5 July 2023

How schools can be anchors for our left-behind communities

By Loic Menzies

If the frayed fabric of our society is to be healed then policymakers should embrace schools’ role as anchors for left-behind communities.

2019 was the year a recalcitrant Parliament forced Theresa May’s government into turmoil. It was also the first year since the 1970s in which the majority of people in the UK described themselves as dissatisfied with democracy. It is one of the great tragedies of the last few years of political mayhem that pledges to tackle this, set out in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and subsequent Levelling Up White Paper, have fallen by the wayside.

According to the White Paper’s executive summary, levelling up would involve ‘putting power in local hands, armed with the right information and embedded in strong civic institutions’. Unfortunately, progress towards such goals has been imperceptible at best.

Luckily, when governments fail to deliver their promises, communities are sometimes able to show the way. That’s certainly the case among a group of schools that have partnered with the charity Citizens UK. These remarkable partnerships have supported parents and pupils to take power into their own hands, and to engage with the political process in new and unexpected ways.

At St. Mary’s CE Primary School for example, it was only once parents sat down to share their ‘horror stories’ about trying to interact with the local council that they realised they had all experienced unacceptably poor standards. They then began to research what they could do about their experiences and identified which elected officials were accountable for the services that were failing them. Banding together, they decided to write a giant letter, ‘so big they can’t ignore it’, and to deliver it to the council headquarters, demanding a meeting with the relevant officials.

It’s no surprise that the first step depended on strengthening social ties between parents and schools and similar civic institutions are ideally placed to contribute to this. In fact, as I explain in my recent paper ‘There are Strengths that are Vast, it was American school superintendent Lyda Hanifan who first coined the phrase ‘social capital,’ back in 1916.

Hanifan had noticed that a rural community in West Virginia ‘had developed social capital and then used this capital in the general improvement of its recreational, intellectual, moral and economic conditions’. Reflecting on his observations, he couldn’t help noticing the crucial role schools had played.

Eighty years later, it was another American, Robert Putnam, who brought the term social capital to the mainstream, as he mourned the erosion of voluntary, solidaristic ties across the modern US. Yet if the case studies brought together in Citizens UK’s recent book are anything to go by, civic institutions like schools remain ideal places for community members to come together and build the social capital they need in order to take back control.

Strikingly, although frustrated parents and pupils might be expected to channel their anger into a rejection of traditional politics, they often use their new found social capital to access traditional structures and processes. At St Mary’s, the parents’ key demand was for politicians to meet with, and listen to them. As Hannah Gretton, a member of the St Mary’s campaign put it:

‘We can run the best and most creative action in the world, we can have the strongest argument for the most just cause, but if we do not have the power to get around the decision-makers’ tables, we are very unlikely to be able to influence their decisions.’

Social capital and citizen action might therefore better be thought of as a way of shrinking the distance between people and their elected representatives.

As Jon Yates argues in his book Fractured, ‘the crisis of Covid has distanced us from each other. We see anew how far apart we are. The result must be a new way to bring us together’. A hundred years after Hanifan praised the collective spirit of rural school districts, the pandemic demonstrated that schools remain universal anchor institutions that can bridge divides and provide structures around which ‘social capital’ can crystallise. Of course, embracing this side of schools’ social contribution requires additional staffing and resources, but if we want a more resilient society then this is the type of investment in foundational policy that policymakers can’t back down from.

If our society, and the next generation in particular, are to stand a chance of bouncing back, then a reinvigorated collectivism is surely our only hope, offering a powerful alternative to populist anger, polarisation, and disempowerment.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Loic Menzies is Visiting Fellow at the Sheffield Institute of Education; Senior Research Associate at Jesus College IF Cambridge and Associate Education Specialist at Cambridge Assessment Network.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.