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Connecting schools to learning in, through and for the community

7 min read


The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant shutdown of schools for most pupils has put an enormous strain on teachers and parents, as they have scrambled to offer an alternative model of schooling, primarily at home. In response to these challenges, some parents have managed to assemble an exciting home curriculum, drawing upon school resources, using the internet and contacts amongst family, friends and the locality, bringing community into focus as an education medium. Is school closure one of those interesting disruptions caused by COVID-19 from which we can learn?

Based on developments in Ohio, Anderson-Butcher and colleagues (2008) describe the Ohio Community Collaboration Model for School Improvement (OCCMSI) and in so doing, provide a critique of the standard model of school improvement, which they argue is top down and focuses on a narrow range of academic outcomes. They explain:

This walled-in improvement planning reflects traditional thinking about schools as stand-alone institutions focused exclusively on young people’s learning and academic achievement, and also reinforces the idea that educators are the school improvement experts. (Anderson-Butcher et al., 2008, p. 161)

As a result, resources and ideas for improving the learning opportunities for young people are ‚”walled-out”, as schools pursue an inward-looking agenda, driven by centralised accountability measures. The OCCMSI seeks to gain influence over non-school time and make the most of family and community resources for both education and health, enabling students to meet people beyond school who can act as role models, mentors, friends, advocates and sometimes, employers. Education is seen as a community responsibility, extending beyond the school into the wider community. This idea has connections to the principles underlying the Harlem Children’s Zone and extended schools in the UK.

In England, the Royal Society of Arts has funded two projects, in Manchester and Peterborough (Thomas, 2012) which focus more exclusively on curriculum supported by community resources. The work, known as Area Based Curriculum, was part of a wider programme called Citizen Power. In Peterborough, the RSA worked with five schools during 2010-2012 to develop a series of projects in partnership with organisations and people from the local area. The goal was to create engaging learning experiences that draw on the locality, at the same time as involving a diverse range of stakeholders in the education of young people. Place and community were emphasised in developing education that was:

  • about a place: making use of local context and resources to frame learning
  • by a place: designed by schools in partnership with other local stakeholders
  • for a place: meeting the specific needs of children and local communities.

There were many positive outcomes reported by teachers and pupils, such as improved engagement, the learning of more factual information, improved extended writing and how much pupils enjoyed working with other adults. For the schools there was the great benefit of sustained relationships with companies, the cathedral, the local wildlife trust etc. However, for some schools this novel approach to curriculum presented a choice between wider holistic outcomes and the standards agenda – it felt, in effect, too risky for them.

Science capital

The potential contribution of resources in the community is also strongly present in the concept of science capital and the ASPIRES project (Archer et al., 2020). Science capital refers to ‘science-related qualifications, understanding, knowledge (about science and how it works), interest and social contacts (e.g. knowing someone who works in a science-related job)’ (ASPIRES, 2013; NUSTEM)

Science capital involves four elements: (i) what you know (ii) how you think (iii) what you do and (iv) who you know. In North East England, the NUSTEM project (part of ASPIRES) is working with over 30 partner schools, offering support for teachers and enrichment and activities in and out of school. There is also work with local parents, communities and partner organisations, such as STEM related companies, to help provide more science capital to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. ASPIRES is trying to connect school to families, communities and the prevalence of science in everyday life, thus joining the local dots in developing a stronger sense of science as an everyday phenomenon.

School projects using local resources

We have been working with funding from the EDGE Foundation to create projects drawing upon community resources that can be used and adapted by other schools with an eye to the Gatsby Benchmarks. Many of these resources are made available through Newcastle University’s ‘access’ programmes. It should be recognised that all universities and many colleges offer a significant range of assets to schools. They are part of community resources along with a large number of civil society organisations.

To illustrate the principles we are working with, the following project can be undertaken in almost any mainstream school using resources available within the community.


Guiding question: Was XXX (the local area) a better place to live 50 years ago?

