternative coordinating arrangements may be proposed provided that the principle of coherence to the service users is observed and that integrated management is not compromised.
  • Commitment and leadership. To be effective, those working in and for the New Community School and staff in Directorates and other services who relate to the school must be committed to the concept of integrated working. This commitment and leadership is essential at political level and at all levels of management. It must be shared by all partners.
  • Multi-disciplinary training and staff development. A programme should be developed involving the full range of staff working together to common goals and objectives in promoting the educational attainment and welfare of children in the school. (Scottish Office 1999: 8-9)

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:

  • have a positive, inclusive ethos in which children, their parents and teachers are focused on learning in a supportive but challenging environment and on improving attainment in formal and informal learning settings;
  • promote positive parent-child relations and family inclusion. The New Community School involves a step change in the relationship between the school and the families of the children at the school. It should provide advice and support for parents as well as children. The school must work very closely with parents as full partners;
  • provide out of school childcare;
  • provide student and family welfare services;
  • develop active health promotion and education and take steps to become a health promoting school;
  • ensure that styles of learning and teaching are adopted (possibly including active learning and informal education techniques) to ensure that an appropriate and stimulating curriculum is accessible to all students;
  • make adjustments to the curriculum when it can be demonstrated that a better education and experience will be offered for those pupils concerned and student potential maximised;
  • work positively with informal education to help ensure that young people are challenged and stimulated to learn and engage actively with their communities, and that support for parents reaches those most in need;
  • at the earliest possible stage, address the needs of vulnerable children, eg children looked after by the local authority, children in need, children at risk of offending or of serious substance misuse;
  • provide a focal point for the community to engage in aspects of lifelong learning, including support for their children at school;
  • operate study support schemes, out of school hours and/or during school holidays;
  • operate an explicit policy of no exclusion through an inclusive approach which values all pupils equally;
  • in the primary sector) provide – either directly or under contract with providers in the voluntary or private sectors – a range of services for pre-school children, including day-care and pre-school education;
  • in the secondary sector) enhance the quality of formal and informal education for work for young people at school; and
  • in the secondary sector) prepare young people for further and higher education and enhance their future employment prospects. (Scottish Office 1999: 10-11)


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.

Web links

New Community Schools website

New Community Schools Prospectus

© Mark K. Smith. First published December 1999. Last update: July 08, 2014