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Revitalising community education in Exmouth

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  • Picture of John Astley FRSA
    John Astley FRSA
  • Education
  • Adult education

Covid-19 has shown just how well many communities have confronted the challenges.

John Astley FRSA outlines how ordinary people in Exmouth have given their time, money, experience and skills to creating and delivering help of all kinds and asks what could a new ‘normal’ be like and who will decide?

If ever there was a time when people need help with their understanding of what is going on in contemporary Britain, and how this affects them, this is surely it. As the RSA has been highlighting over the last year, returning to the pre-pandemic status quo is not an option.

Given the twin impacts of Covid-19 and post-Brexit life, we are all currently forced to re-assess our lives amidst a great deal of uncertainty and confusion about how society in general, and our patch in particular, will, or could, or should develop from here. People’s lives have a degree of unpredictability, and precariousness about them rarely experienced in our lifetimes.

We all, as individuals and members of a community and culture group, need to explore and discuss these issues, and make representations about our future and get engaged in making decisions about the allocation of resources.

The role of community education

Adult education is about more than hobbies and workplace preparation, however valuable these things are for some individuals. Community education, with its emphasis on processes of information sharing, the consideration of social needs and an assessment of who could do what, will be vital and must play a central role in the creation of resources for hope. As a first step we need a renewed and re-focused community education for adults to encourage people to come together to contribute and share ideas about what form that education could take.

The ‘space’ created by a new community education for adults would encourage creativity, an imaginative response to the everyday issues affecting us all; a sharing of ideas and skills for the benefit of the community. This education must aim to be transformational, individually and collectively. This is already happening. In Exmouth there has already been an extensive response to climate change, the abuse of plastics, waste and so on. Children and young people in particular have been in the vanguard of challenging our complacency.

Revitalising community education should play a key role in asking new questions (even the questions we did not realise we needed to ask) and developing new responses and solutions to our current situation. To this end, I am currently organising the opening of a physical space, a community hub, in Exmouth town centre with the aim of providing a focal point of an informal educational contribution to both understanding and action.

My aim is to help facilitate a community education ‘curriculum’ of workshops, talks and classes (day and evening) that would be defined, developed and delivered by local people who will bring to this process their creative skills and experience, whatever that may be. For example, we have already seen how the arts and the humanities can contribute an imaginative and thought-provoking take on the issues that confront us all. The aim now is to encourage and utilise creativity, culture and connections to expand our minds, share information, create alternatives and make a difference. Waiting for somebody else to address these life changing issues is not an option; we need to take action now.

This means starting with some key questions. First, what do we understand by ‘community’ and ‘education’? We all have an idea about these key aspects of our everyday lives, but a moment’s pause will confirm that they are both full of ambiguities and alternative understandings. What we believe about these commonplaces in our lives is essentially linked to our values, both individual and collective. For example, what value do we put on the inclusiveness of community, knowing about the needs of our neighbours, caring and sharing, and empathy? Exploring these issues should help us to answer the question of how our community should be developed, what scale of change are we talking about and who is responsible for this?

Second, what do we value about education: curiosity, learning skills, creativity, knowledge and enlightenment? Educational provision, of all kinds, is different now from 30 years ago say. The role of local authorities, including LEAs, has diminished alongside cuts in funding. Much of social and welfare needs provision has been privatised, and/or placed in to the hands of the voluntary sector and social enterprises. 

Does size matter?

The scale of organisations meeting our community needs is also a key issue. I can recall the ‘big is better’ fad of the late 1960s and 1970s. Over a similar period of time there was a ‘small is beautiful’ counter story, and successive governments have tried this out. For example, from the end of 1990s we had Primary Care Trusts, local organisations within the NHS designed to get closer to a particular population and target provision for local people. This approach was linked in turn with a focus on governance, a simple idea that all public sector organisations should be putting their patients and clients first, and being held responsible for doing that in an inter-active way. They have gone, and questions have been asked about what happened to all those ‘community’ assets.

I am starting from the idea that community education is both of, and for, the community; an island of self-control in a sea of opaque bigness. 

Governments over several decades decided that us ordinary people should become ‘active citizens’, become enthusiastically engaged, and involved, in our local community; But with responsibility goes rights. The political class are often concerned that people have lost faith in parliamentary politics, especially party politics. They should not be surprised. But too often – see Cameron’s Big Society for example – central state initiatives have been top-down, looking for a short-term fix. Most did not work and politicians blamed apathetic public.

This recurring situation reminds me of German dramatist and poet, Bertolt Brecht, living in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in the 1950s. After several street level protests about the lack of provisions and general indifference to people’s needs, the government complained about how ungrateful the population was, given all that was being done for them. Brecht replied that if the government was so disappointed they should dissolve ‘the people’ and elect another one.  

The aim now must be to encourage local government to lead in such a way that it really hears the voices of its people and channels the activity of the last year.  We know that people are good at responding to local needs of all kinds. A reserve army of carers, helpers, fundraisers, advice givers and so on, have often alleviated the unbearable circumstances of people’s everyday lives. They have not expected gratitude, or reward, they have just got on and helped, because they care, and it needs to be done.


John is a semi-retired university teacher of the sociology of culture, now concentrating on action research and writing. His most recent publication is Sounds Good For Us: An essay on music and everyday life.

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