The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Dr Karamat Iqbal

Community in the school and school in the community

The transformative power of school-community relationships is plain to see. Karamat Iqbal explains what schools can gain from strengthening their local ties.

If we look closely enough at our communities, we discover that many of them are rich in different types of capital and assets which, when properly utilised, can add significant value to the core business of schools. 

Now and then policymakers will recognise this potential, albeit fleetingly, before they go back to yet more of the same concentration on ‘in-school’ practices. Many of us remember the 2004 National Standards for Headteachers, which made clear that ‘schools exist in a distinctive social context, which has a direct impact on what happens inside the school.’

Headteachers were advised to commit to engaging with their external community in order to work collaboratively with parents and others. 

This was an era of Schools Plus, when the then-minister for school standards, Estelle Morris, had spoken of ‘community in the school and the school in the community’ – with both willing to and being comfortable working in the other's space.

Why bother!

Of course, schools will want to know what they are to gain from developing community links.

It is well recognised that when parents are involved in their child’s education, that child does better on a range of measures. They behave better, attend school more often, are at lower risk of exclusion, are keener to learn and achieve better results.

Strong links with the community can make a particular contribution to the work of schools serving disadvantaged communities. They have been shown to help raise educational standards and close the achievement gap between rich and poor children. In such contexts schools are often keen to raise aspirations of their children and parents, which can work when you take a 'neighbourhood' approach.

It is therefore necessary to mobilise schools’ external communities in order to engender positive attitudes towards education.

Another area where the wider community can be a useful asset is in the provision of extracurricular learning, which can make a real difference to raising educational standards. Such activities need not be provided within the school and by teachers alone. Individuals and organisations within the wider community can be a valuable resource for learning.

To see the difference a strategic level partnership between community and local authority can make, look no further than Tower Hamlets. The turning point was in 1998, when a damning Ofsted report drew attention to the fact that only 26 per cent of pupils in the borough gained five or more A–C grades at GCSE, compared with a national average of 43 per cent. But over a ten-year period, this changed dramatically. By 2011, 61.4 per cent of Tower Hamlets pupils achieved five or more A*–C grades at GCSE, exceeding the national average for the first time.

Partnership with the local community played an important role on this journey of transformation. The council and schools worked closely with community organisations. A number of the schools became informal community centres, providing resources and recreation for children, young people and adults.

This resulted in:

  • children having an average of 90% or above attendance
  • parents having positive attitudes to local schools
  • exceptionally high attendance at all parents' meetings.

Having a healthy and respectful relationship with its community can benefit a school in its recruitment of local people as teachers and a range of other roles, as was the case in Tower Hamlets. These local practitioners:

  • have a unique understanding of the school’s relationship to the neighbourhood and can act as a bridge
  • enter classrooms as constitutents of the community, with a particular knowledge of the school’s context
  • know parents, businesses and community organisations
  • have an established network of local relationships, which can be valuable for the school.

Mural art on Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets. 'Partnership with the local community played an important role on this journey of transformation'

Possible responses

Community links and partnerships do not flourish overnight. They take time that busy school leaders and staff cannot spare.

However, the long-term benefits can make the investment worthwhile. Central to such a relationship is education practitioners’ understanding of the wider community. For the aforementioned Schools Plus policy to succeed, it was important that they felt comfortable in working in the ‘space' inhabited by the parents of their children and others in the wider community.

In a report from the National College of School Leadership, this understanding was referred to as 'contextual intelligence'. The leaders with such understanding were found to be sensitive to their school’s external environment without being patronising or condescending. They tended to talk about the strengths of the local community rather than its weaknesses; the locality as an opportunity rather than a problem.

Research has reinforced the importance of school leaders connecting with the community. Participants in one study were found to be acutely aware of the need to engage with their community.

‘They visited homes, attended community events, communicated regularly with the parents about successes and engendered trust by showing genuine care for young people.’ Furthermore, ‘they understood the forces within the community that impeded learning, they were aware of the negative forces of the sub-cultures and they listened to parents’ views and opinions regularly.’

The leaders concerned were in a position to recognise that ‘family, school and community relationships directly affected student outcomes hence the need to connect with the community was of paramount importance to the success of the school.’

The Headteacher Standards referred to above had pointed out that ‘school improvement and community development are interdependent.’ Community development can help the stakeholders to recognise and develop their ability and potential and organise themselves to respond to their common problems and needs.

