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Communities don’t just need access to school kitchens. They need access to the whole school

26 Sep 2019

School buildings are a vital part of local life, but parents face big barriers in being able to use them. Responding to Call 18 of 25 Calls, Sara McFarlane from Connect explains how that could change.

Call 18: Take the next step in participation and food education: give communities the keys to school kitchens

Fun, families and food: from the traditional school fair with home baking, to families taking part in cooking lessons together, to cross-cultural pot lucks – at Connect we’ve seen how food can be an important way to get families involved in the school community.

Our Partnership Schools Scotland programme, funded by Skills Development Scotland, has involved schools, families and the wider community coming together to develop projects that support children’s learning. And yes, a good number of these involve food.

So when I say I’m about to be slightly contentious, please don’t think I disagree with Donna’s Borokinni’s call to give communities the keys to the school kitchens: I say give communities the keys to the whole thing!

Connect’s mission is to make family engagement and involvement in children’s learning as good as it can be, in the way that suits families, as part of the drive to improve children’s outcomes. For some parents this can mean joining the Parent Council, PTA or other voluntary parents’ group, which then goes on to help other parents access the school through social events, or work with the school to create family friendly spaces.

Recently we have been hearing from some of our members facing the additional challenges of high charges for school lets for meetings or events, or struggling with complicated booking systems. This is despite the fact that their work is for the benefit for the whole school community.

Last year, we conducted an online survey which found the picture across Scotland is a mixed bag. Nearly half of the parent groups which responded said they face charges for meetings all or some of the time. Nearly two-thirds have to pay for lets for social events all or some of the time, while over half must pay for lets for fundraising events some or all of the time.

Other comments included:

  • Not able to use school kitchen as run by outside contractors
  • Saturdays are too expensive so we have our school fairs during the week
  • Parent education classes can’t be run in school because of fees for the class and janitor charges – it is too expensive
  • Schools not available for community use
  • Local authority payment systems requiring parents to pay upfront using their own debit/credit cards and then reclaim from their parent group (which doesn’t have a credit/debit card)
  • Cost of lets impacts on our ability to offer free events so everyone can join in.

Much work is being done to help tackle the Cost of the School Day. But these charges mean parent groups have to make a difficult decision: use fundraising money to pay for lets instead of helping the school, or charge for events and so place another burden on families.

At Connect we are calling on local authorities and the Scottish Government to:

  • Work together to ensure parent groups are supported in what they do for their schools – they make a huge financial and social contribution to their schools, so don’t take it for granted
  • Make sure parental engagement and involvement are properly supported in practical ways, eg. parents/parent groups are supported to access, and feel welcome in, school buildings
  • Make sure parent groups are not being exploited when they are supporting the school community – this is cynical and harms parents’ trust in the school and local authority
  • Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk: recognise that partnership working with parents requires a commitment from local authorities, too
  • Recognise the importance of janitors and school staff in enabling school access
  • Ensure school-let booking systems work for parent groups in terms of availability, let confirmation and payment methods.

It is a sad fact that local authorities are cash-strapped. But the money generated from these lets is tiny in the grand scheme of things. Yet the positive impact of parent-led activities cannot be understated: from helping to foster feelings of community, to practical help such as the family gardening day to clear up the school grounds.

And yes, so families can access the school kitchen and learn together.

Local authorities operate schools on behalf of local residents; school buildings are a community asset and are often part of the social fabric and community cohesion. But if the Parent Council or PTA struggles to access them, what hope do other parents and the rest of the community have?

Sara McFarlane is Policy and Support Officer at Connect (formerly SPTC).

She is responding here to Call 18 of our 25 Calls campaign: Take the next step in participation and food education: give communities the keys to school kitchens.

About the author

Sara McFarlane is Policy and Support Officer at Connect (formerly SPTC)

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Call 18

Take the next step in participation and food education: give communities the keys to school kitchens

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25 Calls campaign

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