Provocation: Why academy trusts should employ community organisers

Neil Jameson CBE Emeritus Director and Founder, Citizens UK | Director of The UK Centre for Civil Society

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Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

‘We should not, must not, dare not be complacent about the health and future of British democracy. Unless we become a nation of engaged citizens our democracy is not secure!’

Lord Irvine of Laird, Lord Chancellor

(quoted in ‘The Crick Report’ or The Advisory Group on the Teaching of Citizenship and Democracy in Schools)

In a blog, ‘Academy Trusts at the Heart of their Communities’, Michael Pain of Forum Strategy, set out the new narrative for academy trusts. In it, he says:

There is an enormous opportunity for the Academy Trust sector to finally find its place in the world in the coming decade, to find its reason for being, and to lead the way, with trusts defining themselves as community- focussed organisations’. He ends with: ‘Academy Trusts have a choice to make. They can become the caricature that seems to have stuck a little- distant, removed, obsessively focussed on growth, bigger numbers and what the ‘powers that be’ define as successful – often seen to be working in spite of our communities. Or do something more profound, with a spirit of partnership, looking outwards to the passion, knowledge, capacity and aspirations of those around us – within and beyond Trusts – to find the best way forward and to achieve sustainable success together.

VISION STATEMENTS

This think-piece is intended to complement Forum Strategy’s new narrative by offering one radical suggestion for taking it forward: the employment and use of Community Organisers within academy trusts.

Since many Trusts often have a few more resources to draw on than individual schools, and more freedom to decide how to spend and allocate those resources, this should allow the Board with the executive team to set and review their vision statement in line with the narrative. Once this has consent of the key stakeholders of the institution, it follows to then review the staffing, talent and specialisms needed to achieve that vision. I believe Community Organisers are essential to this narrative for the system.

Vision statements have their place and most businesses, NGOs and other such organisations all have them. However, it is often in the process of crafting of that statement that the real work is done. The more people and stakeholders that participate, debate, argue, challenge in that process and finally even vote for it – the better. This ‘ownership’ of the purpose and vision of the institution, and actually spelling it out in grand terms, is crucial to its implementation. If the vision is going to be sufficiently ambitious, we need everyone in our communities’ help in making it a reality. This is why using Forum Strategy’s narrative as a basis for your visioning discussions and development with stakeholders could be so helpful; it relates to what communities – including pupils, parents, and staff – are most concerned about, so is a relatable and engaging starting point.

A vision development process that encourage wide participation and involvement will make it easier to build awareness of, and buy in for, the trust’s work. It will provide a firm foundation upon which community organisers can draw on the social and professional capital that exists in our communities. Avoid developing your vision in isolation.

APOLOGIA

I should explain that, although I am a qualified teacher and have limited experience of teaching in schools and colleges in the UK and in Africa, I was never in a senior position so I have no experience of managing a large school or Academy and little experience of the many challenges which the Heads, Principals and CEOs of Academies must face. In 1988, I became the UK’s first, modern-day Community Organiser and founded Citizens UK. At its best, Citizens UK is an educational institution, and many have called it a ‘University of the Streets’. Citizens UK is known as the home of Community Organising in Britain. The classrooms we teach in are church halls, street corners, community centres and youth clubs. Our students are diverse, all ages and with many different backgrounds and life experiences. Many are refugees with limited English and quite a few have retired from full time work but whose interest in public life and change has not diminished. Most seek ways of making the world a better and safer place. They enjoy learning alongside their neighbours and often, in the process of action, strangers can become friends. But I have never worked in an Academy or had to make the very difficult choices that have to be made in that sector. Since 1988 I have always had to raise my own money from membership fees and trust and foundations.

I do know quite a bit about certain aspects of learning and also the allocation of the precious resources that are needed for deep and life changing education. I also understand how important it is to regularly review resource allocation, to be sure they serve the mission, vision and objectives of the organisation. Especially in a rapidly changing world!

 

RESOURCE ALLOCATION AND POWER ANALYSIS

Returning to the challenge of ensuring Academy Trusts are at the heart of the community, it follows that you have to regularly review the allocation of resources so that you are taking forward that vision.

This can be even more difficult if you are overseeing a multi-academy trust and the buildings are widely spread and serve different neighbourhoods. This may involve two different approaches one for the building/school rooted in a community and one for the wider group. Good, when you start to do a ‘power analysis’ in both situations. The accusation that academies are often aloof from their neighbourhoods and relate only to the Department for Education and its agents, is a real one and can only be challenged by your actions ‘speaking louder than words’!

