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The Big Idea: giving young people in Suffolk their say about education in the county

At the moment, educational attainment in Suffolk is well below the national average, and the local authority is determined to do something about it. Since last year, the RSA has been working with Suffolk County Council on Raising the Bar, an ambitious inquiry that aims to understand what needs to change – and then put that knowledge into practice.

Trying to balance careful research and practical experimentation is a common theme of the RSA’s work. Often these aims make strange bedfellows, partly because the skills and attitudes you need to understand a problem aren’t necessarily the same as those that help solve it. The RSA has one huge advantage over other organisations trying to achieve this blend, though, and that’s our Fellowship: 27,000 skilled, practically-minded people who want to support our charitable mission.

From the beginning, Fellows in Suffolk have been enthusiastic supporters of our work on Raising the Bar. They even went as far as organising a working dinner last November to help source ideas for how to start improving education on the ground. But one of the best things about RSA Fellows is that they don’t just help: they also challenge. And although they welcomed the Inquiry, local Fellows – led by Dr Emma Bond, a lecturer in childhood and youth studies at University Campus Suffolk, and Fellowship Councillor Suzanna Pickering – felt that it had not done enough to consider young people’s views about their education.

About the project

In response, they created Shout Out Suffolk: a project that asks young people under twenty for their views on learning, and what would make it better. They applied successfully for RSA Catalyst funding to help finance the project, and are working closely with the RSA education team and Suffolk County Council to make sure their work is fully integrated with the Inquiry.

“If we are really going to grasp why Suffolk is failing to meet the educational needs of young people,” Emma says, “we need to understand what their educational experiences are like and we need to listen to their views, as they are the very people who are going to be affected.”

Emma and her team are encouraging young people to answer three simple questions: what learning is like in Suffolk; what young people hope for in their lives; and what will make those things happen. If you look at the submissions so far on Pinterest (all edited to ensure confidentiality), you’ll see the creativity and effort they’ve already brought to bear on the project, from short essays to drawings and paintings.

“If we are really going to grasp why Suffolk is failing to meet the educational needs of young people, we need to understand what their educational experiences are like and we need to listen to their views as they are the very people who are going to be affected.”

Dr Emma Bond

As it happens, I grew up near the Suffolk coast. I was a pretty keen learner, but I also remember feeling frustrated by how small the world seemed from tiny schools in an isolated, culturally homogenous place. It’s fascinating to see the breadth of aspirations young people there have today – from designing computer games to becoming a mangaka (a manga artist) – but through our work I’ve also heard how poverty and lack of opportunity are holding many back.

There’s value in simply asking young people about their hopes and experiences, and the thing I find most encouraging about the project the life it will have beyond the Raising the Bar Inquiry. The Fellows involved want their efforts to spark further work to engage young people in shaping their education, and the next phase of the project, Make It Loud, hopes to work with similar initiatives across the country.


How you can get involved

If you’re based in Suffolk, you can help spread the word: there’s lots of information on the website, including an engagement pack for schools and organisations who work with young people. For more information on the project, follow @shoutoutsuffolk in Twitter for updates, or email to contact the project leaders.

If you live elsewhere and are interested in this approach, you might also like to explore to the RSA’s wider activity in educational policy and practice, of which our work in Suffolk is just one part. And if you're an RSA Fellow and have an idea of your own you'd like to develop, Catalyst is there to support you – whether that’s through funding or support from others.

Shout Out Suffolk is a great example of how the RSA’s influence and the expertise of our Fellows can combine to tackle a big, difficult challenge. And that it’s happening on my home turf? Well, all the better.

Sam Thomas is the RSA’s project engagement manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter


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