When I was a young boy in the 1960s, a long time before computer games and even before space invaders, there used to be things called puzzle books which children would inevitably receive as Christmas or birthday presents. These books, usually an inch thick and printed on poor quality paper, were useful for amusing ourselves on a wet weekend or in the winter school holidays. They contained pictures you could colour in, quizzes, crosswords, lists of interesting facts and, my favourite, join the dots. Using a pencil, you would begin to join up the hundreds of apparently random dots on a page until some kind of shape emerged – if I remember correctly it was usually an elephant, a cute dog, a palm tree or a clown. The easier join the dot pages even had some of the picture already provided so you kind of knew what was coming. Even if you could anticipate the final image, there was something satisfying about completing the picture, joining up all the dots and seeing everything connected.
What would it look like if we could join up some of the dots to help connect schools more strongly with our communities? What would a truly community connected school look like, and feel like – for students, for teachers, for school leaders and for members of the community? What sort of picture might emerge?
A couple of months ago I sat in the main auditorium at the Telstra Clear Events Centre in Manukau with over 200 people who were asking a similar question. What was exciting about this was not just the name – Raise Pasifika Fono – but the fact that it was a rare attempt to connect the education dots across a large and diverse community – to improve outcomes for Pacific students. There were specialist groups – students, early childhood, primary and secondary teachers, principals, tertiary educators, government ministry people, business people, church representatives, some MPs, union representatives, health sector representatives, counsellors, local community members, parents and people from local government. At times, we talked within our specialist groups, at times we re-grouped to engage with a range of perspectives. For a moment, it felt like a whole community coming together to talk about education connections and how these might be aligned to benefit students.
Of course there are already numerous examples of schools, kura and communities working together to benefit students – iwi have created and are implementing education plans and exploring education partnerships; parents are involved in school reading and homework programmes; businesses and sports clubs provide mentoring, work experience or sponsorship. Local councils have community development programmes and community trusts fund a wide range of school-connected projects. There are youth workers in schools and programmes that connect schools with artists and scientists. Trades academies allow secondary schools to engage in new ways with employers and tertiary institutes. Somewhere amongst all of this is the potential for more coherence in how schools and communities connect – perhaps across a suburb, town or region – and I haven’t even touched on the potential of virtual communities to revolutionize the ways schools ‘connect’.
Government can play a role. There are increasing connections between iwi and the Ministry of Education through iwi education partnerships. This week, Child, Youth and Family has established a direct hotline for teachers to help encourage reporting of suspected child abuse. Although there are worries there may not be enough staff at CYF to follow up those concerns effectively, it is at least an example of a direct connection between schools and a government agency that could make a difference for children. Why wasn’t it done years ago? What other hotlines do we need?
How can local government increasingly play a role here? It could start by providing more infrastructure for agencies and organisations to make connections. This would ensure that agencies intersecting and participating in education would know who was playing what role or delivering which services. It would allow the community to access the information they need in a timely way. In Auckland, the Education Summit held earlier this year was an attempt to kick start that process.
I know that community means different things to different people, but exploring ways for schools to connect in increasingly innovative and coherent ways with their communities seems like a really important job. What sort of picture, what sort of vision, might emerge if we actually start joining up more of those dots?