‘It supports the establishment of strong communities that control and use assets to promote social justice and help improve the quality of community life. It also enables community and public agencies to work together to improve the quality of government.

All communities have assets, skills and resources but they also have constraints that limit what is possible

A related term is community capacity building. Some communities, especially those who suffer from economic and social disadvantages, often need a helping hand to enhance their capacity to make a difference. Such an approach starts with a viewpoint that ‘all communities have assets, skills and resources but they also have constraints that limit what is possible’.

It is suggested here that schools can learn from the community organising tradition championed by Saul Alinsky: ‘The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community.’ Similarly, Paulo Freire had advised that people wishing to work together needed to enter each other’s worlds.

Such an approach can help schools have a different perspective in disadvantaged contexts. Rather than referring to parents who do not attend meetings when invited as ‘hard to reach’, schools can come to a realisation that it is they who are the possible cause of such exclusion.

In a similar vein, Debra Kidd has recommended that schools help engender pride amongst their children in relation to the communities they belong to:

'Find the local heroes, the people running charities and food banks for example. Bring them into school to talk about what they are doing to make the community a better place. […] Give children a sense of moral purpose that is linked to where they live.'

Read Debra's full interview with Elizabeth Holmes, 'Education is for everyone', for more on social mobility, disadvantage and the role of the community.

Losing local

Where walls and fences come into existence between schools and their communities the cost can be massive. This was discovered in Birmingham through the Trojan Horse affair. Three years prior to the controversy, Tim Boyes, current Head of the Birmingham Education Partnership, had made a presentation to the Department for Education.

He had pointed out a number of ‘vulnerabilities’ in the local authority. One of these was a school-community disconnect. Sadly little was done in response.

Then in 2013 there was an almighty blow-out that has caused irreparable damage to education locally, especially to the trust between schools and their communities. When I interviewed Boyes recently, he agreed that a repeat of Trojan Horse was likely.

We have a two-dimensional solution being implemented in response to a three-dimensional problem

Interestingly, Tahir Alam, chair of the Park View Educational Trust, one of the schools at the centre of the affair, has also spoken of poor school-community relations being central to Trojan Horse. In an interview with me he stated that community was the missing link in Birmingham education: ‘We have a two-dimensional solution being implemented in response to a three-dimensional problem.’

The third dimension is the mainly Muslim community, whose children have been the largest pupil religious group since 2011, but is generally kept outside the school portals. We are yet to see schools fully engage with them and benefit from their resource capital. The result continues to be low levels of trust between schools and the communities they serve and large numbers of children continuing to leave school without achieving the benchmark qualifications.

Will Ryan, one of the contributors to the excellent Working Class (Gilbert, 2018) asks: to what extent can schools play a part in rebuilding, recreating or, indeed, establishing a sense of community? He then implies that there is little chance of this happening in the current times where community schools have been replaced by academy chains run from ‘the other side of the country by someone at a desk with a spreadsheet and a knighthood’.

In this Ryan agrees with Boyes, who had expressed to me his view that the ‘local’ had been lost from community. The notion of school as community-owned, community-led and belonging in a locality had been undermined by academisation, ‘where there are arrogant, narrow, limited technicians sitting now in some headteacher seats who know how to get good results but have got a very limited sociological understanding of their school and its locality and its communities’ (Iqbal, 2018).

Tahir Alam, chair of the Park View Educational Trust, has spoken of poor school-community relations being central to the Trojan Horse affair

Bridges, not fences

We are well aware that children spend no more than twenty per cent of their time at school; the rest is spent elsewhere. Many decades of research, especially that on school effectiveness, has told us that schools' capacity to make a difference is limited by external factors. This clearly points to a need for new ways to bridge pupils' lives lived in different spheres: home, school and the wider community.

If we don't make those connections, schools' island mentality is going to continue as it has done before, with large numbers of children leaving compulsory education as failures. This is a particular issue for schools serving disadvantaged communities.

In our work with such schools, we advise them to consider the following questions.

  • What does community mean to you?
  • What resources are there in your school community you could tap into?
  • What are you doing already?
  • What new partnerships could you build?
  • What can you do to build the capacity of your local community?


Gilbert, I. (2018), The Working Class (Carmarthen: Independent Thinking).

Iqbal, K. (2018), British Pakistani Boys, Education and the Role of Religion – In the Land of the Trojan Horse (London: Routledge).

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