Community as a powerful antioxidant that can protect a school’s lifeworld…

There is no recipe for community building – no correlates, no workshop agenda, no training package. Community cannot be borrowed or bought.
Sergiovanni (1994)

To date, in this blog series on communal leadership and social justice in our schools, I have largely focused on relational leadership and how this turns on our understanding of relational power, relational trust, and our willingness to truly engage with, listen to, and have authentic dialogue with all members of our school community.

In this blog post I explore the notion of ‘community’ itself. If I am saying that school leaders should be looking to exercise communal leadership then let us problematize the term ‘school community’ and the idea of ‘partnership’. I also ask whether in seeking ‘partnership’ with parents/carers and the local community we are barking up the wrong tree. Is it the case that school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

In reviewing Home-School relationships and its ‘story’ in the literature, Carol Vincent (1996) argues that much of the home-school debate lacks a critical approach. Vincent warns of the reliance on consensual language, such as ‘partnership’, ‘dialogue’, ‘involvement’, ‘sharing’; with such terminology serving to edit tension and conflict out of the relationship, whilst being powerful in effectively constructing norms for home-school relations. Fifteen years later, we have Hornby and Lafaele (2011) highlighting the widespread use of the term ‘partnership’ at all levels from school prospectus to government policy papers.

Despite its wonderful “feel-good” nature its use is problematic. The use of language such as partnership, sharing, mutuality, collaboration, reciprocity, and participation, masks the inequalities that exist in reality in the practice of PI [parental involvement]. (p. 46-7)

Q. How often do we freely use such language to describe – define, indeed – the position in our schools? How did we, how do we, match up against the rhetoric: reality tension described by Hornby & Lafaele?
(You may want to take a look at your school mission statement.)

Etienne Wenger identifies three dimensions that he says are the source of coherence of a community of practice: mutual engagement; a joint enterprise; and a shared repertoire. Might thinking on a more authentic home-school-community partnership benefit from the drawing of parallels with Wenger’s conceptualisation? For, in such a model, group members are engaged in actions which meanings they negotiate with one another in actively participating. Wenger’s second characteristic of practice as a source of community coherence is the negotiation of a joint enterprise:

It is defined by the participants in the very process of pursuing it. It is their negotiated response to their situation and thus belongs to them in a profound sense, in spite of all the forces and influences that are beyond their control.
(Wenger, 1998, p. 77)

Thomas Sergiovanni contends that the lifeworld of a school must be the primary focus of the decisions made by its administrators while the systems world, one in which management techniques and goals dictate action, plays a peripheral role. “Culture, meaning, and significance are parts of the ‘lifeworld’ of a school” (p. 4). Sergiovanni declares that the values and general culture of the school should reflect those of the parents, students, teachers, and local community.

Sergiovanni highlights the importance of the factors that contribute to a school’s character and how this character, with all of its contributors and effects, will determine the school’s success. One of the critical components of an effective community is uniqueness. He argues that this trait connects community members, committing them to their commonly owned goals and values.

Sergiovanni provides a vision of community as:

… a powerful antioxidant that can protect a school’s lifeworld, ensuring that means will serve the ends rather than determine them (p. 59).

The lifeworld and the systemsworld are symbiotic. That is, in the proper balance both are essential in creating effective schools. An important aspect of balance between the two worlds is directionality of the relationship. One world must necessarily lead the other, and which leads matters greatly in terms of the type of school that develops. And so:

Either management systems are uniquely designed to embody and achieve the purposes, values, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and students in a particular school or the purposes, values, and beliefs of parents, teachers, and students will be determined by the chosen (or more likely state- or district-mandated [national- or locally-mandated]) management system (p.7).

Q. What is your assessment of the lifeworld-systemsworld symbiosis in your school community. Which world leads the other?

Is it the case that beleaguered school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

In looking at community capacity building I am going to return to the field of critical pedagogy in order that we might arrive at the concept of social justice in our schools. A return to those introduced earlier in this series of blog posts: Paulo Freire, Saul Alinsky, John Smyth, and Henry Giroux.

I think it best that we pause for thought here. Although, before we draw breath, we note that the road ahead is a challenging one. Smyth warns that exploring a complex idea like community does not lend itself at all well to ‘cut and dried definitions’ (p.5). He cites Richard Johnson (2009) in his introduction to Brent’s (2009) book Searching for Community, saying, exploring the notion of what community means involves a ‘mapping not just [of] spaces or places, but also relevant arguments and ideas’ (p.4).

Community isn’t something that is given or can be relied on. Rather, the idea of community is attached to different forms of collective identity that have actually to be created. Community in this sense is always fragile and fractured, always takes variable forms and always involves particular kinds of power. It includes, embraces and empowers, but it also excludes. (p. 5)
Jeremy Brent (2009)

Something to dwell on before we return to this…

Q. Are we barking up the wrong tree in seeking ‘partnership’ with parents/carers and the wider community?

Q. If we pursue such a line then is it not the case that we are separating ourselves (school) out and determining direction?

Q. Is it the case that school leaders should be paying more attention to community capacity building?

Q. If so, and we embrace a philosophical framework such as that of Sergiovanni’s, are we looking then to ‘push the description of leadership past the realm of empty buzzwords into a model necessitating deep, radical change’ ?


