Last reviewed 22 June 2023

Cultivating a supportive internal community is crucial to a school’s success, but engagement with the wider community is equally vital in staying sensitive and relevant to pupils’ lives. Kate Goulson explores how schools can create and strengthen these family and community partnerships.

Who makes up a school’s community?

The different elements of a school’s community can be visualised as concentric layers with the school at the centre. The innermost layer is the school’s core community of pupils and staff. The second layer incorporates parents, carers, guardians and multi-agency contacts, including social services. This layer also consists of others who engage frequently with pupils and staff on site, such as LEA contacts, regular volunteers and after-school club providers. These inner groups are integral to the smooth functioning of school life.

The third layer encompasses organisations and individuals with a link to the school, such as religious institutions, partner schools, youth organisations and educational departments at libraries and museums, as well as sports facilities. The fourth layer encompasses the rest of the local community who, although they don’t have a direct link, are affected by the school’s presence. This includes local residents, businesses and transport providers. Effective two-way communication with these outer groups, although not essential to the school’s operation, can create stronger community partnerships.

Why is family-school-community engagement important?

Many factors from a pupil’s home life and wider community impact, both positively and negatively, their wellbeing and academic and social experience within the school. Examples of factors include housing conditions, diet, family circumstances, household income, cultural values and social landscape.

However, due to the self-contained nature of school sites, it’s all too easy for pupils’ school and home lives to seem completely separated at the gates, with little reference made to their wider experience once the bell rings. This can lead to some pupils, especially the more vulnerable, becoming disengaged and disillusioned with an education that does not adequately reflect their lives. 

Developing a high awareness of pupils’ unique local picture, and of each individual’s experience within it, increases a school’s ability to foster a sense of belonging. This allows pupils to grow and fully engage with their learning. In turn, this approach lessens the risk of exclusion, school refusal and children at risk of missing education. Additionally, it can help pupils to remain positively engaged with their wider community into adulthood.

Positive community engagement can also increase empathy towards school pupils from the wider community, reducing the conflict that can result from large numbers of pupils sharing local facilities and spaces with residents and businesses.

How can schools strengthen partnerships with parents, carers and guardians?

Effective family partnerships are built on communication that is early, regular, reliable, equitable and open. The following steps can be taken to achieve this goal.

  • Informal contact with families, including staff availability at the beginning and end of the school day, and via phone calls and emails at other times, as well as an “open door” attitude.

  • Home-school agreements which set out the expectations for all parties.

  • Bringing families into school to help break down that “school gate” barrier via:

    • open days and evenings for prospective and new pupils

    • parents’ evenings for the existing cohort

    • work-shares, class assemblies, concerts, plays and performances which allow pupils’ families to celebrate their learning and creativity

    • family education opportunities such as parenting workshops and cookery classes

    • onsite food and clothing banks which offer direct practical help to vulnerable families

    • volunteering roles which involve parents, carers, guardians and sometimes extended family as helpers on extra-curricular visits and in school.

  • Parent-school online portals and apps which share each pupil’s daily school life, including timetables, homework, clubs and achievements, with their family and give staff another channel for home communication.

  • Reading and/or homework diaries, either physical or online, which provide space for teachers and families to communicate about a pupil’s progress and experience.

  • Newsletters and website updates to communicate important information and celebrate school and pupil success.

  • Outreach visits by school staff to community centres and family homes, as is routinely done prior to children starting school in Reception, to give families the chance to engage with their children’s education in a familiar setting.

  • PTFA events, such as film nights, discos and school fetes, which bring together staff, families and the wider community in a social setting to raise funds to enrich pupils’ school experience.

  • Family Liaison Officers, either directly employed within the school or across the LEA, to further improve family-school communication and partnerships, especially for the most vulnerable families.

How can community and multi-agency partnerships further support pupils and their families?

For pupils with more challenging circumstances, including those identified by the pupil premium, school-family partnerships may not be enough to break down barriers to educational engagement. In some circumstances, close partnerships with most pupils’ families could even exacerbate feelings of isolation for those pupils whose families are not engaged this way, or whose home circumstances are difficult or different. 

Multi-agency involvement from healthcare providers, social services and charities such as food banks and mental health organisations can provide a framework of essential support. However, as they do not reflect the most positive and empowering aspects of pupils’ community lives, their support is not usually enough to cultivate that essential sense of belonging. In these cases, wider community engagement is even more crucial.

Schools can help to bridge this gap and create stronger community partnerships by implementing the following.

  • Inter-school partnerships to broaden pupils’ peer community and increase understanding of the different educational experiences that are possible within a similar locality. These partnerships can also provide supportive links to a pupil’s next educational chapter, such as moving from primary to secondary education or from secondary school to college or university.

  • A locally-inclusive curriculum, which includes relevant local history and contemporary local culture, such as street art and music.

  • SMSC/PSHE lessons which look at specific local issues affecting pupils’ wellbeing.

  • Educational visits to places of interest in the local community, eg museums, libraries, historic sites, etc and by members of the community into schools for assemblies, careers events and mentoring.

  • School governors recruited from the parental and wider communities.

  • Links with religious organisations where relevant, especially for faith-focused schools.

  • Work experience, mentoring, training and apprenticeship links with local businesses to help pupils transition from education to the workplace.

  • Intergenerational links, such as singing or companion reading in local care homes.

  • Involvement with voluntary groups and charities, such as helping to care for community gardens.

  • Sports links, including inter-school leagues and use of shared facilities.

  • Offering school facilities for hire during evenings, weekends and holidays to foster a sense of shared ownership over educational spaces within the community.

Takeaways

Creating strong community and family partnerships are important steps in improving pupils’ educational engagement. There are many different avenues that schools can take to strengthen these partnerships, all of which rely on an open and active approach to building positive and supportive relationships. The act of a school reaching out to connect with the complex factors that influence pupils’ lives can, in itself, go a long way towards cultivating a sense of belonging, allowing pupils and their families to feel seen.

Further information