The ‘Nottingham-Shire, a Voice for Education event held at The University of Nottingham, organised by Howard Stevenson, was part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science and billed as an opportunity for ‘students, parents, those who work in education or are simple interested in education’ to discuss and explore how we can ‘rediscover, reclaim and reinvent democratic public education’ in Nottingham City and the County. Intentionally broad, it covered all phases and interests. It was free and lunch was provided. Worth a shot.
The day was orgainised around four workshops that were presented in the morning and repeated in the afternoon, giving an opportunity to attend a couple of options. The opening thoughts centred around four themes:
- Community – Forming a community based on collective values and our position in society amongst others.
- Creativity – Challenging traditional notions of ‘activism’ (including the style of events like this one).
- Connections – People are often triggered to come into something by being against it. We need to connect being ‘agianst’ with being ‘for’ something.
- Co-construction – Challenging the notion ‘there’s nothing you can do about it’.
It’s easy for people to adjust to the environment they’re in and narrow their expectations. We should promote the idea that there’s ‘no such thing as no alternative’, a concept Stevenson illustrated with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Whilst I am a member of a union, and I do think it is important that we stay up to date and challenge things that threaten education (whatever the sector), I am not by any means an ‘activist’ in the common sense of the word. I am interested in the idea of how we can work together across education and in collaboration with wider society to establish what we need. Particularly how once we have come together over what we are against, we should work on what we are ‘for’.
Don’t get me wrong, unions are an important part of the collaboration. They are experienced and hold a high level of knowledge and skills needed to bring people together and have their collective voice heard. I can’t be the only one though that can feel intimidated by loud opinions that seem closed to debate, or presume that everyone has the same thoughts (something Martin Robinson wrote about in May), and I worry that there is public and education sector fatigue with repeated campaigns. To hold onto the proposal that we need to revise our notions of ‘activism’ and think creatively, I am encouraged by the enthusiasm for getting a wider community together – alongside unions – to challenge decisions but also to put together solutions.
Developing Collaborative Alternatives in Schooling
The first session I went to showcased the successful collaborations that have gone on in Leicester firstly to resist the acadamisation of their schools, but as a result of that, their city-wide reading initiatives including the ‘Everybody’s Reading Festival‘. I have two pages of notes about this session which are pretty much crammed with ideas – from Storytelling Week and Author Week, to bookmarks with tips for parents and reading champions in schools. Elements that stood out for me were the combination of CPD, networking and sharing ideas; schools bidding for ring-fenced literacy project funding; the potential uses of data collected from the (required) survey completed by each school; and the spread of this beyond schools and into the community. I am very jealous of what they’ve got going on there.
Due to a small train hiccup, the keynote speaker, Hilary Wainwright, was a little late so her talk was after lunch. She spoke about how we need to break the idea that change isn’t possible (using Jeremy Corbyn’s recent success as an example) and deep notions of democracy as people working together to achieve this. Having already heard about how unions can bring a community together, I wondered about the idea that unions could have a role as co-ordinating drivers for change – rather than simply focus on wages and conditions for members, a wider social role?
The Action For ESOL Campaign: Protest, Professionalism and Pedagogy
For my afternoon session I went to hear about the Action for ESOL Campaign. The particular subject matter isn’t something I have anything to do with but as a very specific section of education I can see some parallels with special education, and when it comes to fighting for funding and resources, I wonder if there are lessons to learn from their success. Through the coming together of professional, national and local networks (outside of a union structure although there was involvement), they successfully fought to keep provision accessible.
Analysing how and why this worked is of even more importance now as the renewed threat of cuts to the FE sector move closer. Earlier in the day we had discussed as a group what our ‘ideals’ in education were and points about access, valuing education and lifelong learning were central to this. It seems to me that we all need to have a greater awareness of what is happening in FE at the moment because for something that encompasses all the things we value about education, it’s not being valued elsewhere.
Seeds of a Nottingham Campaign For Education
The round up of the day included space for some local campaigns and initiatives to have a say and a break of into groups to discuss some of the issues arising from the day. I joined the ‘City’ group to discuss how we felt we could respond to the current consultation into the 10 Year Plan for Nottingham City. The consultation period is only a month long which seems woefully short, particularly as there doesn’t appear to have been a great deal of promotion around it, and our group felt that whilst the proposals were reasonable, they weren’t particularly ambitious or joined up with other work being done nationally around issues such as teacher recruitment and retention. There was a suggestion that we could put together a Citizens’ Jury to bring together the community and build an idea of how our whole community feels and what it needs.
It was certainly an interesting and thought-provoking day that I’m sure will be repeated, and even with a small toilets-not-working issue (which Tom Bennett having fixed a few of those during researchED events would probably see as standard), there was definitely a spark of something that I am keen to see develop and bring together the whole community, creatively, to challenge those that tell us what we need with what we know we need. If there’s a next-time, I think it would be good to encourage more parents (other than teacher-parents) to attend and there is definitely space for the research slant on things. We’ve got two big universities in Nottingham so why not take advantage of that expertise. Having mentioned researchED, I also think there might be an opportunity for Howard Stevenson to present something about this at one of the conferences.
Incidentally, a tweet from Tom Sherrington in February started doing the rounds again on Saturday morning. In many ways I think this fits brilliantly with the message that was being shared and it’s something we should keep in mind as we think about where we want this to go.
More information about the day all these things can be found here: https://nottsvoiceed.wordpress.com/