Building links within learning communities — collaborations with other schools, parents, groups and agencies — can have wide-ranging benefits, says Alan Gough. Here he outlines the Better Together programme, which is aimed at collaborative working at local level

Better Together
The programme aims to build foundations for neighbourhood learning communities through informal and structured workshops that bring together parents, school staff, local groups and voluntary/statutory agencies. Workshops are designed to enable those taking part to learn from each other and to explore how they can best work together – now and in the future – for the benefit of children and families locally. As such, the programme aims to enable inclusive practice and  to build positive and lasting relationships between diverse groups of people as a foundation for ongoing cooperative work.

An underlying assumption is that participants, regardless of their background, circumstances and relative power, have one thing in common – a real interest in the lives and futures of children and families in their neighbourhood. This is a move away from a deficit model of families and communities that has dominated for far too long. Those involved in the programme appreciate and welcome the fact that everyone taking part has their own perspective – along with significant skills and knowledge – gained from their experiences. Everyone, therefore, has an equal contribution to make.

I am very aware of research illustrating the links between socio-economic disadvantage and educational attainment. The 2006 Audit Commission report, for example, concluded that ‘Children’s educational underachievement is linked with a wide range of deprivation factors: low parental qualifications, poor housing conditions, low family income, ill-health, family problems and wider community factors such as low aspirations and unemployment’ (2006:4). A 2007 report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identified that ‘Just 14% of variations in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality, noting the need to look at other factors both inside and outside school’ (2007:1).

I share the view that efforts to raise standards for children in the most deprived communities must extend beyond the classroom. The Better Together programme, initiated by the National College for School Leadership (NCSL), appealed to me, as it recognises this and offers a model to facilitate effective, authentic and sustainable school-community engagement.

In December 2007 I embarked on an NCSL ‘Training the Trainers’ course and have since facilitated stakeholder events in six school communities in Sefton. These will be followed by a series of action planning workshops, where participants will decide on specific work to undertake together in the coming year. Here, I outline the programme; the factors that inhibited and enabled the smooth running of initial stakeholder events; and the outcomes of the programme to date. 

The programme has a number of key themes:

  • an acceptance of the need to change our ways of working
  • a movement from meetings of professionals ‘finding and fixing’ problems, to more inclusive, cooperative working that aims, over time, to predict and prevent problems from arising
  • the importance of social capital to educational and social development, ie, recognition of the capacity that exists in all communities, among individuals, groups and organisations, and the development of thriving human relationships in a neighbourhood
  • the building of trust between all those involved
  • enabling and supporting local leadership, which is distributed among the community rather than held by a small number of  individuals.

We have found that typically, an initial all-day session, followed by three half-day sessions, works well. Content of the first session might include, after introductions, identifying key issues and exploring how we might work together. We identify objectives using the following questions as a guide:

  • What is the key question that would animate everyone in our community to act together?
  • What are the main assets in our community?
  • Are they being used?

Later sessions are mainly about action planning and leadership, essentially identifying ways to support participants to take chosen leadership roles.

Preparing for a stakeholder event
In preparing for the first event, schools are asked to approach members of the school community (teachers, support staff, parents, and governors). I also liaise with Sefton Council for Voluntary Service, to find out about community groups and local voluntary organisations who could be invited to take part. We seek to invite groups and organisations around three weeks before the event so that interested workers can diary this. A letter will also be sent to parents at this time and a reminder forwarded a few days before the event. It is important that the invitation is friendly, welcoming, and avoids worker-speak entirely. The following has worked well for us:

‘As a school, we very much wish to work closely with parents and the local community to improve the lives of children and families in our neighbourhood. To help us to do this, we have accepted an invitation from Sefton Extended Schools to be one of the first schools in Sefton to hold a ‘Better Together’ event. This is a day for everyone with an interest in the future of children and families in our area – parents, teachers, local groups and others – to spend some time together, looking at:

  • Why is it important for us to work together?

