Big Communities

9th May 2019

This week saw the publication of a significant new report from the RSA. It was with great pride that I read this, complete with a profile of the work at Surrey Square. There is much to be concerned about in the report – the effects of cuts across public services now being felt in the communities that need them most, with homelessness and hunger real and growing issues on our doorsteps. We should never cease to be appalled and shocked at the reality of the lives being lived by our neighbours across our city and the country more widely.

What the report highlighted, as is so often the case, is that schools can play an absolutely critical role in building the community and support that such vulnerable individuals and families need. Through examples from around the globe, we see what is possible where the will, tenacity and partnerships are present.

My week was further enriched by a visit from Suany Ramos, the Principal of The Island School in New York, also featured in the report. I was moved to tears to hear of the extent of the provision made for families in her school, where 99% of families are on free meals. It is a heroic school with an inspiring leader – but highlights the need for a systemic approach to making a difference with the families that really need it most.

For us at Surrey Square, working with the community is intrinsic to who we are as an institution. I will never forget, on my first day as head in January 2006, going down to the playground, excited at meeting the parents for the first time. They were not there. After years of being shut out and not included, they didn’t bother to come through the gates. The scene now on a daily basis in the playground could not be a greater contrast; parents volunteering with breakfast club, talking in groups around the playground, and taking part in the parents’ daily mile run. It is a community in action; supporting, talking, sharing and engaging.

  • Schools are under immense pressure, from all directions. So developing this work can seem like yet another ‘thing to do’. So, here are a few practical ideas and tips to help you reflect on your practice and plan for even greater things!

  • Really think about the nature of relationships you want your school to have with parents. How would you characterise this? How does it fit with your vision and values? What are the implicit and explicit messages you are sending to families, as you enrol them and engage with them?

  • Lower the stakes of parental engagement. Review what you are inviting parents to and what the potential ‘barriers’ might be. We have hugely increased parental engagement by offering multiple, low threshold activities and points of contact, including all staff being in the playground at the start and end of every day. Think seriously about what you charge for and how this impacts on the all families.

  • We invite parents into an ‘open morning’ once a term, where they are invited to come and see their children in class, being taught. This is a very powerful offer – and one that schools very rarely make – to actually come and see your child in action with their teacher. We build this into a full morning – offering a free lunch at the end – and then build in workshops on aspects of learning or development while we have parents and carers in the building. This is an effective way of getting large numbers to engage with some of the core issues around e.g internet safety, and an effective way of overcoming the frustrations of put on workshops that very few parent actually attend.

  • Food is a great unifier and way to engage. Our termly ‘community evenings’ are a huge event, and parents/carers all bring food to share. It is a wonderful celebration of our diverse community, and we never cease to be amazed at the generosity of families, even those from whom we know money is extremely tight. Food is also a widely socially acceptable way for women to express themselves – from the point of view of certain communities where there can be challenges in integrating into the wider community in other ways.

  • Really working hard to understand what your community actually need and want is key. Each context is different. At Surrey Square, the needs have changed over time, and we have tried to be responsive to that need. Investing proper capacity to think about this and identifying ways to meet that need is a strategic decision – and resources are very tight – but we have a firm commitment to this as a school and I would encourage serious consideration of this. It pays off hugely in the long run.

  • You don’t have to provide all the support directly. There are services out there people can access – if you can be aware of those and signpost effectively, it can be hugely powerful and supportive, given the trusting relationships schools tend to have with parents. Often they will listen to us as teachers and leaders in a way that they will not engage with other agencies.


I became a teacher because I believed that schools were the best vehicle we have for bringing about societal change. I still believe that, and am grateful to the RSA for shining a light on the reality of what that means within high challenge communities, and to the team at Surrey Square who live the reality of our mission; Personal and Academic excellence; everyone, every day.

Whilst this learning is vital in opening up our thinking about innovation in education, the process of change is equally as important as the content. Rosie gave us interesting insight into systematic change and how we can create this effectively. Being outward facing, building effective partnerships and building rituals have created real change in innovative schools in the US. This raised our next enquiry questions of the evening: ‘What are the non-negotiables that Big Education should be setting?’ ‘How do we take our context into consideration when building rituals?’

With examples of innovative practice from Alex, and discussion around how this is effectively implemented from Rosie, we opened up the discussion to our guests. We wanted them to dig deeper and think expansively about the questions we should be exploring at Big Education. Thank you to our guests for giving us lots to explore, which we are hoping to share shortly with you all!

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