Building social cohesion and community engagement in Australian schools


Earlier this year the PM Glynn Institute completed a project for the Commonwealth Department of Education, Skills and Employment on the role of schools in fostering social cohesion and community engagement.

The Institute was commissioned by the Department to undertake this work in October 2019. The project involved desktop research and interviews with a small number of government and non-government schools. It entailed reviewing system-level policies and practices across the states and territories, and a qualitative sampling of extracurricular activities in schools to highlight the often taken-for-granted work that schools do in building up social cohesion and to identify some case studies of good practice.

Results from the project demonstrate that there is widespread agreement across school sectors and the states and territories about the important part schools play in strengthening social cohesion and harmony in Australia’s diverse and multicultural society. This is supported both by policies and strategies at the system or peak-body level, and by a wide range of activities at the local level in schools. It is more usual for schools to speak of community engagement rather than social cohesion, but the activities they put in place work to the same end. There are also concrete benefits for students and communities, including the potential for improved learning outcomes and stronger relationships between schools, families and local communities.

The project

While much of the public debate concerning education and the role of schools focusses on academic standards, especially related to literacy and numeracy, also important is the role of schools in supporting and promoting social cohesion and social harmony. This has long been a subject of research since the ground-breaking work of the American sociologist James Samuel Coleman[1]. Coleman argues schools play a key role in their communities, as a well as society in general, in promoting trust, reciprocity, and a commitment to the common good.

The project brief was to outline system level policies and practices that encourage and support the role of schools in social cohesion, as well as highlighting good practice examples at the school level. In particular, the project sought to:

  • Explore system level policies and practices that support schools and/or school leaders to build social cohesion;
  • Identify and outline the extracurricular role of Australian schools and/or school leaders in building social cohesion; and
  • Highlight good practice examples and provide exemplars through case studies.

The project involved desktop research of relevant internet sites as well as conducting interviews with a small number of Catholic, independent, and public schools across Australia. It is important to note that the intention was not to include a representative sample of schools. Instead, because of the qualitative, exploratory nature of the research, schools were to be used as illustrative cases.


The two major components of the project were desktop research and interviews with a small number of schools. The results from the exploration of these sources is set out below.

In general, based on the desktop research and interviews with schools there is widespread agreement that:

  • As Australia is a multicultural, diverse society made up of different ethnic, racial and religious groups, it is important that the education system and schools contribute to strengthening social cohesion and harmony in their communities and society in general;
  • Community engagement and outreach programs have concrete benefits. Among these is the potential to improve student learning outcomes by strengthening the school-home relationship and school-community relationship;
  • Opportunities for students to volunteer in the community strengthen social cohesion; and
  • Involving parents and their community in the operations of a school strengthens social cohesion.

Observations from the desktop research include:

  • All state and territory departments of education and selected peak education organisations, to a greater or lesser degree, promote and encourage policies and strategies that endorse social cohesion and community engagement;
  • The majority of policies and strategies identified are implicit in nature, rather than explicitly promoting social cohesion and community engagement. That is to say, while their primary aim is not to encourage and support social capital, the nature of the initiative-program inevitably boosts social capital and cohesion; and
  • The various policies and strategies identified range from providing schools with resources and booklets detailing the benefits of promoting community engagement, to practical programs designed to involve parents in either student enrichment programs or school councils.

As a result of the interviews with school leaders and designated staff, the following observations and insights were made:

  • Schools refer to social cohesion initiatives and activities as “community engagement” which applies to both school-parent activities and school-community activities;
  • The benefits that the schools derived from these community engagement activities varied ranging from increased student intakes and retention, improved student academic outcomes, better socialisation skills of students, and positive relationships between the schools and parents and the schools and students;
  • Community engagement processes ranged from formal programs where they were part of the school strategy and overall plan, to organic, grassroots activities; and
  • Primary schools were more focused on parent engagement activities in contrast to secondary schools where both student engagement with the community and parent engagement were emphasised. These community engagement activities in primary and secondary schools were driven by the staff and through dedicated leadership. The role of the principal or school leader in driving community engagement cannot be overemphasised.

From the desktop research and the analysis of the interviews, it was very clear that schools were important players in building, promoting, and maintaining social cohesion, which supports the view that they do act as community hubs.

While the schools interviewed were relatively successful in undertaking community engagement activities, some challenges were noted. These included:

  • Limited engagement with the parent body, particularly for schools with a large number of students from diverse cultural backgrounds. A range of different cultural expectations of schools can make communication and engagement more difficult to achieve;
  • Parent disengagement can also be as a result of distance or remoteness. This is particularly true for schools in regional or remote areas. While policies emphasise the need to engage with Indigenous communities in remote regions, distance and difficulties in maintaining contact can pose a significant challenge; and
  • For a few schools, the mindset of the school executive team or teaching staff towards community engagement also posed a challenge.

The importance of community engagement

The phrase “social cohesion” was seldom used by the participating schools. Rather, they used “community engagement” to describe their programs and activities to engage the school with parents and the wider community.

Community engagement activities resulted in concrete benefits to the schools, including:

  • Increased student intakes;
  • Improved student academic outcomes;
  • Students developing better socialisation skills; and
  • Positive and productive relationships between the school and the students, and between the school and the parents.

These findings are consistent with the findings from the desktop research that community engagement improves educational outcomes. Notably, one of the participating schools in this study was recognised by the state department of education for its community engagement programs that had resulted in significant improvements in students’ academic performance.

Community engagement initiatives ranged from formal programs where engagement was part of the school strategy or plan, to organic, grassroots activities. Schools were not aware of government related framework or policies, but they were conscious of their own guidelines for undertaking community engagement activities (e.g., working with children checks). For schools that had formal programs, their community engagement or strategic plan guided their activities. More than half of the schools interviewed assigned or employed specialist staff specifically to assist with or drive community engagement related activities. This was particularly true for the bigger schools.

The initiatives of the schools, whether by planned, strategic intent or organic development, are consistent with the Australian Student Wellbeing Framework. Under this framework, students must be provided with the strongest foundation necessary for them to reach their aspirations and full potential. This is based on the evidence that there is a strong correlation between safety, wellbeing, and learning. When students feel safe in trusting relationships in school, wellbeing is enhanced and learning outcomes are achieved.

The project highlights that community engagement can make a real difference both to schools and to cohesion and harmony in communities. One of the school leaders interviewed, a passionate advocate of community engagement, said, “When I started in this school, we had 50 students. As we began to undertake small but visible activities to engage the parents and the wider community, and as we also began to use social media in reaching out to them, the student population increased to 250”.

Another very committed and passionate school leader underscored the role that schools can play here, commenting that “It is our responsibility to break down barriers”.

[1] See Coleman. 1994. Foundations of Social Theory. Harvard University Press.

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