  • How can we do this?

  • What are the good things in our neighbourhood?

  • What can we learn from each other?

The event will be informal but with a clear purpose. We hope that, with your help, it will be the beginning of a new way of schools and local people supporting each other to create a bright future for our children and families. We hope that you can join us. You will be made very welcome.’

Facilitating the activities
It is important to book a venue that’s comfortable and easily accessible, and to arrange for refreshments to be provided – including lunch for the full-day event.

We ensure that participants are made to feel welcome on arrival and always offer teas and coffees. I have found that the introduction to the day is very important, particularly in emphasising that the programme is about taking time to build good relationships and learn more about the experiences of children and families in our neighbourhoods.

In the introduction we also explain the role of the facilitators (namely, to encourage thought and discussion) and the methods that we will use throughout the day – mainly group work, use of flip charts and pictures, reflection, and evaluation. We also set out some rules of engagement and explain that if we are to learn from each other, it is important to agree an approach that enables open, honest dialogue and allows time for every voice to be heard. Through enquiry, we are seeking to explore what is important to people in their everyday lives and experience and what we might positively do together to make improvements.

Groups, protocols and visual aids
It is important in the early stages to support the generation of key themes that might inform the work later on. When working in small groups, participants are typically asked to consider a number of questions relating to a specific topic and, initially by taking turns around their table, to say what each question means for them. It is stressed that each person has time to think before contributing – silence is OK – and may choose to ‘pass’ to the next person. By giving every person time and the right to choose how and when they wish to contribute, we aim to empower participants and prevent a situation where the more confident have more to say. This work is best facilitated by a volunteer at each table.

In a conventional workshop, we might ask participants to write down key points from small-group discussions and then take turns to feed back to the whole group. A day like this might end with wall-to-wall flip charts full of practical solutions and actions to address problems they have identified.

At our initial all-day events in Sefton, we took a different approach. We were accompanied by two artists, who created pictures and diagrams to represent key points raised. Participants too were encouraged to draw, if they wished, and to communicate with the artists throughout the day, so that an accurate record of important points could be made. The resulting artwork formed the key record of the event and hence the foundation for future work. We recognised that through these pictures, we may stimulate thought and creativity and identify patterns.

In a related exercise, participants working in small groups were invited to each write or draw a word or image that they felt was really important. The sheets of paper were then circulated around the room and associated words and images were added. Each person was given just 10 seconds in which to do this! The purpose of this was to add to the emerging picture of the neighbourhood, while by-passing the self-editing that we often do in sharing our views with others. 

Reflection and evaluation
At intervals, individuals are given opportunities to silently reflect on what has been happening, making notes if they wish, and then to share their reflection with a ‘buddy’ in the room. Any notes made remain with the participants, though important points from this can be added to the artwork. Evaluation is a central strand of our work and we use a range of methods to do this. Thus far, in our work in Sefton, we have invited everyone to sit in a circle at the end of the first event and say one word that sums up their experience of the day.

Challenges and outcomes
I’ve mentioned some of the factors that facilitated the smooth running of our events in Sefton, but with these came some challenges. The main ones included:

  • Overcoming an unpaid/paid worker divide, moving through the accountability of paid
  • workers to the community, towards recognition
  • of common purpose, shared leadership and mutual respect within the group.
  • Difficulties in shedding established ‘find and fix’ mindsets and taking time to build a learning community as a foundation.
  • Balancing theory and practice, particularly for what have been diverse gatherings, in terms of the mix of individuals attending specific events.
  • The challenge of embarking on a long-term enterprise with no specific, pre-defined outcome – described by one worker as ‘an act of faith’.
  • The extent of the initial work that needs to be done in a neighbourhood prior to an event – this should not be underestimated. It includes mapping and contacting local groups; pre-events to engage parents; and the practical considerations of venues, available childcare and transport. There are also more general difficulties in bringing a range of people together. Workers are busy (as are parents), teacher time is fully accounted for in school and the cost of providing cover is high. This is in addition to existing limitations of the school year for developmental work. To date, we have been in a position to share costs of cover with the participating schools.
  • Balancing a structured learning programme with the needs, feelings and aspirations of those involved. To be successful, shared local ownership is central. The need to get across key elements of the programme must be adapted to incorporate emerging needs.

