Friday 30 September 2011

Bright Space ends

Proud moment - receiving award from Barbara Nice
for networking at the Bright Space Oscars July 2011.
Photo thanks Gillian 
Bright Space closes it's doors today, and so ends an era for me.  Personally, it is a great loss, having worked as a creative agent and practitioner with both Bright Space and Creative Partnerships, but I think a far greater a loss for the children and schools who have benefited the most.

Despite it's well measured and documented achievements and the 'value for money' invested into the programme, there are no plans to replace Bright Space or Creative Partnerships.   The work ends, even if the database (and website) lingers on.

There are far fewer creative practitioners working in schools, and we all wait to see what changes are still to happen in the education sector.  There is, however, one legacy recognised by the present administration - the value of collaboration (Big Society), and the importance of our networks.  Now, more than ever, we need to pull together to make the most of every opportunity, and to shape the way education and other policies can most effectively support learning in our schools.

Thanks everyone who has worked at Bright Space, Creative Partnerships, and everyone connected to it. Let's keep in touch.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Do Cooperatives miss the funding bus?

Today I went to MAC for Co-operatives West Midlands networking event for 'creative cooperatives'.  Nick Matthews introduced the day, highlighting the continuing problem the coop has in promoting itself, with classic response, 'the Coop, is that like Tescos?'

No it isn't, and interestingly enough, despite a more troubling UK retail Coop, Cooperatives in Japan are apparently out competing Tescos.  Nick talked about organising creatives as like 'herding cats'.   He suggested the coop model works for creative types.  I'd agree they have a talent for working with a wide range of people, as was evident with the next presentation from Electro-swing Circus - Birmingham's newest Performance Co-operative.

There was discussion about the 'resilience' of cooperative structure in present eco climate - afterall, advantages of a workforce which owns the business works harder, and people buy the 'coop' brand believing it to be more 'ethical' (even if, returning to coop promotion problem, few people seem to know why coops might be better).

There was also mention of potential economic advantages in regard to taxing.  Steve Holdworth from IGNITE creative discussed why they became a Coop, initiated by advice from their accountant.

Maybe I should be more bothered by the hard financial advantages of coops, but I went to the event  because I wanted to explore the social benefits of sharing embodied in the Coop.  What advantages are there?  Well, Co-operative Futures were on hand, highlighting the 'family coop', and used a Bus analogy - a coop is like a bus taking people to profits/benefits.   A key question - Who do you want on the bus and why?  Who claims the dividend and who are your customers?  Does your model really work?  Hard questions, and subtly different from other business model questions.

Recently I've been thinking more about 'the funding bus' - a phenomena which is growing in our (creative and education) sector, where practitioners increasingly look to the funders first, and find a client to match.  The model is embodied by playground equipment manufacturers like Playforce, who provide support for schools to make applications to funding sources they have already identified, to buy the equipment they sell.  It's a tough challenge , when some applications require a great deal of knowledge, time and effort to complete, and where experienced form fillers are at a distinct advantage.  Surely this is a valuable skill we should be rewarding - if some of the funding targeted at schools goes to pay for fund raisers, isn't that OK, as long as they get some cash for the school?  Operating in a competitive market, some businesses may not be offering schools the best value - isn't that up to the schools to work out?

I was there because I thought the cooperative model may offer some solutions to these problems, sharing info, experiences, practice, to provide the 'best quality' creative work efficiently.  I was also pleased to see Future Melting Pot there, already on the way to being a cooperative - collective experience across a range of sectors to support and promote each other.

Coops don't necessarily avoid the funding bus, but they can provide social benefit and business solutions which ensure needs are more properly analysed, and more of the money is spent most effectively.  Coops seem to win hands down, financially, providing quality services, treating workers properly, generally more ethical, and yes, Coops, are sexy again.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Progressive Birmingham

Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council, of "Global City, Local Heart" fame, calls the coalition with the Lib-Dems a progressive partnership - Something which has surprised many of the critics he calls 'Jeremiahs'.  Perhaps not such wise words for his critics - Jeremiah wrote the book of lamentations, a cheery tome, where he revealed the sins of the people and the coming consequences,[10][11]and in typical prophetic style, got it spot on.  But in calling the leadership a 'progressive partnership' Mike Whitby shrewdly attempts to take the 'progressive' title from the left, while associating the partnership with Birmingham's tradition of 'progressiveness'.

'Birmingham Faces and Places' is a late nineteenth century publication celebrating the great and the good in Birmingham, people and places. I talked to Dr Andy Green about 'Faces and Places' and Birmingham in the late nineteenth century, when it was granted city status, and attempting to define itself as a modern, progressive city.  Like now, grandiose 'big city plans' were being brought to fruition under a Liberal Mayor, Joseph Chamberlain. He forcibly purchased Birmingham's gas, water, and much of the city centre for BCC proclaiming:

Chamberlain was most certainly a progressive.  The original Faces and Places was being published during his lifetime, and attempted to manage and present a particular image of Birmingham, both in its editorial choice of 'great and good', and in it's objective - to present a 'progressive' city.  It was a respected reference for anyone looking to find our anything about Birmingham in the late nineteenth century, be it a local-based enquiry or relating to the 'global' reputation Birmingham was already shaping.  It was a masterpiece of political spin.

Connecting Histories 'faces and places' project invited everyone to contribute their own 'faces and places' - people and places we think have contribute to our great city.  This represents something quite different to the original 'faces and places', and offers exciting possibilities for considering our identity in Birmingham, as a city which belongs to all of us, not just 'the great and the good'.