Brent, J. (2009) Searching for Community: Representation, Power and Action on an Urban Estate, Bristol: Policy Press.

Hornby, G. (2011) Parental Involvement in Childhood Education: Building Effective School-Family Partnerships, Canterbury NZ: Springer.

Hornby, G. and Lafaele, R. (2011) “Barriers to parental involvement in education: an explanatory model” Educational Review, 63 (1) pp 37-52.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1994) Building Community in Schools, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (2004) The Lifeworld of Leadership: Creating Culture, Community, and Personal Meaning in our Schools, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Smyth, J. (2011) Critical Pedagogy for Social Justice, London: Continuum.

Smyth, J., Down, B., McInerney, P. (2014) The Socially Just School: Making Space for Youth to Speak Back, new York: Springer.

Vincent, C. (1996) Parents and Teachers: Power and Participation, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Vincent, C. (2001) “Social class and parental agency” Journal of Education Policy, 16 (4) pp 347-364.

2 thoughts on “Community as a powerful antioxidant that can protect a school’s lifeworld…

  1. Ste Marsay

    Hello there all.

    Not sure at all how to start this but i am ruminating on all of the above. Its a sticky consideration the notion of community, amplified excellently by Jeremy bents ‘It (community) includes, embraces and empowers, but it also excludes’

    How true and obvious upon being revealed and yet i had never considered the complexities. So what can i say on this issue? Only that which i myself experience.

    I am a Me-ist, by which i mean my life has always been and still is all about me fundamentally. Questions such as:-

    1. Who am I?
    2. What am I doing?
    3. Why am I doing it?
    4. What is this I?

    And on and on and I wonder a great deal about this whole I-ness, this whole Me-ness.

    However, the Me-ist trip appears relevent to the topic. “Me, Me, Me” is hammered home to us all constantly via many various mediums. Think about it.

    “Because I’m worth it”

    “I’m loving it”

    “Your M and S”

    “Just do it” (What, Who, Where? maybe it means me?) etc and I am sure you will find many more examples of your own.

    On your own.



    Hmm, so this ‘i’ seems to be the thread i am following, this sense of isolation, this sense of me being all alone and yet always talked to, always advertised at, always being tricked and decieved into imagining that I am part of a community, as long as I am prepared to pay. And play along.


    So, what Simon has done, did do for the Big Me was to regularly invite me and others into the school to discuss ways in which we could, collectivley, consider what we all would like to see happen within the school so as to best best improve the conditions for learning far all the children, as well as for trhe teachers providing the learning. He also would put forward proposals to us all and then let us all hammer out our reckonings. Gently I found the Big Me being humbled due to encountering all the other Big Me’s. We were asked on one occasion, teachers, deput head, and parents, sitting at mixed tables, to respond to questions such as ‘What do you think school done for you?’ and when the various answers came out it was to me astonishing how similar, collectivley, the individual tables of people shared the same story. By that I don’t mean to say ‘We all shared the same story’ i mean to say that within every grouping there was more or less a balance it seemed to me of positive memories and negative memories. The beauty of the proposals was that they were open ended and therfor all present waxed lyrical about their lives, their experiences and lots of laughter and aggreement ensued.

    Wonderful to behold for Big Me, I ain’t so diffrent from everybody else! We all had storys that coalesced and diverged and coalesced again and it never appeard to be about agreement or lack thereof, it was just story telling, the telling of our stories to one another.

    It felt like community building to me on reflection, wonderfully so.

    So, ‘But it also excludes’ being the final statement of Jeremy Bents deeply insightful sojourn into the nature of community has been the ‘Pull’ for me into this discussion. ‘Big Me’ found itself pulled into a ‘Big We’ (All urinary jokes or puns have been pre-considered) and do you know what, one of the excluded suddenly found themselve included. Over many meetings organised by Simon I found out that we matter, that we are part of something outside of our subjective selves.and that we all know that truth through the love we have for our children.

    Pulling in the excluded happens, I tell the tale of my own experience by way of example and i am glad to state it so and it is an ongoing journey.



  2. simonmfeasey

    Thank you, again, Ste, for your thoughts and continuing contribution to this debate. I am going to hang fire and not respond as fully as I would because what you say leads perfectly into the theme of the next piece I have brewing. In that post I will discuss the friction that exists between a more prosocial stance and that of individualism (neo-liberalism) and how I believe that impacts school communities, and what we can learn from those promoting critical pedagogy (Freire, Smyth, Giroux etc.). What you have to say on this through your experience engaging in the sort of dialogue you describe offers a hugely valuable insight from one (parent) who would commonly be excluded, as you say.

    You mention Jeremy Brent. I drew on Brent’s work because I believe that he is better qualified than most to offer perspective on community.Brent worked for 30 years as a youth worker on the Southmead Estate, Bristol, starting in 1975. He took a Masters degree in Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1992, and went on to complete a PhD at the University of West England, Bristol in 2000.

    Tellingly, Brent said:
    ‘Ideas can give you the run of the world – action is limited.’

    He argued that community is best understood in terms of the processes by which it comes about. Community isn’t something that is given or can be relied on. Rather, the idea of community is attached to different forms of collective identity that have actually to be created.

    I recognise what you are saying in what Brent says here. Thank you.


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