From your ‘power analysis’ you need to meet and relate to the other players in your communities – think about the institutions particularly – the shops/traders association; the faith institutions (don’t forget the Mosque); the sports clubs, local employers, health centres, voluntary associations and even the gangs. Consider how you can use your scale, money and time in order to nurture and sustain these relationships. Who do you need to meet with regularly (not always the local police)? As a trust CEO, what are you and your board doing about regularly meeting the local community and youth leaders, the CEO of local businesses, the Police and Crime Commissioner, the Dean of the local university, and the CEO of the local health care trust, for example? Do you ever invite them into your trust, do you offer your sports fields or Halls for community use, do you share your understanding and knowledge about the challenges, needs and opportunities facing pupils and their families? Do you ask how they can help? Given that it is estimated that school age children spend only 15% of their time in schools – what happens to them and who influences them when they are not with you matters and needs some resource allocation.

The main stakeholders, apart from your staff and students are, of course the parents and families of your students. You need to see them as co-teachers and, ideally, they need to see you and your trust as warm, welcoming and as interested as much in the self-interest of them as their children. It makes sense that, if you have a positive relationship with the parents and families of your students, they will reciprocate in the way they also teach values and positive behaviour to your students. What resources to you allocate to this challenge? Who is responsible for looking out for and supporting the families – hopefully not the truancy officer? Is there a culture of home visits and if there is do you talk about more than the student? Does your board hear about some of the struggles of living in the area – the violence, the poor job opportunities, the poor housing?

If so, what do you do about these challenges and what resources do you put into trying to help?

APPOINT A COMMUNITY ORGANISER

I would not blame you if some of you were sighing at the above list of things to do and responsibilities to add to your already lengthy list of responsibilities, especially ensuring that your Academy exam results are improving, and discipline is maintained.

As well as building strategic external relationships as a CEO, I am suggesting that you seriously consider appointing at least one Community Organiser to your staff team, if you are a Multi-Academy Trust then you may need two or three!

You may already have a person with the skills and aptitude to organise on your staff team, possibly a local person or from your non- teaching staff? They need to be innately intelligent, optimistic, have a sense of humour, understand the politics of the common good and really, really like people and life in all its diversity! Ideally evidence of this is that they are already active in a local institution – parents association; mosque; sports club; campaigning organisation, even a book club. Really good if they are not just in the group but they play some formal leadership part in running it and not just turning up.

They have a very important job so should not be required to cover for absent colleagues, be a truancy officer or organise the annual fete (unless this helps build the power and recognition of the Academy). Their job is to organise your Academy genuinely into the heart of the community by building relationships with the key institutions and institutional leaders who are vital to the success of the vision of your trust – this includes having a plan for the parents, the school Council and even the Trustees.

At their best, your Community Organiser should be like the most brilliant football manager – seeking, training, supporting, praising and occasionally offering friendly criticism when the team plays. Rarely on the field apart from half time but as critical and inspiring as the whole team, junior team, training team etc. Their job is to look for authentic leaders and potential leaders in the neighbourhoods around your Academy and together ‘reweave the fabric of that society’.

If successful, this will make your trust, its schools, and its wider community of stakeholders, that much more powerful and effective – and more able to live your vision. This will make the allocation of time and resource one that provides a significant return on investment.

SOME EXAMPLES

Addressing mobile phone theft:

Set up a Citizens Commission to stop mugging for mobile phones; a diverse mix of 60 parents, students and neighbours were the Commissioners and held three public Hearings with ‘witnesses’ from police, gangs, the Council and academics. 

External result: 5 more police allocated to neighbourhood, school negotiated an extension to their playground and the lighting improved on streets around school plus published the first ‘safe routes’ to school map by whole school participating and then presenting it to local Police Commissioner at an Assembly of 1,000 people.

Internal result: over 200 people participated, spoke, gave testimony and learned democracy in practice; positive media coverage; school results improved, as did the waiting list to attend the school.

Responding to knife crime:

Following an out-break of stabbings of students in several neighbourhoods around three schools, students, parents and staff organised ‘neighbourhood walks’ to understand and map the neighbourhood and then build ‘City Safe Zones ‘ by persuading traders to become ‘City Safe Havens’, put a sticker in their shop window offering sanctuary to any person being chased, increased police presence and eventually persuade the Mayor of London (then Boris Johnson) to make City Hall a Safe Haven. 

