Schools and their communities

In an article in The best in Education 2013, Leo Winkley, Head Master of St Peter's School, York looks at how schools can and should integrate with their local communities.

Wherever your child goes to school, whether in a quiet rural setting, or in the bustle of a large town or city, it is vital that their school is embedded in the wider community around it, so that pupils develop a sense of belonging to, as well as responsibility for, the world around them.

There are lots of ways in which good schools build links with the community around them. To my mind, the most effective is the creation of local school partnerships which bring together pupils, staff and parents from across the sectors. School partnerships run on good will as much as they do on funding. The returns on time and energy invested can be inspiring.

York is blessed with excellent schools, both state and privately funded, all benefiting from the strong sense of community that characterises the city. The City of York Independent State School Partnership (ISSP) has been running since 2007. There are currently ten schools actively involved (three independent, five state maintained and two academies) and who jointly fund the scheme. Pupils can study Russian to GCSE level and Thinking Skills at AS level; there have been conferences on leadership, choral workshops and enterprise projects.

Annette Aylett, who coordinates the ISSP programme, says that the strength of the partnership lies in providing exciting opportunities. “Working together means that we can provide more for the young people and teachers of York than we possibly could if we all worked on our own. Parents look to us to provide high quality opportunities which are not available anywhere else on this scale”.

Case Study: Free Latin GCSE open to all

As part of the ISSP, my school has been offering a two-year Latin GCSE course, free of charge, to pupils from state schools across the city. The subject isn’t widely available to pupils in the state sector, so the course is a prime example of how partnership working can create, rather than simply propagate, real opportunities. The 17 pupils, from five state schools, started their Latin learning from scratch eighteen months ago, in Year 9, and are now building up to the GCSE exam this June.

“This group of 15 year olds voluntarily comes to learn Latin after a full day at school for two hours, and complete the two hours plus of homework set each week with little complaint,” says Katherine Barker, who teaches the group. “They laugh in lessons and enjoy getting the answers right, delighting when they make connections with something they have learnt in a modern language or English or history. Two of the pupils who attend the same school insult each other in Latin when they see each other in the corridors. It doesn’t matter if they get an A* or a C in the final exam; it is a huge achievement for them to say they had the drive and determination to stick with the course.”

The main benefits for the pupils are academic. With such a small class size, the teacher is able to give immediate feedback and attention to individuals. Their involvement teaches them time management and autonomy over their work. “They want to do well in the GCSE not only for themselves, but also for their school and for their parents,” adds Miss Barker. “Friendly academic rivalry is not always present in their own schools. Some arrived with the mentality that they needed to hide their interest to seem ‘cool’, and I have seen those attitudes start to change.” St Peter’s pupils have great respect for those who are giving up their free time to learn Latin. “It is good for everyone involved to see these youngsters enjoying education for education’s sake”, says Miss Barker.

Rowing has also provided an opportunity to interact with the local community. It is unusual for schools to have a boathouse and many children will never get the chance to try the sport. Director of Rowing, Dr Jamie MacLeod, an Olympian himself, seized on the GB rowing successes at the London 2012 Olympics, to help set up a rowing partnership with York High School. “There is no doubt that there is a great depth of ability and enthusiasm within the partner school”, says Dr MacLeod, adding that he hopes to develop the scheme “so that all children have the opportunity of trying one of our top Olympic sports”. The pupils had access to dry training facilities and time out on the river with the school’s rowing coaches.

Independent schools often benefit their local community by sharing their facilities. Whether it’s welcoming youth groups to train on an all-weather pitch or running subsidised summer camps aimed at local children, most independent schools are keen to offer a good degree of free access to their facilities. At St Peter’s, our new swimming pool is used by York City Baths and our school hall plays host to the work of a number of city-based youth charities, such as Lollipop and The Island Charity. A home-grown ‘Community Action’ volunteering programme gets more than 150 pupils involved in projects in the local community, whether it’s helping the Silver Surfers to navigate the Web; reading to primary school children; doing gardening work in local schools, or, most challenging of all, partnering the ladies and gents from the nearby retirement home at the Christmas Tea Dance! These activities put our children in touch with members of the local community, young and old, and they develop the skills to form positive and confident relationships with people from all walks of life.

Partnerships between schools, and the communities in which they operate, are mutually beneficial. Pupils – whether in the state or independent sector - develop a sense of belonging to the wider community, and a genuine commitment to serving and caring for those around them. The youngsters make new friends, encounter new ideas and inspirations, and experience new environments. They are taken out of their comfort zones and, almost without exception, this brings the best out of them, often more than the pupils ever believed they could achieve. They develop an appetite for more contact with the world beyond the school, and a desire to give to the local community.

Independent schools can – and should – further strengthen their relationship with the community around them by offering significant bursary schemes, enhancing social mobility, and enriching the school community too. The worst thing any school can be is inward-looking and self-absorbed. This will inevitably make its youngsters socially and morally myopic.

In the end, parents and teachers across the country are all after the same thing: the goal of inspiring their children to aim high and to lead happy and rewarding lives, mindful and respectful of others. We want our children to have a strong sense of who they are and to value the community to which they belong.

Leo Winkley is Head Master of St Peter's School, York.