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School governors have a clear role to play in community regeneration and raising education standards, say Jane Mart...
School governors have a clear role to play in community regeneration and raising education standards, say Jane Martin and Liz Allen

School governors represent possibly the largest and most experienced volunteer force in the country, and yet they have been left out of the loop of neighbourhood regeneration.

A new report, Governing education for community regeneration, jointly produced by the Improvement & Development Agency and the New Local Government Network, argues that community well-being, local democratic accountability and higher education standards can all be achieved if governors are more integrated into the community planning process.

Schools operate at the heart of their local communities and have the potential to play a central role in neighbourhood regeneration. Despite the government's commitment to active citizenry - as expressed through the local government modernisation scheme - and the plethora of neighbourhood renewal initiatives, school governing bodies have largely been ignored.

This is partly due to timing. School governors have been operating in their present form for over a decade, while new local governance models and the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal are only now being implemented. It is partly due to the way the government's singular focus on school improvement has led governing bodies into acting not as representatives of their local communities, but as agents of the state.

The report argues that school improvement and neighbourhood renewal must go hand in hand for both to be successful.

In Hampshire, Borden Infant School helped to set up the Chase Children's Centre, dedicated to supporting the parents of pre-school children in their role as educators.

In Newcastle, Gosforth High School manages the largest community education programme in the region. It would like to have more freedom to determine its direction by negotiating its funding directly with the Learning Skills Council.

But these kinds of activities raise important questions about the local governance of education and, in particular, the role of the school governing body in exercising public accountability. How are decisions made about what provision a school will make? How can a school be sure the project benefits both the school and its local community?

The 2000/01 Ofsted annual report indicated a widening achievement gap and continuing concerns about behaviour and discipline. This suggests more action is needed to support school collaboration and link them to their localities.

In the interests of effective public accountability, local education departments need to foster and support more active public participation in the governance of schools operating beyond the classroom.

The new framework for democratic renewal - as set out in the programme of modernisation, the development of local strategic partnerships and the education bill's recommendation for schools to be provided with new freedoms to innovate and provide wider services present an opportunity to do this.

The report makes a series of recommendations for ways in which central and local government should support the local governance of education to bring about school improvement as part of neighbourhood regeneration. It recognises the need for local citizens to share responsibility for the decisions that shape their lives and communities within a learning democracy.

At national level, the new articles of governance should place a requirement on schools to contribute to community well-being. Objectives for school improvement should be recast to include community learning, and national guidance on extended schools should make clear the context in which schools operate.

At local level, councils should consider placing their governor support activities within the corporate democratic services function and re-orientate them towards corporate governance aims and objectives. Local political structures need to be refocused to ensure formal and appropriate links between schools, council services and the corporate authority for the purposes of community regeneration.

At a time when self-governing schools are being encouraged to work with partners from the public, private and voluntary sectors, it is imperative that schools and councils have a clear strategy for their interdependence. This is essential to secure community well-being and democratic accountability for a vital public service.

n Governing education for community regeneration will be available from 8 July:

Jane Martin, principal consultant, IDeA Solutions and Liz Allen, independent education policy analyst and non-executive director, New Local Government Network

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