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Support school-community partnerships – for students and our future

Geoff Masters discusses the importance of improving the capacity for collaboration between education and philanthropy, and the positive impact this can have on student outcomes.

There is a long tradition of philanthropy in Australia, but it has tended to fly under the radar. In part because of this, there have been recent calls to encourage a stronger culture of philanthropy. Successive governments have sought advice in this space. A recent example is the Community Business Partnership proposed to ‘strengthen and empower communities’. These developments are likely to have implications for schools and their relationships with the wider community.

The primary objective of every school-community partnership should be to better meet the needs of students.

This is not just the ‘here and now’ needs of students for, say, books and equipment, as important as these may be to improving students’ participation and engagement in learning. It is also about better meeting the ‘now and into the future’ needs of students by providing enhanced opportunities for learning and development.

If a school-community partnership is not addressing and meeting identified student needs, then it is at best cosmetic and at worst a distraction from the main business of schooling.

There are many groups capable of working with schools to improve opportunities and outcomes for students. Of the estimated 600 000 not-for-profit organisations in Australia, many have an explicit interest in education. There are about 5000 philanthropic foundations, and about two million actively trading businesses in Australia. Many of these also have an active interest in education. Add to this the traditional groups of parents and friends, and the support resources available to schools become immense.

And there are many ways in which community organisations, businesses, parents and philanthropic foundations can contribute to the work of schools. This might be through the gift of time – volunteers from business or the community helping students with, say, their reading. It might be a financial gift – the planned and structured giving of a grant to improve, say, the access of students to a music specialist. It might be the gift of talents – access to work experiences, mentoring or coaching – or a range of other less obvious gifts, such as access to information, facilities or services.

...the schools most in need are least equipped to access philanthropic support.

Encouraging a culture of philanthropy is one thing, but how to do it and do it well is another, especially if potential partners don’t know what schools need or what prevents schools from accessing and maximising additional support.

A new Leading Learning in Education and Philanthropy (LLEAP) 2013 Survey Report from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) sheds light on these issues. Made possible by The Ian Potter Foundation, Origin Foundation, Scanlon Foundation and Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, LLEAP surveyed schools, philanthropic foundations involved in structured forms of giving, and not-for-profits with programs or services that intersect with schools.

According to LLEAP report co-author Michelle Anderson, ‘By delving deeper into the worlds of schools and philanthropy, a clearer picture of their capacity to engage, and commonalities and differences between them, emerges.’

The LLEAP study shows that top priorities for schools are improving ‘academic outcomes’ and ‘teacher quality and quality teaching’. Next in importance are promoting ‘social and emotional wellbeing’, ‘community engagement’ and ‘student engagement’.  Although most of these are also in the top ten priorities for philanthropic foundations, promoting ‘teacher quality and quality teaching’ is ranked only twelfth by philanthropics.

A consistent finding of the LLEAP study is that the schools most in need are least equipped to access philanthropic support. Ninety per cent of schools are new or inexperienced when it comes to engaging with philanthropy via the traditional avenue of seeking and applying for grants.

...philanthropic giving in education is not straightforward.

The good news is that schools and philanthropics agree on the barriers to be overcome. It is not part of the culture of schools to seek support of this kind. They have basic knowledge gaps around eligibility requirements and have capacity issues when it comes to knowing how to collaborate with organisations, such as not-for-profits, which can more readily access this support. Combined with our current complex and restrictive tax rules, it is clear that philanthropic giving in education is not straightforward.

Some top-down change would make it easier for schools to access community resources. For example, previous information gathered through LLEAP showed broad support for the creation of a national philanthropy in schooling fund to help overcome some of the basic knowledge and tax-related barriers.

But bottom-up change is also occurring as schools reach out and form new community partnerships to deliver improved outcomes for students. Many excellent examples of such partnerships were recognised over the past five years through NAB Schools First – itself a partnership between NAB, ACER and the Foundation for Young Australians that provided more that $20 million to schools to promote and recognise highly effective partnerships between schools and their local communities.

Improvements in educational outcomes depend on better understandings of local student needs and better ways of addressing those needs. Strategic partnerships between schools and their communities can be effective in meeting this challenge. ■

RD

About the author

Professor Geoff Masters AO is the Chief Executive of ACER. 

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View selected works of Geoff Masters

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