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The Knowledge. Are trusts prioritising communities enough?

In some rural areas,closures of post offices, pubs and other community focal points over the years have left schools among the few remaining institutions that knit together a sparsely populated area. In more populated areas too, schools are often pivotal hubs in their communities.

Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust, an 18-school trust in Dartmoor, and Anthem Schools Trust, which has 16 schools across London, the East Midlands and Thames Valley, have recognised their schools’ important place in their communities and made community engagement a priority.

Dartmoor has recently asked its local governors to focus even more on building strong relationships between schools, parents and local communities. Governors seek feedback about their schools and share it at every level within the trust. Wherever possible, the trust and its schools act on it.

Meanwhile, Anthem has changed the remit of its local governors so their priority is to build connections between schools and local businesses, charities and communities. Governors glean insights that are discussed and added to a dashboard, which is visible across the trust and acted upon by the trustees and central team.

Dartmoor and Anthem are among a number of trusts leading the way on community engagement, but this is not a ‘nice-to-have’. The Department for Education is clear that strategic engagement with stakeholders is a key function of a trust, and that doing it well is an indicator of a trust’s quality.

However, new research published today by GovernorHub shows that there is scope to do much more across the sector.

Among the multi-academy trust governors and trustees we surveyed, over three-quarters think community engagement should be a key objective in their school or trust improvement plan, yet only 47 per cent of governors and 53 per cent of trustees say it actually is.

Meanwhile, fewer than one in five governors and trustees surveyed say that community engagement is a top-three priority for their local governing body or trust board. 

Community engagement can support key priorities, rather than taking time away from them

Community engagement should be a priority for all multi-academy trusts, and not just to meet DfE expectations. As trusts grow and the number and range of stakeholders increases, trusts need, effectively maintaining and managing their relationships with the communities they serve is crucial in helping schools thrive in the face of local challenges.

Meaningful community engagement can also support many of the areas that governors and trustees told us are naturally high on the priority list: quality of education, school improvement, attendance, safeguarding and balancing the budget.

GovernorHub’s new research is based on survey responses from nearly 1,700 local governors and trustees, discussions with trust leaders and governance professionals, and an analysis of parent engagement data from 19,000 parents supplied by Edurio. It identifies some key steps trusts can take to improve community engagement.

These include:

  • Make full use of the local tier of governance, to benefit from governors’ local knowledge and give them the active role many told us they’d welcome 
  • Improve mechanisms for reporting between local governing bodies and trustees (both ways) so the community’s voice is elevated and everyone has a better sense of the impact of engagement work
  • Regularly seek and consider the views of parents, carers and the local community through surveys, forums, partnerships, etc. to hear local voices and gather valuable insights into key issues affecting their schools

There may always be issues that feel more urgent and are under greater scrutiny. However, as many trusts are finding, community engagement can be a ‘golden thread’ that supports key priorities, rather than taking time away from them.

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