Around 7 years ago I was Head of EAL in a large inner city academy. We had a diverse catchment area and the local community was brilliantly bustling and varied but this didn’t always make parental involvement particular easy.

What is community cohesion?

From September 2007 all maintained schools had a duty to promote community cohesion. The DCSF offered a definition of a cohesive community as one in which:

  • There is a common vision and sense of belonging for all communities;
  • The diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued;
  • Similar life opportunities are available to all; and
  • Strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in schools and in the wider community

The guidance also highlighted three areas where schools in particular could work to build cohesion for Britain and provide a stronger focus for work in schools and links with the wider community, these areas were:

  • Teaching, learning and curriculum
  • Equity and excellence
  • Engagement and extended services

In my opinion, schools have been working on the first two areas for far longer than the term Community Cohesion has existed, I know that in my own school we did very well at providing a curriculum that was varied and culturally inclusive, we celebrated a wide range of important events as a whole school, ensuring that all pupils achieve their potential, irrespective of ethnic, socio-economic or other differences, was already a clear focus for us. Where we seemed to fall down was in the third area – Engagement and Extended Services.

We had poor attendance at many of our school events, particularly parents’ evening. We tried to have an open door policy but something wasn’t working – we were not getting parents through the door and parental involvement in their children’s education was low. I decided to undertake a study to examine what was going on and what we, as a school, could do better. This study did form part of my MA dissertation.

The case study:

I began by meeting key members of the local community, I used a translator from school to make these connections and she enabled me to speak with them very easily. I met business owners and religious leaders and groups of mothers from the local area. I began to put together a complex picture of what was happening outside our school gates and I began to feel rather ashamed of our ‘open door policy’. The issues ran far deeper than saying ‘you’re welcome to pop in’ would ever resolve.

After the initial research was conducted I produced a plan, with the help of many of the people that I had met out in the community and we implemented a range of strategies and support systems that would make it a little bit easier for some of the community to access our resources. I will discuss these briefly later but first I want to talk about one of the major barriers I

discovered during the research phase.

When I met with groups of mums I realised that many had been in the UK for 20+ years but very few were able to speak English and most were expected to remain at home. The major issue was that many of them had husbands that were uneasy with them attending ESOL classes at local colleges. I decided as part of my project to set up an ESOL class for mothers that was twice a week during school time. I worked with a translator to put the word out and the uptake was crazy! I had a class packed full of women desperate to learn English. It was an amazing year, their attendance was fantastic, their progress very noticeable and by the end of the year many had taken Skills for Life courses and were like different women in regards to their confidence. Their own children were noticing the changes too and this was a major success in my opinion.

As a result of this initial course we implemented more and we saw direct improvements in the numbers of parents attending events and parents’ evenings. The women were eternally grateful to have been listened to and valued and made to feel like they mattered. They had spent so long raising their children but being unable to be involved with their education and being cut from conversations that happened in English. They didn’t attend parents evenings or events because they felt out of place and that they didn’t understand.

Other strategies that were successful:

Mother and Toddler sessions and Stay and Play – Mother and Toddler sessions grabbed mums/carers that were doing the drop offs and welcomed them in for tea, toast and a play. They enabled mums to meet others, socialise and eat when perhaps they wouldn’t ordinarily. It normalized being inside the school.

Stay and Plays allowed parents/carers to stay for 30 minutes in Reception class once a week which encouraged children to share their development and learning journeys and provided opportunities for informal conversation between teaching staff and parents.

We brought the community in – we did a lot in this area but in particular we implemented aspirations week whereby local leaders, business owners, professionals from the local community were involved with a whole week of showcasing possibilities for children in the school. We welcomed community leaders and religious leaders in to provide assemblies, workshops and interactive sessions.

We provided access to our resources through an open library night once a month – this encouraged parents and children to visit the library, browse books and share stories. We opened up our ICT suites for courses to enable those in the local community to prepare for finding work, CV writing courses and application help. We hired out our outdoor spaces, pitches and seminar rooms.

We offered a range of courses for internet safety, Prevent training sessions, parents’ classes, boosters for literacy and numeracy for parents.

We provided free breakfast clubs, supported by the newly onboard local businesses, these enabled parent to go to work earlier and for children to be fed before school began.

All of these were successful, we had many that were not. We had some that we needed to adapt, or that we learnt from, and we met resistance along the way. However, the overriding feeling was positive and we were able to do it because of the amazing connections we had developed with the local community. We were seen to be listening and adapting to meet the needs of the community and I feel that after two years we were seen as a much more community based hub than just an ordinary school.

Even if you try just one or two of the strategies suggested here in my experience the community appreciates it and will pull together when provided with the opportunity to do so.

In many cases, friendships were developed amongst women in the community and also amongst them and the staff. It was a really rewarding process bringing the community in and it was something that the students valued massively as well.