Why have previous attempts at community schooling largely failed? Pam Woolner from the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Newcastle discusses, and sets out possible implications for the current initiative

The appeal of extending the use of schools beyond the traditional school day and into the wider community has a long history. In the last issue of Extended Schools Update we looked at some notable examples of what has been put into practice in the past in the UK and USA. Nowadays, extended schools up and down the country are operating as hubs of the community but many are yet to follow suit. Now, we ask why this intuitively appealing idea has not by now become the norm.

Looking at the past

Sometimes it is asserted that particularly accessible or otherwise appropriate buildings are required for an extended school. It might even be argued that lack of such buildings has held back development, given the potential of our surroundings to help or hinder educational initiatives. However, the possibility of succeeding despite them is demonstrated by Teddy O’Neil’s innovations at Prestolee School, Lancashire. Under his headship (1918-1953), the unassuming red brick elementary school was turned into an educational and social resource for the whole community. Yet the way these ideas were pursued at the grassroots level, often opposed by higher authorities, left them inevitably rather isolated. Although the current Prestolee Primary School is clearly proud of its heritage (see website www.prestolee.bolton.sch.uk for full details), the innovations of the 1920s and 30s did not cause a step change in education in Lancashire or beyond. Perhaps because he appreciated this limitation, or maybe because, as it is rumoured, he disliked schools, Henry Morris took a different approach. As Cambridgeshire secretary of education, 1922-1954, he was determined to effect change at the local authority level. In 1924 he published his ‘Memorandum’, which explained how ‘village colleges’ could provide community centres for educational, social and cultural activities. This bold vision was put into action with a series of village colleges built during the 1930s but over time their extended schooling aspects withered away as central government priorities led to space and money being used for more narrowly educational objectives aimed at school children, rather than the wider community. Perhaps to remain influential an educational idea has to become part of national plans, integrated into central government thinking and spending. This seems to have happened in the UK and parts of the USA to the more moderate idea of ‘community schools’, which saw British secondary schools of the 1960s and 70s housing the local swimming pool, sports centre or dance and drama studio.

So, what can this history of the idea of ‘extending’ education tell us about the current British initiative?

It can be seen that the current plans for extended schooling have their roots in all these previous conceptions. They build on ‘community school’ initiatives, perhaps making use of school premises designed in the 1970s to house certain community activities. Individual schools might even have particular histories of community education and involvement which influence the way extended schooling will be understood. Meanwhile, the initial use by government of the term ‘full service’ reveals a link to more recent intentions to integrate education with other health and social services. Indeed early extended schools frequently centred on health-based innovations and multi-agency approaches.

Predicting the future
In this way, looking at the past can help us understand the context of current aspirations and plans, but can it assist us in predicting outcomes?

It is interesting to consider why certain past initiatives first succeeded but ultimately fizzled out. The British experience suggests the importance of central government support, and perhaps direction, for the long-term survival of extended schools. Both Prestolee and Cambridgeshire seem to show how initiatives at either the school or local authority level can initially appear revolutionary, but then fade away. On this basis, the prospects for the current extended schools look good, given their inclusion in national plans for education and child and family wellbeing. Although suitable premises are not a deciding factor in the success of schools, since poor surroundings can be adapted, notable buildings can have a positive, galvanising effect, as shown by the impact of Impington Village College. Also, purpose-built premises, such as those incorporating community facilities, make it easier to sustain and develop further plans for community use. In this respect, current extended schooling may be assisted by the ongoing wave of school building, centred on Building Schools for the Future. If schools are remodelled to facilitate and support extended school provision this must bode well for the programme. It might be argued, though, that appropriate buildings do not stop the gradual watering down of extended school activities and ideals, as occurred in Cambridgeshire. Even government support might not be enough to halt such withering away, particularly if that support is based on a rather general conception of extended schools. There is probably always a tendency for initiatives to be scaled back, becoming less radical in the process. Linked to this, it is notable that it’s the more moderate idea of community schooling that has most successfully stood the test of time in the USA. Some aspects of extended schools may well continue through the 21st century, but it is difficult at this point to predict which elements will become standard.

But dramatic changes do sometimes occur in education. In the end only time will tell whether today’s extended schools herald a revolution or only an adjustment.