This addresses the following requirement of geography in the National Curriculum: ‘human geography, including: types of settlement and land use, economic activity including trade links, and the distribution of natural resources including energy, food, minerals and water’.

This the perfect opportunity to interview parents, grandparents and other senior citizens on their experience of the area within living memory. It provides a chance to explore what children and adults consider what ‘better’ means. The evidence gathered via interviews and archive searches can be mapped to fulfil mapping requirements in geography, and a presentation and/or report to parents and the local community, with the option of a carefully staged public debate, are options for the project product.

Most primary schools have a variety of contacts with the community, through parents and wider family, projects and special events. We would argue that there are great benefits in going a step further and seeing ‘community’ as partners in the education of children and young people. Such a principle can operate on a sliding scale from just making best use of contacts through to involving partners in planning the curriculum.

Secondary science

Guiding question: How can we grow old better?

This can address considerable areas of National Curriculum, such as the structure and functions of the human skeleton (including support, protection, movement and making blood cells) and biomechanics (the interaction between skeleton and muscles). In addition, there is much to learn about nutrition and digestion, including the function of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins etc. and their contribution towards a healthy diet. A final area that can be included relates to breathing and its relationship to oxygen intake, exercise, smoking etc.

Such a project could include surveys and interviews with older people about their experience of growing older, how they are adapting their lives and what help they need. There are also opportunities to involve parents and grandparents, carers, GP practices, care homes, the local authority and local politicians, with a view to a product geared to making homes, services and society more supportive of older people. The substantive science knowledge can be front loaded or interspersed in the module as it becomes relevant. It can be accessed either through teacher explanations or through students following guided material. There are tantalising opportunities overall for developing ethical responsibility, intergenerational learning, empathy and citizenship.

Why bother?

It is perfectly possible to follow a curriculum structured predominantly around subjects, using a mixture of commercial resources, materials from the internet and those produced by schools. However, we can do more through some degree of good project work with an emphasis on community places, people, history, issues, economy and service. This gives a better chance of strengthening democratic principles, developing citizenship, fostering criticality and providing an opportunity for young people to develop their talent and human capability (Clayton, 2012; Leat, 2017). Such outcomes dovetail beautifully with the personal development section of the OFSTED inspection framework. Truly powerful knowledge is when subject concepts and ideas shine a light on how we understand and solve problems in society, both local and global.

The Learning City concept

In some countries, there is serious rethinking emerging about what education could be like in cities and towns. The vision of areas or regions having a more integrated educational infrastructure is captured in the UNESCO concept of a Learning City (Facer and Buchczyk, 2019) and there is a global network of such cities. They are characterised as mobilising resources in every sector to promote inclusive learning from basic to higher education, revitalising learning in families and communities and extending the use of digital technologies. Bristol, the UK’s example, highlights the importance of infrastructure to provide the connective tissue between learning opportunities inside and beyond schools and colleges. While competition between schools and colleges has its place, the needs of young people suggest that cities and other regions need to develop more coherent educational provision, that perhaps is more resistant to pandemic shocks.


James McKernan (2008, p. 3) has argued that if it is truly educational, a curriculum ‘will lead the student to unanticipated, rather than predicted outcomes‚ related to things that truly matter in life’. With funding from the EDGE foundation, we have been supporting schools to plan and run curriculum projects using community resources. The overwhelming response from students is extremely positive, but we are very aware of the need to make sure that subject knowledge is fully addressed. Although community is hard to define geographically, and much work will relate the area within 10 miles or so from the school, it is not confined to such a radius. Digital technology means that you can have community links in Brazil, the Solomon Islands, Germany, China, the Antarctic and Oman. A community approach to curriculum need not be parochial and it has a much greater chance of being truly educational.

Key questions for you and colleagues

  • If your school already has links with the community involving your students, what do the students learn from those encounters? How does this relate to the school’s aims and/or beliefs?
  • Is there value in making community connection a principle in your curriculum development?
  • What subjects could be enhanced by community links (or indeed, are there any that would not)?


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. Which subjects in your context might be (or have been) enhanced by community links and how?
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