Schools have a new purpose. Here’s how we could fulfil it.

Schools are being asked to take a lead as a front-line service for their communities. Ben Gadsby sets out some big ideas to make that happen

Everything has changed, and everything continues to change. Rapidly. Things are immeasurably complicated for schools, but if we focus on the upshot of this week’s announcements, a sense of purpose begins to emerge. Schools want to help their pupils and communities through this difficult time, and it looks like that’s what government wants them to do too.

#SchoolsCanHelp. The question is how?

Big problems need equally big responses, and the real skill is in taking advantage of systems and processes that already exist. Schools need help to do that, and given the way government is currently firefighting on issues such as key worker lists and awarding exam results, they are much more likely to support the sector’s initiatives than lead from the front in establishing them.

The problem is that school leaders and teachers are themselves firefighting. And their moments of big, optimistic, free-flowing thinking risk being lost in the chaos and heartache of dealing with the urgency of the everyday.

But what if we were all having the same ideas? And what if they aren’t really as crazy as all that?

These ideas are doable, and doable is exactly what we need right now

For example, all schools will presumably want to keep their kitchens open to feed the pupils they still have coming in. As isolation increases and the hospitality industry closes its doors, are there ways of using trained staff currently not needed by local restaurants/cafés? People need purpose. And if we can keep kitchens going, could delivery companies (key workers) deliver food to children eligible for free school meals who aren’t in school with government picking up the delivery costs?

Charities like Magic Breakfast also have great expertise at getting food to the people who need it, and some families might prefer this to the proposed voucher system. And if we are going that far, can we expand this to donate or sell additional low-cost lunches to families and others in the community who are in need, such as the elderly?

I’m sure there are good uses for the majority of space in schools too. Yes, we’re all supposed to be self-isolating, but could we set up classrooms as free offices to enable people whose jobs could be done from home, but who don’t have the technology, to keep earning and contributing to the economy? Could space be used by councils or even community health services to keep people away from GPs surgeries and council offices? Are there other services that we want to move out of town centres and into the heart of communities?

A dramatic reduction in the number of young people in schools potentially frees up a number of staff, even allowing for higher sickness rates. Firstly, nearby special and AP provision is going to have a much higher share of its pupils on site, despite suffering with staff sickness. Can we pool staff with experience of working with excluded young people or those with special needs?

Charities like Action Tutoring and The Access Project have shown that with the right support, volunteers can support young people’s education. Given what we know about summer learning loss, which particularly hurts disadvantaged young people, how do we get education to the young people who need it most in what could be a very long summer? Can we use school staff to train volunteers among the many people (like me!) currently sat at home with no social life? And what other skills do staff have that could be about to be in demand?

Different communities will have different needs and schools will need support to make things happen, but these ideas are doable, and doable is exactly what we need right now.

Whatever we do, we are running a race of unknown distance, and we should all pace ourselves. But schools are places of hope and determination, not gloom and despair. Freed from so many of their previous obligations, their chief purpose now is as a community resource.

And that’s an opportunity to think big and believe #SchoolsCanHelp.

This article originally appeared in Schools Week.

Ben Gadsby is Head of Policy and Research at Impetus.

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