Putting schools back into the heart of our communities


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“Education is all a matter of building bridges.” Ralph Ellison

Perhaps there was never a golden age.  Maybe, once again we allow sentiment and nostalgia to colour the reality.  However there did seem to be a time when the school was central to the activity of the community, where parents met and made friendships as well as their children.  Probably even by my school days, through social changes and pressure on school places there was already a disjoint between home, school and child.  Even though at this point it was still within living memory when teachers names were known and widely respected in the community, and probably generations of children from the same families had often sat at the same desks, we became detached from our schools.  They were places you only went to during weekdays and often locked up each evening.  As populations expanded, and families became more mobile as they followed employment opportunities, ever more loose came the threads.  For too many school is now simply a building, a commitment and indeed now a legally enforced obligation.  We need again to open the doors of these buildings, and bring the community back and in doing so encourage and indulge the learning and enterprise of children and adults alike.  This I contend is the way we start to re-build our community – providing a physical focus for all.

The politicisation of education through the Academy and Free School initiatives I fear is widening the gap between schools and community whereas the social benefits would be achieved through reducing this, and re-engaging with parents and children outside of the school day.  The promotion of removing schools from local authority is taking away the opportunities to direct actions and responses – to use resources effectively and fairly across the local authority area.  It is shocking how without any community or even parental engagement Boards of Governors are approving changes in school status.  The consequences may not be fully realised for a generation, but with each “opt out” there is an added bureaucracy and cost should there be a desire to deliver any additional service.  A narrow view that schools should only deliver what is needed to meet national targets (and reduce costs) is what has contributed to some of our social problems today.

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I can be at my lowest ebb when walking by Elm Road Primary; seeing discarded energy drink cans, a line of spray paint along a fence, perhaps a broken TV with glass shattered far and wide. But we, the community, can do better and it starts with our children. There is opportunity, if not a responsibility, for parents and teachers to show why this is not acceptable at the very earliest of age. Otherwise, for a minority, it is a small but determined step towards playground littering leading to perhaps many years of anti-social behaviour.  If the classroom lessons do not work we must also have in reserve a response; a properly resourced programme to ensure that there is always a consequence or as Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion refers “To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction”.

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” Dorothy Day

In my previous job, which took me all over the East of England, it was interesting to note that the stark differences in how different towns and villages responded to the low level anti-social events which can belittle any community and blight one’s life; littering, speeding and vandalism.  I did not have the resource to undertake any meaningful study but from an observational perspective – whether it was urban or rural for example – there was clear evidence of the pro-active Councils and communities from the positive impact from deliberate policy decisions and investment.

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It is this experience which underlines for me the failure of local politicians in addressing the many problems facing Wisbech today. Rather than a policy of renewal and investment the response for dealing with the consequences of anti-social behaviour is purely an operational one. Whether it is speeding, littering or managing derelict buildings there does not seem to be any long term plan which either addresses the causes or identifies solutions. A “rapid response” team just collects the beer cans, it does not solve the underlying problem which requires it to come back the next day.

During my daily dog walks around my neighbourhood the familiarity of lager cans, broken glass and abandoned furniture does not numb me but heightens my frustration, but for others it seems just to be part of the scenery which can be added to without injury.  I cannot begin to question the motivation or psychology of litterers and petty vandals but before the condemnations follow I also witness daily many “well to do” doing much the same from the comfort of their car seats.  What I am clear on however is that this behaviour is currently not challenged, and largely unreported.  What I want to underline is that the consequences for society from unchallenged anti-social behaviour are far more serious than just an eyesore.

“This world of ours… must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.” Dwight D.Eisenhower

What a fair history our town holds, yet so little of our great houses and people can we see evidence of.  We have forgotten how to take pride in our heritage, how to properly celebrate what is good.  If we cannot hold up such valuable possessions, and take public pride, what lessons are we sharing with our children, or those who may be new to our town and culture?  It is absolutely essential that parents, teachers and the wider community have a single clear message of standards; of what Wisbech once was, and what we want it to be.  The failure of politicians to respond within the past decade to preserve and protect our many previously fine but now fading buildings does not assign the best of examples to our young about respecting our environment.  There must be urgent political and financial response to what is a great tragedy for a town which often refers to it’s heritage – but also for the sake of civic pride and positive impact on all of our community we should not defer further.

