Schools can be places of love. They show us what humankind, when we put our minds to it, can achieve. They show us, when we put the right systems in place what ‘the world as it should be’ can feel like.

Schools can show a tremendous amount of love to their community.

But, what if we linked our love for our school communities to the notion of power?

What if we linked our love for our school communities to the notion of power? Schools as Anchor Institutions – a Community Organiser’s Perspective

In an earlier blog, I discussed that ‘[u]nderstanding what kind of community we’re wanting to build should be a key question our schools ask and hold themselves to account on.

I see the Confederation of School Trust’s recent paper on School Trusts as anchor institutions as a useful follow up to their earlier paper on Civic Leadership published three years ago. Interestingly, that earlier paper was published before the pandemic hit us and it soon became clear, as Covid spread across our communities, that schools and trusts could play a serious role in supporting people beyond their gates. 

I also see the National Governors’ Association March 2022 paper on local governance as a useful agitation when it comes to ensuring that a clear understanding of local issues feed into strategic decisions for schools (or groups of schools).

In fact, such arguments have been part of many leaders’ practice(s). I, for one, became a Headteacher to work with a school community, rather than solely focus on what goes on within the walls of our classrooms.

The idea that it takes a village to raise a child is one which has perhaps become a bit of a cliché across the educational sector.

However cliché that phrase is, though, it’s often hard to truly establish what it actually means to do it in practice.  

I’m a Community Organiser and the majority of my work focuses on building power. The kind of power that is required to affect change across our communities. The power community organisers focus on is rooted in the importance of getting people to work together, across neighbourhoods, towns and cities, and regions. And it is a kind of power which entirely focuses on the importance of anchor institutions: those institutions which shape us as we grow up – our nurseries, our schools, our youth groups, our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, our sports clubs. These institutions are there to serve a purpose which often transcends their immediate outcomes: a nursery isn’t just about looking after children and providing them with the skills and knowledge which will enable them to thrive in the future. A school isn’t simply there to teach our children to read, or count, or use maps and recorders. A local football club isn’t simply there to entertain us for 90 minutes a week. As anchor institutions, those places intrinsically serve a purpose that is greater than what it actually says on the tin: they are there to create links between people, develop and sustain the social capital that makes life more than a utilitarian journey. In many ways, it gives meaning to who we are as humans. 

I started my Community Organising journey as a teacher in South East London: early on in my teaching career, it struck me that many of the children I taught came to school with no breakfast. Many came to school tired as they couldn’t sleep well. Living in overcrowded homes can have that effect on people! Many lived in fear of deportation because of the immigration status of their parents. 

As a teacher, I could see that the impact of the 85% of a child’s life that was spent outside of school had profound consequences when it came to attainment, attendance, and general wellbeing. 

What to do, then? Do we just do what many would imagine teaching – and school leadership – to be about? Do we focus on teaching more in order to ensure that our children catch up in terms of the many gaps which have opened whilst they have been growing up in difficult circumstances? Do we think that more teaching will solve the problems of the 47% of children who currently live in poverty across many parts of northern England? 

Well, of course we do. Of course we do. 

As a teacher turned headteacher, executive headteacher, and Community Organiser, I’ve been able to work with schools and trusts up and down the country to think slightly differently about what it is that we can do to help our children and their families live better lives.

As anchor institutions, a greater purpose often agitates us to dream about a different world. And as dreams are dreamt, actions can take shape.

Our annual targets, our five-year plans, sometimes our ten-year plans will indicate what most of our priorities are in terms of the desired outcomes we expect from our schools. Better SATs results, better GCSE, BTEC, and A Level results. Better progress measures to make sure that our young people are prepared for the challenges they will face as they leave our schools.

But what about our fifty-year plan? What about our hundred-year plan? What will our school communities look like when we’re long gone? What will things look like for our children’s children?

This kind of thinking – which anchor institutions are intrinsically rooted in – is the challenge I see before us. Our institutions will outlive us and our legacy, I’d like to argue, should be one which takes us beyond our own – often short-lived – involvement. A key question for us, as Trustees and Governors, is how do we challenge ourselves to focus on issues which will build foundations which withstand the test of time? How do we focus on the societal issues which shape our children’s lives in ways which, unless intentionally addressed, will always catch us up in a spiral of never-ending interventions which never deal with the root causes of injustice? In simple terms, how do we go upstream to find out who’s pushing our children into the river, when most of our efforts typically focus on pulling them out before they drown? 