Result: slightly less violent street crime in areas around the schools, much stronger relationships with local shopkeepers and hundreds of children and their parents learned democracy, new relationships and leadership skills.

Commonwealth games land use

In December 2018, Birmingham was announced as the new location for the 2022 Commonwealth Games after plans for it to be held in Cape Town ended. Several schools in membership of Citizens UK in Birmingham organised a Public Assembly of 650 people soon after in March to celebrate the news at the Town Hall with a mass choir. Here, together with faith and other community institutions they launched a concordat of Citizens Guarantees calling for social rent homes to be built on the Games sites as well as free after-school sports activities in every neighbourhood. The Leader of Birmingham City Council, Cllr Ian Ward (pictured here) attended and agreed to the Citizens Guarantees.

Result: Citizens Guarantees pledged by Leader of the Council. 500 children and parents involved, learned about leadership, compromise and democracy; Ofsted commended the schools.

LESSONS FROM THE USA

Community Organising is still a very new vocation and career in the UK, with only 30 years track record. In USA there are many more years of this practice. The largest and most impressive example of school involvement in Community Organising was in Texas (under Democrat control) when the State invested in a programme called Texas Alliance Schools. This meant that many schools employed their own Organiser or shared one with the help of State funding topped up by Foundations. Sadly, this funding ceased when the Republicans won the State and the cross-State programme ceased. However, The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University produced an impressive Research Report in March 2008 called ‘Organised Communities, Stronger Schools’. The research focussed specifically on school improvement and results – following involvement with Community Organising.

The Key Findings were:

  • Data suggest that organising is contributing to school-level improvements, particularly in the areas of school community relationships, parent involvement and engagement, sense of school community and trust, teacher collegiality and teacher morale.
  • Successful organising strategies contributed to increased student attendance, improved standardized test score performance and higher graduation results and college going aspirations.
  • Our findings suggest that community organising efforts are influencing policy and resource distribution at the system level. Officials, school administrators and teachers reported that community organising influenced policy and resource decisions to increase equity and build capacity, particularly in historically low performing schools.
  • Data indicate that participation in organising efforts in increasing civic engagement, as well as knowledge and investment in education issue, among adult and youth community members. Young people reported that their involvement in organising increased their motivation to succeed at school.
  • Our research suggests that organising groups achieve these schooling and community impacts through a combination of system level advocacy, school or community-based activity and the strategic use of research and date. Continuous and consistent parent, youth and community engagement produced through community organising both generates and sustains these improvements.

CONCLUSION

Last words to my friend Sir Bernard Crick who, twenty years ago, concluded his report on Citizenship, with this eloquent and powerful challenge;

We aim at no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally; for people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence on public life and with the critical capacities to weigh up the evidence before speaking and acting; to build and to extend radically to young people the best existing traditions of community involvement and public service and to make them individually confident in finding new forms of involvement and action among themselves. There are worrying levels of apathy, ignorance and cynicism about public life. These, unless tackled at every level, could well diminish the hoped-for benefits both of constitutional reform and of the changing nature of the welfare state. 

Crick’s challenge was also a warning that if we did nothing then cynicism and apathy would grow – leading to populism and a withdrawal from public life by millions, particularly young people. The recent knowledge that the Climate Chaos really is an Emergency has given rise to more youthful participation and concern but by a generation that has rarely been taught or experienced the necessary tools of politics, democracy and negotiation – compromise, power, relationships and leadership.

Schools which aspire to be at the centre of their community could pick up this baton and start by appointing a brilliant Community Organiser or two to help lead the way.

Who wrote this article?

Neil Jameson CBE Emeritus Director and Founder, Citizens UK | Director of The UK Centre for Civil Society

Neil is, first and foremost, a Community Organiser seeking talented leaders and young Organisers who have the courage and commitment to work with others democratically to strengthen civil society, pursue the common good and tackle injustice.

Neil has travelled extensively and worked in the USA and Sudan on civil society projects. Prior to founding Citizens UK in 1988, Neil worked for 20 years in the public and voluntary sector – with Somerset and Coventry Local Authorities – and later, Save the Children and The Children’s Society in the UK.

Neil seeks a legacy of a stronger, more powerful and better organised civil society, where people learn the necessity and advantages of working with others, to experience ‘the art of politics’ and ‘organising for the common good’. His experience has taught him that this is best achieved by organising within the core institutions, specifically education, trade unions, faith, health and voluntary associations to act together.

@NeilJamesonUK

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