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Both from my own life observations, but also the knowledge I have gained through 20 years of working in the prison service, convinces me that occasionally there is but a hop, skip and jump from those who involved in petty offending falling out with society.  We must reduce that risk by improving the environments for all, adding value in our daily life experiences.  It will be clear that if your neighbourhood is littered and poor the cumulative effect will only be a negative one on your behaviour, and then your influence on others.

I’m not dismissing or diminishing personal responsibility for poor decisions but in their minds – and within their values – where is the harm of dropping an energy drink can where dozens of lager cans lie?  

There are many layers and complexities to the social issues raised by consequences which we observe through anti-social behaviour. But this is the issue I am seeking to draw out, none of these root causes are anywhere to be seen in any local strategy I have seen whether it is through education, policing or street cleaning. We cannot readily separate the impact of environmental decline from the social ones but most of us would say there is an unequivocable link between the physical symbols of urban decay and behaviour, truancy and then maybe as a consequence academic achievement.

Milner Road, Wisbech

 If there is any value to be held in initiatives such as Wisbech 2020 it would have been drawing together resources and strategies of all Stakeholders to address issues which otherwise cut across agencies, councils and others and in fragments fall between the gaps. Schools are much more than just educators, they are integral parties to our communities – this historical role must be revived. The “Sure Start” programme was perhaps the first recognition of the potential outreach to the wider community in generations.  It provides an invaluable conduit to link people with resources and programme support.  In terms of end delivery I see no evidence of active community engagement in problem solving, no attempt to address the root of problems.

Chris Keates, the general secretary of the Nasuwt teaching union, says teachers often tell her they have to “nag” local councils to get rid of graffiti or do something about the disused shopping complex that is becoming a hang-out for truants:
“This study (One More Broken Window: The Impact of the Physical Environment on Schools) is raising the profile of something that schools have struggled with for a long time,” she says. “When the government focuses on schools in highly disadvantaged areas, we want them to remember the physical environment outside the schools, too. Maybe this study will make councils more responsive when a school tells them something outside their grounds is causing huge problems.”

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What applies in schools will almost certainly also apply to social housing too. A failure to engage with tenants, a failure to complete timely or to complete permanent repairs, allowing rubbish to build up.  It creates an environment which generates resentment which for some is enough to encourage still further anti-social behaviour, some will do this as a defined response whilst others may again consider there are simply spitting in the rain.

These are issues which require remedial action now but should surely be accounted for within new developments? Within the local new housing schemes I have seen there are few common areas for recreation and play – we are still failing…isn’t that simply incredible?  What do you expect the children and youth to be doing with their free time in the years ahead? When will we stand up for what is right, and demand that people come first?  It is not enough to continually condemn politicians if you sit back passively and allow them to continue in their waste – you can vote but you WE can also do.

A good start would be…..
1. There are a multitude of benefits to outdoor activity. In all of my campaigns I have advocated measures that will promote health and enjoyment of our town including the advocacy of 20mph limit on residential roads. One of best ways to challenge the way our streets look and feel is for more of us to get out walking, and noticing and reporting the problems. I would like to encourage more children walking to school, and greater opportunities to meet with other parents and neighbours.

2. Many studies highlight the obvious health benefits of outdoor recreation. It provides a multitude of advantageous physical activities that may be performed in solitude, with several friends and family members, or with local sports teams. In Wisbech there are a large number of sports clubs, maybe you are more a supporter than a “doer” but it would still be purposeful. Physical activity helps reduce stress and prevents some cases of depression. Exercise reduces anxiety, and consistent activity provides more relief for anxiety and depression. Better self-esteem also often results from consistent recreation, partially due to a decrease in stress and to an overall feeling of well-being that occurs from regular aerobic exercise. Breathing fresh air in a natural, serene environment also helps many people to relax and reduce stress and anxiety.

