Tackling disadvantage: a children’s zone approach

by Richard Hatcher

Tackling social disadvantage in education: a Children’s Zone approach

Local area-based partnerships between schools, local authority and community

 A Children’s Zone brings together all the resources in a local area – a neighbourhood, a district – that can support the educational development of children and young people:

  • the schools – their teachers, governors, parents, children and young people;
  • other support agencies such as social services, youth services, pre-school provision and the police;
  • local community facilities – libraries, community centres etc;
  • local community organisations and groups of every sort, from sports clubs to religious organisations;
  • local workplaces and businesses;
  • other resources from outside the Zone area: universities, arts and cultural organisations etc;
  • the local authority;
  • and, centrally, community members themselves: their knowledge, skills, views and aspirations.

A Children’s Zone approach is being advocated by the Save the Children charity 1,2 and by Making the local matter: Breaking the link between education, disadvantage and place, a book published in October 2014 3. It has influenced the successful Manchester Challenge programme addressing social disadvantage in education, and Children’s Zones are currently being developed in four areas of the country.

Why a Children’s Zone?

In Developing Children’s Zones for England: What’s the evidence? 2 the authors say:

All we know about why some children do better than others suggests that outcomes arise from children’s complex ecologies, and that place plays a role in these ecologies. The implication is that improvements in outcomes for those facing the greatest difficulties in the most disadvantaged areas are possible through holistic area-based approaches. This means that the idea of Children’s Zones, which are about precisely such approaches, is based on a sound rationale. (p11)

Of course Children’s Zones cannot challenge the underlying economic and political structures that create inequality, but they can make a difference that matters. The school improvement strategy promoted by both the Coalition government and Labour is based on addressing internal school factors. But internal school factors only account for 30% of variance in achievement 4. According to Mel Ainscow:

…closing the gap in outcomes between those from more and less advantaged backgrounds will only happen when what happens to children outside as well as inside the school changes. This means changing how families and communities work, and enriching what they offer to children. […] there is encouraging evidence from Greater Manchester of what can happen when what schools do is aligned in a coherent strategy with the efforts of other local players—employers, community groups, universities and public services. This does not necessarily mean schools doing more, but it does imply partnerships beyond the school, where partners multiply the impacts of each other’s efforts. 5

Inclusive participatory governance of the Children’s Zone partnership

This new local education partnership would be governed by a coordinating body comprising representatives of the various stakeholders, with a key role played by the participating schools, of course, but also effective influence by the local community. As Developing children’s zones for England 1 says:

In general terms, if it is to improve outcomes for all children in its target area, a Children’s Zone must bring together all the local partners with a central role to play in supporting children’s development, and it must enable the local partners to work collectively for the good of the area. To do this, a Children’s Zone must have some form of overarching area-governance structure that has a clear relationship to its target area and can set the strategy for the zone… (p27)

This inclusive participatory governance approach can find support from current debates and developments in local government around the devolution of decision-making and the empowerment of local communities.

Of course, ‘communities of place’ are not homogenous: on the contrary, they are internally differentiated in terms of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, politics, personal circumstances, needs, aspirations, purposes and views. Nor is there always agreement between communities, schools and local authorities. It may be necessary for the community to mobilise pressure against attempts by schools or the local authority to marginalise community concerns, or to use participation to integrate the community into neoliberal education and austerity policies. It may also be necessary on occasion to oppose retrogressive community demands which conflict with the values of critical inquiry, equality and social justice which should inform education, or with the professional responsibilities of teachers. But local communities should have the democratic right to recognition and to participation in local education decision-making.6

There are three factors which act in favour of positive collaboration. One is that all the partners share a great deal of common ground in the educational policies, practices and outcomes that they desire for children and young people. There is much more that unites them than divides them. Second, much of the work of a Children’s Zone in mobilising the resources and assets in the community is largely uncontroversial. And third, all the lead partners need and want to collaborate: the schools and the local authority need community support to be effective, and the community wants to be involved with its children’s education. There will be conflicts both within the partnership and outside it, some of them systemic, but it is possible, through the experience over time of developing working practices which draw on the norms of deliberative democracy, to ensure that they don’t prevent the Children’s Zone partnership achieving the positive outcomes it is capable of.


Contact: Richard.Hatcher@bcu.ac.uk. A longer version of this briefing, with specific reference to Birmingham, can be found at https://birminghamcase.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/towards-a-shared-vision-for-school-education-in-birmingham-a-childrens-zone-approach-local-area-based-partnerships-between-the-schools-the-local-authority-and-the-community/


  1. Dyson A, Kerr K, Raffo C, Wigelsworth M and Wellings C (2012) Developing children’s zones for England. London: Save the Children.


  1. Dyson A, Kerr K and Wellings C (2013) Developing children’s zones for England: What’s the evidence? London: Save the Children. http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/docs/Developing_Childrens_Zones1.pdf
  2. Kerr K, Dyson, A, and Raffo, C (2014) Making the local matter: Breaking the link between education, disadvantage and place. Bristol: Policy Press.
  3. Muijs, D. (2010) Effectiveness and disadvantage in education: Can a focus on effectiveness aid equity in education? In C. Raffo, A. Dyson, H. Gunter, D. Hall, L. Jones and A. Kalambouka (eds) Education and poverty in affluent countries. London, Routledge, 85-96.
  4. Ainscow M (2012) Moving knowledge around: Strategies for fostering equity within educational systems. .Journal of Educational Change 13: 3, 289–310.
  5. Hatcher R (2012) Democracy and participation in the governance of local school systems. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 44: 1, 21-42.


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