Classroom control

The government’s extended schools initiative looks like a brave
revisiting of 1970s and 1980s ideas of making the most of schools,
instead of leaving them empty and isolated much of the time. But
times and education have changed a lot since then and this
initiative now poses big questions for policymakers, educators,
parents and children. Old ideas of making schools a community
resource frequently foundered on niggling problems of insurance,
caretaking and inflexibility. Now the big idea is to provide
community services and bring different professionals together in
schools, offer adult education and breakfast clubs, and make
schools a truly local focus for policy and practice

First, we have to ask what are state schools for? Are they the
resource for learning, self-determination, gaining new experience
and opportunities envisaged by the progressive founders of the
welfare state, or is the focus regulation and preparation for the
labour market? The lesson our 11-year-old daughter, Ruth, has
learned so far is that school mainly means the three Rs, being
tested and doing what you’re told.

As long as these are the meanings adults and children associate
with schools, how are we going to ensure that they don’t rub off on
their understandings of other activities within them? Ruth began to
dread going to summer play schemes run at local schools, because
the tellings-off, queuing and discipline were like nothing so much
as term-time school, with low-paid, untrained staff and notices on
classroom doors warning “Do not enter until asked.”

Bringing different facilities under one roof seems a really good
idea until you reflect on just how much public space has been
privatised in recent years. In my inner city area, for example, we
have lost a further education college, day nurseries, social
services office, clubs, play space and youth projects. All have
given way to new high-price housing. Schools have been closed for
luxury loft developments. Local shopping has been replaced by
shopping malls that are off-limits out of hours.

While the aim of extended schools may be to open up buildings, the
unintended consequence may be to ghettoise people in fewer
statutory places. Put this with current preoccupations with child
safety and a dismal scenario suggests itself of children corralled
in official environments they don’t control, shepherded between
them by adults, with fewer and fewer opportunities for independence
and escape from parental and adult supervision.

Meanwhile, traffic from the private prep school round the corner
from Ruth’s multi-ethnic state primary seems to be headed in the
opposite direction, with frequent columns of children going out on
apparently endless out-of-school activities and trips.

But perhaps the biggest issue raised by the idea of extended
schools is what purpose it will primarily serve. Will it be support
or control? The same question needs to be asked of social services
and social workers operating within schools. There is a degree of
ambivalence about this, but as long as there is talk of bringing
police into schools and being able to focus on special needs,
behaviour support, disadvantaged areas, child protection and social
exclusion, then there is likely to be a deal of local suspicion.
Worries about extended schools being an extension of the state,
rather than strengthening social infrastructure, need to be
acknowledged and addressed.

Proposals for extended schools place an emphasis on consultation
and involvement. Consultation with parents, children and young
people should be taken seriously and acted upon. But it also has to
be reconciled with many other competing and frequently more
powerful interests, and there is nothing that this government’s
interest in participation and partnership has shown up so clearly
as the difficulties of making involvement real.

This leaves the issue of funding. The financial problems facing
schools make non-stop headlines. The government has committed
£52.2m to extended schools in the most disadvantaged areas
before the scheme goes nationwide. But this is an initiative that
is likely to demand huge resources if it is to achieve the
far-reaching aspirations tied to it. Ultimately, this raises the
question of whether it’s better to resource mainstream arrangements
or make special provision in schools. This is a long-standing
question confronting welfare, with few simple answers.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel

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