3. Adults and children alike benefit socially from outdoor physical activity. Participating in sports and recreation provides both children and adults with an opportunity to meet and build relationships with others. Participating on a team will help you build lasting friendships with people who share your passion for outdoor recreation. Studies show that people who exercise regularly experience longer, deeper, more restful sleep. Better sleep results in more energy and alertness the following day, allowing better concentration and ability to think on higher levels. Along with better rest and rejuvenation for your body during the night, regular physical activity that reduces stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression will help you to concentrate more during the day.

4. Schools should empower their students. Ask them for their views on the ideas for using disused local land, derelict buildings and resolving other local problems – and then write to the council. You may wish to do this in partnership with community groups or other enterprises.

5. Headteachers should be encouraged to sit on local regeneration committees, to petition parents on local matters and engage with community projects and organisations. Schools should again be returned to the hearts of their community.  Schools should be encouraged to engage and promote relationships with the local community through school litter-picking sessions, clearing graffiti or by inviting a neighbourhood watch or community group to an assembly.

6. Parents, and other adults in the wider community, must make a commitment and certainly a greater contribution to our schools.  Always in need of Governors, learning assistants, and all kinds of practical help – if the school is to have a wider role there will be many more opportunities to help too.

7. Councils should Keep schools informed of local events and plans so they understand the possible impact of the physical environment on pupils.

8. We should encourage school trips to explore local history, local places of interest, green spaces and farms. Develop an appreciation of why the town is how and where it is today, to initiate thoughts and discussions on both it’s past and it’s future.

9. Ensure that all of the community take responsibility for reporting problems, and make sure you use your local Councillors to deal with problems or promote initiatives…..and if they fail challenge them!

10. Always report crime, or concerns of crime to your local police. Ensure that enforcement is properly funded and accountable. The public should have ease of access to a variety of reporting issues – technology should be exploited to reduce cost and maximise benefits.

11. Target specific areas of the town at a time. Invest in full environmental survey to identify problems and help construct responses. Clean and upgrade the area including repairs and improvements to street lighting, footpaths, parking and play areas.  Open up schools for the meetings and the “meet ups”, it could be where you simply store equipment or use a postal address.

12. Let us embrace public art, work with community groups and schools for designs and commissioning. This will help to tie all of to our surroundings, and holding a share in their environment which should reflect our tastes and values.

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* I acknowledge my reading of, and gratitude to: One More Broken Window: The Impact of the Physical Environment on Schools – written and researched by Perpetuity Group for the Nasuwt teaching union which you can read from this link:

http://www.nasuwt.org.uk/TrainingEventsandPublications/NASUWTPublications/Publications/OneMoreBrokenWindow/NASUWT_004587

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2 comments

  1. What we try to do: (1) As soon as someone lets us know of littering (mattresses, tv’s or excessive cans) we let Fenland Street Scene know immediately and they usually action promptly. In this way the problem doesn’t escalate. (2) As you know, we have fantastic groups of people around Wisbech and the villages who operate Street Pride. They do get recognised for their work. (3) in Waterlees we have individual volunteers who try and keep their areas ‘can free’.
    This doesn’t change some people’s attitudes. I asked a bunch of guys walking down the road to pick up the cans they had just thrown down and I just got ignored.
    So it’s not a simple 1-off solution.
    We also get Roddons to have major skip days as, because of the many HMO’s, bins get overfull.
    I wish there could be a returns policy on cans as we used to have with bottles. People wld have a v different approach to throwing on the streets.

    • I had not criticised the operational response, but my argument is that no effort is made to address the root of the problems – which clearly are many and costly. I applaud he effort made byany volunteers but it is a drop in the ocean and efforts would reap ten-fold if councils focused on what I have suggested are some of the more appropriate strategic matters.

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