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Connecting schools and communities

Kim Dunphy
Manager, Cultural Development Network

At the end of June, a series of three conferences in Victoria will explore the relationships of schools with their local communities. These one-day events will examine the opportunities and challenges in school–community partnerships, and showcase interesting local, national and international initiatives.

The three events have been organised by the Cultural Development Network (CDN), working in partnership with steering groups with representatives from local councils, the education sector, universities and arts and other non-government organisations. CDN is a small independent organisation, funded by the Australia Council, Arts Victoria and the City of Melbourne, to support and foster the creativity of communities throughout Victoria. CDN works predominantly with local government, but also community, health, welfare and educational organisations whose role has a relationship with the cultural or creative aspect of community life. The events are being supported by VicHealth, confirming VicHealth’s acknowledgement of the importance of school–community relationships to community wellbeing.

Keynote speakers

The programs for the conferences aim to inform participants and inspire them to action through presentations, panels, discussions and workshops. Keynote speakers at all three conferences are Michael Tudball, Director of Community Partnerships with the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD), and Lisa Fitzhugh, Founder and Executive Director of Arts Corps, USA.

Arts Corps is a non-profit youth development program that partners with schools and community organisations to bring free after-school arts classes to low-income young people in Seattle, USA. Since its 2000 inception, Arts Corps has grown from an enrolment of 400 students at 10 partner sites to 2,700 students in 139 quarterly classes at 40 partner facilities in 2008. Arts Corps has been recognised nationally as an exemplary program in after-school arts programming by Harvard University's Project Zero and the National Partnership for Quality Afterschool Learning. Lisa will discuss the partnerships she has developed with so many diverse facilities and the factors she attributes to her program’s success.

Academics with expertise in arts and education will discuss research evidence for the value of school and community partnerships. Speakers include Professor Maureen Ryan from Victoria University, Robert Brown from Melbourne University and Mark Selkrig from La Trobe University, Albury–Wodonga campus. 

School–community connections

Links between school and community are currently receiving close attention from governments, universities, the media and other sources. There is a widespread recognition that our society is continually changing, and is more open and diverse than the society in which many of the current adult generation grew up. Institutions that traditionally functioned to bring people together, including churches and workplaces, no longer have such an impact on people’s lives. In this changed environment, schools have a greater opportunity to contribute to the general wellbeing of children and families. Schools can also function as a starting point for the development of a sense of community among new or disparate neighbourhoods.

Numerous policy initiatives confirm the value of schools working more closely with their communities. The Initial Report of the recent Australia 2020 Summit called for the building of ‘infrastructure which integrates services and encourages shared community use’. These services should support ‘children’s health, development, learning and care’ within ‘a place-based culture’. The Victorian Government’s new Blueprint for Education identifies school–community partnerships as one of the three top priorities for education in Victoria and is part of a growing emphasis on school–community partnerships in the development of infrastructure. The Schools as Core Social Centre program, run by the Melbourne Catholic Education Office and supported by VicHealth, recognises the opportunity for schools to be much more than a place for children to be educated.

Community use of school facilities is already common in some countries, especially the USA, and is starting to be taken up among Independent schools in Australia. These activities recognise the potential value of schools’ facilities to their communities, as well as the benefit to the school of greater community involvement. The benefits to schools might be financial, through hire or course fees, but also in terms of social capital through increased connections with the wider community, improved local relationships and a greater sense of belonging for all generations. For local communities, greater connection between residents and schools can have diverse benefits, facilitating better understanding and better utilisation of the community as a resource for schools.

However, the deepening of links between schools and the community raises a host of challenges, most particularly resourcing issues, and the strong pressures on schools to focus on the core business of children’s education.

The forthcoming conferences are not intended as launching pads for any specific community projects, but as forums to explore and discuss the issues around a range of initiatives, both existing and conceptual. Steering group members from diverse professional fields have developed programs to address concerns specific to their local communities. The issues that emerged are likely to resonate with a wide range of educators and other professionals involved with children and adolescents.

