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This is a guest blog from South Central Fellowship Councillor Bethan Michael.

Between June and December 2013 Fellows in the South Central region of the RSA offered their spaces, their time and their minds to the Ideas in Education series. For me, organising this series has been an extremely personal journey and the distance travelled has been considerable, in more ways than one. I’ve been frustrated and excited and stressed and anxious. And I finally know where Winchester is on a map. 

I was convinced that the best way to learn was to do, so the team at John Adam Street helped me to stand for Fellowship Councillor in my region

In 2012 I completed the UpRising leadership programme, which supports a diverse range of young people to access opportunities and undertake real-world learning. Through them, I was privileged to have the opportunity to apply for Fellowship of the RSA. After nine months of UpRising I was convinced that the best way to learn was to do, so I discussed this with the team at John Adam Street and they helped me to stand for the role of Fellowship Councillor in my region. They introduced me to the wonderful team of Fellows that constitute the South Central committee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my age, gender and background were quite different from those of the rest of the team. This didn’t faze me and it didn’t seem to bother them. They offered me their support, their friendship and their expertise, and I am extremely grateful to have worked with and learned from people I can’t envisage having had the opportunity to meet in any other way.

I am extremely grateful to have worked with and learned from people I can’t envisage having had the opportunity to meet in any other way.

Ideas in Education

In my new role I wanted to do something that would showcase the diversity of existing Fellows’ ideas, and bring Fellows and non-Fellows together in their own communities. The RSA aims to 'enrich society through ideas and action’, so - in the hope that one would lead to the other - I emailed all of the Fellows in the South Central Region with a call-out for one idea to develop and promote new (or not so new) ways of thinking about education. I received around 50 emails from my initial request. After much discussion, and an enormous amount of work from Fellows, colleagues and me, we held seven events over seven months: the Ideas in Education series.

The events began with The Slow School Movement at Eton College in Windsor; moved to Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes to discuss Supporting Social Mobility; traversed to the Jelly ArtPad in Reading to examine Creativity in the Early Years; headed to Winchester to learn about Building Learning Power; trekked to Portsmouth to try out Citizen Science; migrated back to Winchester to explore learning environments and ended in Oxford considering ‘DIY higher education in the global swamp’.

From these events opportunities have emerged, connections have been made, friendships developed and ideas shared. But I don’t doubt for a moment that I am the one who has gained the most from this series, in the form of the opportunities it has afforded me to meet new people, discuss ideas, reflect and learn. When I embarked on my new learning experience trying to deliver a successful series of events, I faced two particular challenges. As the committee members and Fellows who provided me with countless lifts across the South Central region will attest to, both my appalling grasp of geography and my struggle to pass a driving test have been problematic. Both made for some eventful journeys in and out of London and, much to my embarrassment, to my being late to the first event. Luckily, throughout the series Fellows have reminded me that it is from our mistakes that we often learn the most. Thanks to the excellent hosts and speakers there truly was a fantastic energy around the discussions of The Slow School Movement.

I took advantage of the many train and bus journeys to read the authors that Fellows recommended to me during the series. These included Richard Hoggart, W.E. Deming, Richard Sennett, Donald Schön, Paul Goodman and Shirley Brice Heath. Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, discussed at the second event in the series, struck a particular chord with me, as I have always felt somewhat ‘anxious and uprooted’ in my own formal education, initially at a bilingual comprehensive in Wales, then a private sixth form in Oxford, and then at university.  My experiences have taught me that education is difficult, requiring reflection and a willingness to challenge your own assumptions, to ‘climb out of your own skin’, as Hoggart says, and be challenged: to undertake personal exploration and be ready to fail and to persevere.

Many of the authors I read on those journeys were already familiar to me. My parents both worked in education, my father in Coleg Harlech, a further education institution for mature students. The discussions around social justice, community, lifelong learning, and the increasing marketisation taking place in education that featured throughout the series were strikingly similar to those I overheard as a child, and those I continue to have with my parents now. When they had five children, they didn’t anticipate university fees. Nor did they anticipate the vibrant town of Harlech would suffer such dilapidation and neglect over time. During the series I went home to take a fourth attempt at my driving test in a location with fewer roundabouts. I failed. I also found more boarded up buildings, fewer jobs and higher rates of child poverty than I did the last time I went back. There was some discussion that the local school will be shut. At Coleg Harlech you can now take a course in willow basket making or wedding flowers, but it certainly doesn't seem to be offering the second chance, that it seemed to when I was a child, to those whose social and economic background never offered them a first one. Frustrated and angry at the radically changed landscape of the home in which I grew up, I returned to South Central, (finally) passed my driving test, and attended the final event of the series. 

What all of these events had in common is that the Fellows who attended are committed to addressing the challenges that individuals and communities face in the 21st century.

The Ideas in Education series has allowed me the opportunity to share my feelings of frustration, anger, enthusiasm, hope, and ambitions for education with others who have shared with me their own. What all of these events had in common is that the Fellows who attended are committed to addressing the challenges that individuals and communities face in the 21st century. There has also been a consensus that to be truly transformational, socially just and effective, learning has to be broad, real, in-the-world and exploratory.

Although these seven events haven’t brought me any closer to an understanding of how to bring about the level of change I feel is required to ensure this happens, or how to address the challenges that face the communities I have called home, it has given me some ideas.


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