Extended schools hold the key to tackling social problems

In a new book out today (Tuesday 12 April 2011) academics from Newcastle and Manchester universities are calling for a ‘long overdue’ debate about what we expect of schools in the 21st century.

Beyond the School Gates delves into the history behind this national experiment, which saw schools linking up with other agencies to open their doors to the community.

However, a lack of a coherent national approach now puts them in the firing line for government cuts – despite the fact that they actually save thousands of pounds.

In addition to regular schooling, extended services offer childcare, out-of-hours activities, parenting support, and community access to school facilities.

“In the current economic climate, it’s tempting to see them as little more than an unnecessary interference in the core business of schools, but this would be a great mistake,” said co-author Liz Todd, Professor of Educational Inclusion at Newcastle University.

“There’s strong evidence that extended schools can have a powerful effect on individual children, families and adults  – particularly those facing major disadvantages. These effects can, in some cases, quite literally change people’s lives, by ensuring that young people and families stay ‘on track’.

“One of the main problems is that you often don’t see short-term attainment gains for the whole school from this approach and that can make governments reluctant to invest.”

Research for the book showed that early intervention in just one child’s life could save thousands of pounds in terms of future benefits, early pregnancies, mental health interventions etc. The most cost-effective way of achieving those savings was shown to be through exam results: even a small improvement in grades is estimated to have an average economic benefit of over £160,000*.

“It’s not so much a mistaken policy, as one that is under-developed,” said co-author Professor Alan Dyson, of The University of Manchester. “If these schools were aligned with more far-reaching efforts to tackle disadvantage, then their potential to make a real difference would be considerably increased.

“They have a great deal to contribute in terms of tackling social and educational disadvantage, but it’s unrealistic to think that they alone can create more equal societies without working in partnership with other agencies. Once they do, it’s a win-win situation as these schools are already very creative and accomplished at pooling budgets, winning awards and making a little bit of money go a long way.”

Like all schools, extended and full service schools focus primarily on teaching children and developing their knowledge and skills in a classroom setting, but this is not their sole aim. They are also concerned with how children thrive – or fail to thrive – within their families and communities, and how this wider circle of influence can be engaged and supported.

“There is a massive untapped community resource out there of people who know what works best for them,” said Professor Todd. “We have to move away from a model of delivering support to ‘needy’ people and work alongside children, families and communities to jointly come up with solutions to the problems they face.

“Schools can ignore what lies beyond their gates, but they cannot escape it. The choice is not whether to allow the outside world into the school – it is whether to do so openly and thoughtfully, embracing the challenges and opportunities this presents, or to pretend, against all evidence, that the outside world does not exist.

“Extended and full service schools – linking strategically with other agencies – can no longer be regarded as ‘optional extras’ in the school system.”

Beyond the School Gates: Can full service and extended schools overcome disadvantage? by Colleen Cummings, Alan Dyson and Liz Todd, is published by Routledge on 12 April 2011.

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