Issues for migrant and refugee communities in Melbourne’s Western suburbs

The steering group meeting in the Western region of Melbourne considered issues for communities that have high proportions of recently arrived migrants and refugees. Families in the West often lack resources, and face financial, transport and logistical constraints. Some of these suburbs have limited public transport options, and few local opportunities for creative activities out of school hours. The type of extracurricular commitments that middle class families take for granted, such as arts, sporting, club and community involvement, are not only beyond the resource capacity for migrant families, but are often also outside their experience.

Even if resource issues were resolved, many of these young people would not be allowed to participate in community activities because families don’t see the need or benefit, or are unsure of the safety for their young people in such involvement. These parents, however, do have a high trust in schools, and value their young people’s engagement in education. Extracurricular activity held in school premises could possibly eliminate barriers of logistics, transport and parent confidence for young people in those circumstances.  

Despite migrant and refugee parents’ high trust in schools, many of them have come from societies in which parents’ participation in education was not encouraged. Non-engagement with schools continues in Australia, which reduces educational outcomes. Family involvement in schooling is a factor in positive educational outcomes (Shortt, Hutchinson, Chapman and Toumbourou 2007), and extracurricular activities can be an excellent way to increase engagement of non-engaged parents with the school community, thus increasing family understanding of and connection to Australian schools.  

In the Western Metropolitan region, CDN’s partners include Hobsons Bay City Council, Brimbank City Council, VicHealth, Victoria University, Footscray Community Arts Centre and Gallery Sunshine Everywhere.

Issues in rural and regional communities

Issues for local communities identified by the steering group in the Barwon–South West region include lack of cultural opportunities for young people, the ‘brain drain’ of talented young people to the city and low engagement and enthusiasm for formal education from people of all ages.

Some ideas suggested by members of the conference steering committee in Barwon–South West to address these issues will be introduced at the conference. For example, Recreation & Arts Coordinator for Colac Otway Shire, Irene Pagram, will propose the possibility that schools be made available as art studios for tertiary students during school–university holiday periods. This idea would allow artistic young people to have space and facilities to develop their skills during study breaks, while also providing local schools with opportunities to develop relationships with emerging artists. Mutually beneficial relationships are likely to lead to creative partnerships, and new opportunities for all parties.

In the Hume region, the steering group identified opportunities for schools, especially those in smaller regional and rural centres, to take a larger role in the life of the community by offering experiences that would otherwise be unavailable to young people. One school that has taken this role seriously is Yackandandah Primary, where Principal Kathy Petzke has supported a weekly after-school arts program led by local artists. The Artshouse program provides children with extracurricular creative opportunities, while also benefiting the wider community by providing local artists with employment and a focus for their creative ideas.  This idea and many others will be showcased at the conference in Wodonga.

Partners in the Hume region include La Trobe University: Centre for Regional Education, Albury–Wodonga Campus, Rural City of Wangaratta, City of Wodonga, Wangaratta Community Education Centre and Wangaratta Middle Years Campus. In Colac, the event is being developed and presented by Colac Shire Council with Neighbourhood Renewal, Colac–Otway Community Education Centre, Colac U3A and Colac Hub.

The conferences will welcome delegates from a range of professional areas. Representatives from the education sector, including leaders, teachers, parents and school councillors, academics and regional offices, are expected, as well as artists and arts workers, health, welfare and community organisation representatives and local government staff from a range of disciplines. The steering groups hope that all delegates will find the program and networking opportunities enriching and be inspired by the program to approach their work with new creative energy.

Conference details:

  • South–West region, Colac Performing Arts Centre, Friday June 20
  • Western Metropolitan region, Williamstown Town Hall, Monday June 23
  • Hume region, La Trobe University, Albury–Wodonga campus, Wednesday June 25

For more information including program details and registration go to www.culturaldevelopment.net.au/ or contact Kim Dunphy, email kim.dunphy@culturaldevelopment.net.au or tel: 03 9658 9976


Shortt, AL, Hutchinson, DM, Chapman, R, Toumbourou, W (2007) Family, school, peer and individual influences on early adolescent alcohol use, Drug and Alcohol Review, 26(6), 625–634)


Subject Headings

School and community
Arts in education
Socially disadvantaged
Social life and customs
Social welfare
Ethnic groups
Rural education