Can schools realistically play a part in creating cohesion in their community? Dave Weston considers this question in the context of an increasingly diverse country

From September 2007 all schools had a new duty to promote ‘community cohesion’. Most schools are already carrying out the role of being a key player in every local community. This role is now being highlighted further by Ofsted, who will be looking at community cohesion in every school in inspections from September 2008. Therefore, primary headteachers will need to review their approach to developing a cohesive learning environment and ensuring that it is reflected appropriately in the school SEF and SDP.

All schools serve varying communities and are responsible for educating children who will live and work in a country which is becoming more diverse in terms of culture, faith, ethnicity and social backgrounds. Through their ethos and curriculum, schools can promote a common sense of identity and support diversity, showing pupils that different communities can work together to develop a coherent and successful society.

What is community cohesion?

There are a variety of working definitions of what is meant by community cohesion. A commonly agreed understanding is that everyone in an area is working towards an equitable society, in which there is a common vision, a sense of belonging and all people have similar life chances. All schools have a key role to play in ensuring every pupil achieves as well they can.

The government sees community cohesion as a concept based on relationships and understanding. Alan Johnson (then secretary of state for education) said in 2006 that community cohesion is based on ‘a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community.’

Community cohesion is where:

  • there is a clearly defined and widely shared sense of the contribution of different individuals and different communities to a future vision of a local area
  • there is a strong sense of an individual’s rights and responsibilities when living in a particular place – ‘everyone knows what is expected of them and what they can expect in turn’
  • those from different backgrounds have similar life chances and access to services
  • there is an understanding that local organisations and institutions will act fairly between different interests
  • there is a strong recognition of the contribution of those who have lived in an area for a long time and also those who are newly arrived, with a specific focus on what they have in common rather than differences
  • there are strong and positive relationships between people from differing backgrounds in the schools, the workplace and other institutions within a local area.

The role of schools here is crucial in creating opportunities for pupils to achieve their academic potential and by developing thinking and tolerant adults.

What is the ‘community’ for schools?

The ‘community’ has varying dimensions for schools. These include the individual school community and the community within which the school is located, as well as the UK and global communities. In addition, primary schools often develop their own networks of communities by working in clusters for a specific project or as feeders to a larger secondary school.

What are the key principles?

The government, in the Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review, stated: ‘We passionately believe that it is the duty of all schools to address issues of “how we live together” and “dealing with difference”, however controversial and difficult they may seem.’ As a result, the key principles seem to include a commitment to ensure that there is respect between differing groups, good communication between all partners, an emphasis on common factors, and an ownership of the educational process and its place in supporting the development of a cohesive society.

What does a primary school need to consider in promoting community cohesion?

Every primary school should consider the nature of its school population and the local community it serves. Community cohesion will look different in varying parts of the country and therefore there is no ideal model. Each school should review its activities within the school, with other schools, with parents, with the local and wider community and with any international partner schools.

The duty to promote community cohesion is explicitly placed on the governing body of a school. This is part of the developing leadership and management role within the Ofsted inspection regime. The revised inspection framework, starting in September, is likely to increase the emphasis of the role of the local school in supporting community cohesion.

The Oldham project As a result of serious social and racial unrest in 2001, Oldham council developed several projects to promote community cohesion throughout its services. One aspect of this programme was a specific range of activities for its primary schools. Two key projects were initiated to try to create a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities in the local area.

The schools linking project

This initiative was to get schools in vastly differing parts of Oldham to join together to share, explore and learn about each others’ schools; to create a culture of cooperation rather than competition. Thirty-eight primary schools voluntarily took on this project and over the last few years they have developed a variety of shared activities including: theatre and drama workshops, joint residential visits, working with artists in residence, sharing special days (such as health and fitness days), cultural visits to places of worship, community projects in developing environmental areas open to the whole public, increasing the use of ICT through email, blogging and the use of intranets to provide community information and links, sharing ‘territory’ and joint school council and staff training sessions.

The impact of this project is difficult to evaluate in the short term, but there were definite improvements in understanding and hopefully long-term attitudinal changes.

Unity in the community project

This project was to counteract segregation in primary schools and to build on key community services and institutions. The lead partners were Oldham Athletic FC, and the police and fire services who organised and hosted a variety of sporting- and art-based activities, which invited schools from very different cultural and economic backgrounds to work together. This project has been successful in widening the experiences of pupils and developing a greater understanding of other communities. The leadership of the Oldham LA was important in getting these projects started and in recent years many other areas have initiated similar programmes.

Things to think about:

  • Make sure governors are fully aware of the responsibility of the governing body to develop community cohesion.
  • Make sure that the SEF and SDP indicates positive community activities and evaluates successful school initiatives in this area.
  • Ensure that pupils, parents and staff are aware of their responsibilities, as well as their rights, in this area.
  • Look at a variety of ways, through the curriculum, to deepen the understanding of pupils about the wider world.
  • Offer school support and facilities to appropriate outside groups to develop community cohesion, but this should ‘support’ and not replace, the key focus of the school in improving teaching and learning.
  • Remember that the primary school is only one part of a local community and that its impact maybe limited – many other agencies have responsibilities in this area.
  • This may seem ‘another’ area of responsibility for the headteacher, but this responsibility must be kept in perspective and a work-life balance maintained.

In conclusion Primary schools are important agents in promoting community cohesion; they are often the only venue in some rural communities and sometimes the haven of stability in some inner-city areas. The school can take a lead in encouraging varying groups to understand each other and work together, but there are many other agencies whose main role is the development of a cohesive society. The school should develop this role, but only as a part of its key function of high-quality teaching and learning. The primary headteacher can help as a catalyst, but should not be expected to be the driving force in creating community cohesion.

A primary school’s contribution to community cohesion can be considered in three main areas:

Teaching and learning An effective school will have high standards of teaching and a curriculum provision that supports high standards of attainment, promotes common values that emphasise the understanding of the diversity of cultures, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. This may include lessons across the curriculum which promotes common values and challenges prejudice and stereotyping.

Equity and excellence

A focus on securing high standards of attainment for all pupils, regardless of ethnic or socio-economic background will support true equality of opportunity and achievement.

An effective approach to dealing with incidents of prejudice, bullying and cultural misunderstandings is crucial. It is important that schools are welcoming to parents from every social and economic group with fair admission arrangements that promote diversity and social equity. Monitoring of the achievement of pupils from varying groups is important in making sure that these policies are effective.

Engagement and ethos

School-to-school links support cohesion in some of the following ways:

  • The development of partnership arrangements to share good practice and offer pupils the opportunity to meet and learn from pupils from different backgrounds.
  • Links built into existing schemes of work, with pupils working together on joint projects.
  • Shared use of facilities to provide opportunities for different pupils to interact.
  • Links with schools outside the local area through EU and international projects.

Dave Weston is a school improvement partner