Let me share with you what that can look like: 

Take a school in Newham, east London

Ruth is a 10-year old pupil attending a local primary school in Forest Gate. 10 minutes away from her school is the Olympic Park: a beacon of success when it comes to British pride. Ruth, however, isn’t too proud of the fact that she lives in that part of East London. That’s because with a big, fancy stadium nearby have also come lots of fancy – and very expensive – properties.

Ruth soon becomes aware that high property prices means that many of her friends have had to move away. Ruth’s headteacher is often seen pulling her hair out as many of her students and their families are having to leave. Not only is it difficult to say goodbye, but the impact it’s having on her ability to deliver a consistent curriculum and her ability to ensure that her students make the progress required are considerably impacted. We all know how pressurising the impact of mobility can be on schools. 

So Ruth and her friends have a chat. They have a chat with their headteacher and simply ask themselves what would happen if properties weren’t so expensive locally. They think cheaper properties would definitely help protect their school community. 

As a school, the situation they faced was therefore daunting: let’s ask our council and local developers to ensure that new homes built across Ruth’s neighbourhood could be made affordable. 

Could a school – acting on its sense of civic responsibility – do anything about this? Could a school – which claims to focus on the importance of community do anything about this?

No. They couldn’t. On their own, they couldn’t. 

But, as they built relationships with others across their neighbourhood, linking up with other institutions which also shared their sense of community and belonging – other institutions which were interested in what goes on beyond their walls – they built the necessary power to hold their local council and local developers (some of which many thought were untouchable) to account. Through a series of actions and negotiations, over a period of 2-3 years, they managed to convince local decision makers to build 300 homes which would be rented out at an affordable rate to the local community. 

Now, typically, affordability is a measure which is based on what the market dictates. But what Ruth and her team did was to make sure that affordability was based on the local income which, in that part of London, is one of the lowest in the country. As a result, those 300 homes were made available at a price which people could actually afford. A community won. A community is now protected.  

Let’s now think about an even more pressing issue. One in six children, nationally, face considerable mental health challenges. Many of our schools desperately scrape the barrel to find the funds required to address some of their children’s needs. But when money is found, it’s rarely enough to meet the needs of all children. As plasters are found, school leaders often realise that there are too many wounds to heal. 

Encouraged by their sense of civic responsibility – itself, as we said before, rooted in the fact that schools often wish to address the societal pressures which young people bring into our classrooms – groups of schools and colleges across various Citizens UK alliances are working together to identify systemic solutions to the many problems they face. 

Across one of the alliances I support, school leaders, teachers, parents and carers, and young people were trained to listen to each other across their communities. They were trained to have difficult conversations which would surface many of the worries which they often kept private. They were encouraged to turn their private pains into public pains.

Over 5,000 conversations and small groups discussions were held over a period of 4 months. From those thousands of conversations, key themes emerged: the fact that when a young person is 17, they’re unlikely to be seen by CAMHS. They’ll soon become an adult, so what’s the point? The fact that school leaders find it infuriating to have to complete forms which look different from one service to another. The fact that if you’re lucky enough to get a CAMHS appointment, you never know when it’ll be and, whilst waiting, you’re often left in limbo.

As a result of those thousands of conversations, and as those key themes emerged, action teams were built. School leaders were able to work across cities and regions to identify solutions and hold local decision makers accountable. NHS Trusts agreed to create services which support young people between the ages of 16 to 25 (thus avoiding that traumatic transition between adolescence and adulthood); single points of access were created to ensure that referrals happen through one portal, rather than dozens of different forms; virtual waiting rooms are being set up to ensure that there is a process in place to support those waiting for appointments.

Systems have changed: not by luck. They have changed because enough power was built for decision makers to listen to our communities more seriously. 

To finish off, and to bring us back to what I started with, we have opportunities ahead of us: the pandemic has shown us that there are issues we cannot avoid. Community Organisers will often be heard saying that if you’re not angry about the world we live in, that’s because you’re not looking hard enough.

Our communities are crying out for help. The governance of our schools and trusts cannot ignore that. So my final question for you is: ‘what will your school community look like in 50 years? In 100 years? Will your teachers and headteachers still be pulling their hair out because of the attainment gap we often moan about? Or will you have supported them to find long-lasting, systemic, solutions which address the root causes of the injustices our young people and their families face?