Are we making the best use of school buildings?

9 Oct

Back in April I blogged on the misguided approach Michael Gove was taking in terms of re-structuring the school day. His basic ideas are utterly ignorant, perhaps deliberately so, to the reality of the existing working hours of a teacher.

However, while I certainly do not see the educational merit of extending the school day, let alone the ability of doing it without fundamentally damaging the performance of the teaching profession, there is a potential question to be asked about the use of school facilities before and after school.

There is a clear argument for the school building being utilised beyond those school hours. In the morning before school there’s the opportunity for greater proliferation of free breakfast clubs operated by non-teachers. The Children’s Commissioners report into child poverty 2012 highlighted that just under a third of schools in Wales still do not operate a free school breakfast scheme. The health and educational benefits of this scheme are numerous and it should be an ambition to achieve as close to 100% take up as possible.

Naturally the bulk of the day will be a traditional school session but once the educational day is up the school building should be taken over for after school clubs. Going back to a blog post from the end of last month, these are ideal places for the “priorities” that are sometimes marginalised because of national objectives, to be explored in greater detail. After school sports clubs giving a focus on PE or arts clubs bringing out the creative culture of an individual. Again, there is no reason why these can not be driven by non-teaching individuals. Community groups, individuals and organizations with expertise in their fields.

Now more than ever this work is vital. For example, we are seeing some positive steps in PE participation. Sport’s Wales School Sports Survey, published today, shows that almost 50% more children are taking part in sport and physical activity regularly than two years ago. That is great news and a platform to be built on. However, the inevitable cuts to leisure services that will be coming from local authorities as a result of the squeezed settlement they have received from the Welsh Government, following cuts to its own funding from Westminster, will have a negative impact on that progress. Facilities will be closed and opportunities lost. Against that backdrop utilising school buildings in this way makes even more sense.

Of course I am mindful that in many schools this is already happening. More likely than not it is teachers going above and beyond the call of duty that run these after school clubs. However, where this is not taking place we should be opening up our schools as community facilities; but we should not just stop at the school week. Far better use of school facilities can be opened up on weekends and particularly during the holidays. One of the big issues for parents and pupils is what to do during the summer holiday. Providing facilities and a productive environment during this period will help students to continue to proactively occupy themselves with worthwhile and fulfilling activities throughout the summer and tackle the problems of affordable childcare in the process. This is something that is done with a much greater focus in Europe than here in the UK at present.

To do this of course there would have to be an investment in child-care and/or the running of these clubs. While the initial outlay is of course money that would need to be found in a very difficult economic climate, it really is a case of investing to save. The proposals would be a win – win for everyone. For the students there are obvious benefits. There are clear educational, physical and social reasons to establish these opportunities. From developing a better communications skills while receiving a healthy, nutritious start to the day all the way to the creativity and health benefits of mixing in a socially responsible after school setting. There’s the opportunity to structure clubs in a way that they build on the educational values of that day’s school activities. These after school clubs would also be drivers in the engagement of children that are often potentially absent from school, developing a relationship that can translate into educational attainment and reduced absenteeism. It will also re-establish the school as the heartbeat of a community, something that is an essential component to its success and a role that, unfortunately, has diminished over recent years.

In ensuring that such facilities are run by non-teachers that would free those individuals up to continue with the work they would already be doing outside school hours, taking away some of the additional work they do in schools and creating a better work-life balance which in turn creates a more productive and motivated workforce. We should of course not stop any teacher that proactively wishes to take these after school clubs. Many do just that out of the love of their jobs. This would simply allow that to be an option rather than a necessity that often creates conflicting work pressures. The clubs, before and after school, would create employment opportunities for individuals to gain experience and a living wage. It in turn tackles issues around helping to support people out of unemployment, reducing the welfare bill in the process. Creating these opportunities as standard in our community would have the additional benefit of supporting working parents in terms of their child care costs, allowing them to continue to work in the knowledge their child is in a safe and productive environment.

Finally, we are seeing a huge investment in Welsh schools as part of the 21C Schools programme, albeit an investment far below what was initially outlined as necessary by the WLGA. Still, what better way to stretch that money further, and get even more for the taxpayer’s pound, than to extend the use of schools. It is not simply funding for new and improving schools but funding for a new and improving community development hubs.

There will be barriers in the way of this proposal. There will no doubt be issues around child safety, child protection, legal and insurance concerns. However, working with schools and local authorities to widen the role os school buildings in the community, while creating a hyper local economy and reducing the pressures of teachers workloads, is certainly an ambition worth exploring.


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