Schools and area regeneration

From September 2000 to November 2002
Project Leader(s): Alan Dyson and Alan Millward
Staff: Colleen Cummings, Deanne Crowther
Contact: Colleen Cummings
Sponsors: Joseph Rowntree Foundation


The fieldwork for this study began in 2000, when the neighbourhood renewal strategy and its associated PAT reports were already available and when the government was in the midst of its drive to raise standards across the education system as a whole. In this context, we wished to explore the role which schools were playing, and potentially could play, in area regeneration. We selected two areas to work in that were characterised by a range of disadvantages and where wide-ranging regeneration strategies had been set in place. We then selected for detailed study those schools which educated the largest proportions of children living in those areas. The fieldwork was conducted over a two-year period, from September 2000 until November 2002 and fell into four broad stages.

A first round of interviews was carried out with key stakeholders with the aim of gathering perceptions and some factual information about the communities and the schools serving those communities. The aim of the second round of interviews was to take the foci of the research to a more strategic level, hence the interviewees identified were those (e.g. local authority officers) with a strategic overview of education and regeneration policy. A subsequent round of interviews was concerned with exploring the impact of area based initiatives, with the focus centred on the Education Action Zones in each area. Feedback to and validation from participants in the research was a major feature of the methodology through recurrent interviewing with key informants and a formal feedback event at the end of the study's first year. The fourth stage of the research was likewise concerned primarily with feedback and updating through a series of re-interviews, particularly in schools and a conference for all interviewees at which findings and policy implications were discussed.

Interviewees were selected on the basis that they were community stakeholders or were in someway related to the communities, the schools serving those communities or the local authority serving those communities. Some interviewees were identified as key informants at the start of the study and others were identified through 'snowball' sampling. Most interviews were individual and face-to face, though we also undertook some focus group discussions with residents, parents and pupils. All interviews were structured through a topic guide, supplemented by specific questions as appropriate. Over the course of the fieldwork the research team spoke with over 300 individuals, many of whom were interviewed on more than one occasion. Quantitative data were obtained from public sources (notably, the DfES statistics web site) wherever possible. However, more detailed data often had to be sought from direct from the local authorities and the schools. This enabled us to carry out analysis of post code level attainment, a more complex analysis than those normally done on school performance data. Key Findings Although practice in the schools was eclectic - even incoherent - three basic models of schools' contribution emerged. They were: 1.The community resourcing model, in which schools seek to make their facilities, networks and expertise available to otherwise resource-poor communities. 2.The individual transformation model in which schools focus exclusively on improving the life-chances of individual young people by raising their attainment 3.The contextual transformation model, in which schools likewise seek to raise attainments, but feel that they can only do so by involving families and the community and that they must also develop a wider range of attributes in their pupils.

Many factors impacted on the ways in which schools adopted or selected elements from these models. In particular: Where disadvantaged areas were large, schools had a relatively homogeneous community to which they could relate through the community resourcing and contextual transformation models. However, where areas were small, schools drew their pupils from a diverse range of communities and had an incentive to focus more exclusively on what they themselves could do to raise pupils' attainments. Local authorities had different approaches to regeneration and to the role of schools. These policies might incline schools towards one or other of the models. National education policy required schools to focus heavily on 'standards' of pupil attainment. Although there was some policy encouragement for schools to engage with their communities, the standards imperative tended to override this. Head teachers were particularly powerful in determining schools' approaches. Not only did the heads of different schools have different views, but newly-appointed headteachers might reverse the direction in which a school was moving. Using any of these models, the evidence for the effectiveness of schools' work was ambiguous. Schools were engaged in a wide range of community-oriented activities and could have had considerable impact at an individual level or in specific aspects of their work. however, there was no evidence that they were able to have large-scale impacts on the communities they served as a whole, nor that they were able to bring about transformations of the life-chances of large groups of young people. Given the constraints under which they were operating and the intractable nature of the problems they were dealing with, it was unreasonable to expect anything other than this. The current situation seems to be one in which there are many expectations of and opportunities for schools in respect of area regeneration, but little by way of a coherent and supportive policy framework which can make their work effective.

A clear 'vision' of schools' roles is needed. Some principles on which this could be based are:

•The work of schools needs to be set in the context of a wide-ranging strategy to address disadvantage •Schools need to have a clearly-defined, but holistic role

•The 'standards agenda' needs to be rethought in ways which facilitate this role

•Funding, accountability and other policy frameworks need to be supportive of this holistic role •Schools need to work in clusters and other extended structures

•Strategies need to be based on good information about communities' needs and wishes.

There are encouraging signs in the government's commitment to ending child poverty, in its new and more open strategy for primary education and in its interest in defining an 'extended' role for schools. These are indications that a rethinking of the role of schools as part of a wider strategy to address disadvantage is politically possible. However, this rethinking begs some fundamental questions about what we expect schools to achieve and how they should relate to local communities and to wider society. Any real advance demands that we engage with these questions seriously and do so in respect not only of schools serving disadvantaged areas, but of the school system as a whole. The report ends with the argument that what is needed is not more numerous and more powerful targeted strategies, but a real effort to develop the capacity of universal services to meet a range of needs. This in turn may be about more than simply bolstering those services in the most disadvantaged areas. It may also involve thinking more profoundly about what we expect services to achieve and how we expect them to operate. This is not a merely semantic change. It involves thinking more profoundly about a series of questions including:

•What is it that we expect all schools to achieve for their pupils and what is the appropriate balance between academic attainments and the development of other sorts of knowledge, skills and attributes?

•What are the appropriate relationships between schools, families and communities? What levels of engagement do we think are appropriate and what do we expect each to bring to the other? How accountable do we wish schools to be to families and communities, and through what mechanisms? The answers to these, and other questions set out in the report, have profound implications for the way we understand the purposes of education, the role of schools and the relationship between social and educational disadvantage. Our view, however, is that we must be prepared to engage with these questions seriously and to do so in respect of the school system as a whole. Only then will we will begin to create schools which have the capacity to respond affirmatively to all their pupils and all the communities they serve.