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Schools – should they take the lead on public health and the Big Society?

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 16:30

By Charlie Mansell, who was a Labour Councillor on the London Borough of Sutton for 20 years, leading the Labour Opposition for 9 years.  He now leads on Research and Development at the Campaign Company and writes in a personal capacity

Education debate in recent months seems to have been about how embarrassing the Building Better Schools fiasco was – how many times does Michael Gove have to apologise to the House – and how little public interest there seems to be in the Government’s Free Schools initiative.

The only other recent innovation is Ed Milliband suggesting he will look at the way grammar school ballots are conducted-still a live issue in the local authority where I was a local Councillor in for 20 years. However, will anyone outside of maximising Labour leadership election votes really seek to reopen the issue when so few schools are involved? In any case, parents in those areas may easily be driven to stick to the status quo if they fear a cap on aspiration.

However, are there other parts of the Government’s agenda that could be much more interesting to schools in the long-run?

In the last 10-15 years we have heard a lot about the concept of “schools in the community” and have seen some advances with:

  • Shared community sports facilities
  • Children’s Centres – often based at schools
  • Safer Neighbourhood Teams working out of school sites

Nevertheless, despite the “community” terminology, these have often been about the delivery of big government programmes and large revenue streams, rather than local capacity building. Outside of some regeneration areas, the school as the hub of the community is still perhaps a concept rather than a reality.

There are also new challenges, most of all overshadowed by the current financial situation:

The Big Society has been advanced by the Prime Minister and more recently by the Deputy Prime Minister as an approach to address some of these issues. However, this seems to be characterised at a local level as simply “helping you to help yourself” when it additionally  needs to be framed as helping poor communities to “help each other” and also be described in such a way that it is seen as a motivator for those who are more intrinsically driven to “help others”.

Can schools play more of a role here? I think so. Looking at the challenges I outlined, here are some thoughts:

  • Social MobilitySchools can play a much bigger role in locally marketing education to communities where it might be undervalued. Does the average primary school know which of its pupils went on to University? Most of us have had computers and databases on our desks for over 20 years, so can they start thinking the importance of their success stories to the young people that follow. Too often in the poorest communities, the outflow of success is not reported back until years later thus allowing a negative culture of low-aspiration to be reinforced.
  • Public Health – The transfer of public health funding to local authorities could see a small public health team swamped in the culture of a local authority. Education is the biggest local spend and is all about supporting people’s ability. However, as the forthcoming Public Health White Paper should show, Behaviour Change theory also recognises the importance of motivation and at last this is being looked at in collective action terms rather than left to American self-help books. Schools could develop their role here using mentoring. Linked into this the biggest national public health campaign Change4Life about childhood health eating may be moving away from advertising campaigns and into encouraging businesses to support local initiatives. Schools could provide the useful delivery point for the next stage of Change4Life supported by public private collaboration. It would almost certainly be better than McDonald’s simply sponsoring some Change4Life event to a wall of cynicism.
  • Community Resilience – Too often when we talk about the Big Society it seems to be about getting a few more volunteers to work at libraries. Yet there is a history of volunteering with PTA’s and people helping on school trips. Can this be expanded? Perhaps less so in the school itself and much more in terms of local school community outreach, perhaps improving local social networks where negative outlooks and behaviours are more prevalent. Local authorities are beginning to appreciate the importance of tapping into local word of mouth and schools could play a bigger role here, linking into the two previous issues.

So rather than focus on a few free schools, perhaps Michael Gove should look a lot more at his Cabinet colleagues agenda and seize some opportunities to support local schools to become the real embodiment of the Big Society and also the key base for supporting the new public health agenda.