Outputs, outcomes, lessons learned
Local events typically attract 20-30 participants, with an even split between parents, schools and groups/organisations. Evaluations have been positive: one teacher felt that the ideas and experience had been ‘a revelation’; suggestions for action included ‘breaking the work into bite-sized pieces’, ‘identifying ways to make cradle-to-grave provision more accessible’ and ‘creating more of a sense of community.’ One group produced a melting pot of phrases, containing ‘early intervention’, ‘positive ways for parents and guardians to get involved’, ‘partnership’, ‘Every Child Matters’ and ‘solid foundations’.

Some may feel that these ideas are rather vague, but we believe that each word, phrase or picture can be the foundation for a whole range of practical work. Significantly, people have emerged with a sense of camaraderie, issues to explore, and not an intractable problem in sight! The action-planning workshops will follow – some are scheduled already – and this next crucial step in the process is about identifying practical ways to move things forward.

We have learned a lot from the first round of events. Given the aim of improving lives and futures for children and families, there is a strong argument for prioritising work with parents of pre-school and primary school children. It is also easier to engage parents in these environments. This is not to exclude secondary schools but perhaps to involve a cluster of feeder schools, children’s centres and nurseries also. The neighbourhood focus of the work would also encourage a cluster approach, provided that the geographical area takes account of real community boundaries.

Of course, there are issues about engaging young people in the process and we appreciate that ‘Better Together’ events may not be the best vehicle through which to do so. We are currently investigating how we can best do this. One idea might be simply to ask young people how they would like to contribute – this seems a reasonable starting point.

We have also identified how important it is to encourage a ‘Better Together’ type of culture across the whole school community. As the process is very much about developing or changing cultures, it would be difficult, I think, to ‘bolt it on’ to contrasting ways of working in schools. In the same way, I facilitated a learning day for my colleagues in our Extended Schools team to raise awareness of the work and to generate discussion and enquiry.  The more we do this, the greater the likelihood that the process is embedded into the practices of schools and other services, leading to sustainability.

Moreover, we have come to recognise the great potential for parents and support staff in schools to have leadership roles in sustaining the work. Having been involved in training with teaching assistants on participatory approaches to extended schools, and taught a Community Development Level 2 qualification for parents involved in parent councils, I know that there can be great interest in this and willingness to be involved in a distributed leadership approach.

In short, the programme can play a key role in building capacity and developing social capital within schools and across neighbourhoods. The benefits of this can take some time to become evident but, at a time when our thoughts are turning towards the sustainability of extended schools, this investment becomes increasingly important. I have found that ‘Better Together’ is not a concept that can be ‘sold’ to schools. It works best where efforts are already being made to involve parents and make community connections. In these circumstances, the programme can provide a vehicle to take this work to a new level and enable real, lasting change, and – for certain – ‘Better Together’ is about change. In fact, it is about nothing but change. Time will tell – cultural and community change will not happen overnight – but the dominoes are now in place and we have a good foundation on which to build.

The writer wishes to acknowledge his indebtedness to the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) for the ideas and methodology of the ‘Better Together’ initiative and in particular to Laura ‘Mole’ Chapman, Maggie Farrar, George Otero and those NCSL workers who facilitated the ‘Training the Trainers’ events, and to John West-Burnham, co-author with George and Maggie of Schools and Communities: Working Together to Transform Children’s Lives (Network Continuum Education, 2007)


  • Hirsch (2007) Experiences of Poverty and Educational Disadvantage. Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • Audit Commission (2006) More Than the Sum: Mobilising the whole council and its partners to support school success