The continuing challenge, to be a truly progressive city, is to give voice, represent and value everyone in Birmingham.

Monday 19 September 2011

Rangoli Food Art

This week and last week we've been working on making art from food.  We talked about where food comes from - we used a range of fairtrade and locallly sourced foods for the artwork.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Strikes don't work, do they?

On way to work yesterday, my radio tuned itself onto BBC WM, where the topic for discussion was 'Do Strikes work?'  My first thought was of the 2005 film 'Made in Dagenham' - about the (successful) strike by car workers in 1968 demanding equal pay for men and women.  Then,  I was a little sad that in Birmingham, with such a proud history of protest and strikes that there should even be a question whether strikes work or not.

The papers are full of warnings - winter of discontent, expect UK's biggest strikes.  For the title of 'Britain's biggest strikes', the 1911 National Rail Strike is perhaps the biggest contender, where unions were fighting for their very existence, and the UK was brought to the verge of revolution. Churchill was, at that time, the Home Secretary under Asquith's Liberal Government.  There was bloodshed in Liverpool, the city usually identified with the national strike, but Birmingham also played it's role.  The usual note is of Birmingham Police sent to Liverpool, but food packages were also sent by our unions, quite apart from the rail strikes in our city.  It is also interesting to note the level of support for the 1911 strike across all unions and generations, with school children also playing a role.  I remember, with guilt, the student protests of 2010, portrayed by some media as a load of rich kids throwing their toys out of the pram.  I did nothing, and now what tuition fee system do we have?

Thomas Attwood, fenced off  for Christmas
Going back further into Brum's history you come across 'King Tom', Brum's first MP.  Yes, the very same shabby man with paperwork blowing around him on Chamberlain Square.

Hard to imagine the size of demonstrations in Birmingham for male Suffrage in September 18 31 and May 1832: The first, a reported 100,000 gathered on Newhall Hill, the second, 200,000, commemorated by 'the 'Gathering of the Unions', with 'King Tom', a dot in the middle holding his 'Reform Bill' aloft, which became law in June.

'The Gathering of the Unions, 1832' thanks to Bob Miles

I've borrowed a bit from Chris Upton and his fabulous 'A History of Birmingham' - he quotes the Union Hymn, sang on the day:

Shall honest labout toil in vain
While Plunder fattens on the land!
Still shall a tyrant faction's reign
People and King at once command?
No! it may not, shall not be,
For we must, we will be free!

It is as important now, as then, to demonstrate your support for causes important to you.  Strikes are always a last resort, but there is no question strikes demonstrate broad support for a cause and influence change.

Useful links:

The Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911

Turnip Rail: The Forgotten National Railway Strike1911 - Part 1
Turnip Rail: The Forgotten National Railway Strike1911 - Part 2

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Back to School

The 'perfect' teacher
It's the morning of the second day at school, and the excitement of meeting old friends is over.  The holidays are over.  It's back to work.

Arthur (our 8yr old) is awake early and we start talking about school:

'So what did you do yesterday?'

'We wrote about our holidays.  We always write about our holidays.  It's so boring.'

There's still a while to go before school, so we have a chat about it.  I can see the teachers will want to find out a bit about the children they will be working with, and that the most recent bit, their holidays, is probably a good place to start.  I put this to Arthur.  He agrees:

'But why do we have to write about it?'

On this, I think, he has a good point.  Writing is obviously a key skill children will learn in school, but it's not the most natural way your average 5, 6, 7, 8 yr old will express themselves.  If the teacher's objective is to find out more about a child, then I'm pretty sure most essays about 'what I did in the holiday' will tell you very little.  Except possibly how good at writing a child is.

It reminded me of Arthur's first meeting with his new teacher last term, where they were all warned, ''If you give me grief, then I'll give you grief, if you give me joy, then I won't give you'll get to like me."  The teacher very much setting out relationship boundaries.

Arthur goes on to tell me more about his first day.  At assembly they set 'ground rules, and reviewed the '10 Golden Rules'.  He got a star, for remembering one.  He remembered (and I was proud of him) that you've 'got to respect your teacher and the other children'.  The rules he remembered all were important.

I understand why so many teachers start with 'the rules', but how is reviewing the rules appreciating the wider objectives of education (developing confidence, ability for deep learning, reflection...) or indeed, the most immediate challenge to develop good relationships with the new children and their parents?  I know what my response to what appears to be a lecture on 'ground rules' would be.  As a parent with a mixed experience of school it does re-enforce all my poorer experiences and, I find myself quickly falling into the cynical trap of seeing school as a problem, something to be endured, and have to resist putting this across to Arthur

This is all my perspective, as a parent.  I'm also aware Arthur may say a very different thing about school tomorrow.  Also that the teacher may be overcoming  insecurities about their children and their relationship with children and parents, and things will get better as the year continues.  The school Arthur goes to is a good school.  He is very happy there, and throughout the last four years there have been many creative projects and topics which have engaged Arthur, in which he has expressed himself, reflected and learned.  I am sure soon we will think as highly of Arthur's new teacher as we (parents and children) do of his previous teachers.  The sort of open-ended projects, where children bring things (or people) into school, use of film, artwork, photographs to document and to provoke conversations - anything, that might be seen firstly as fun, and can develop a richer understanding of the children, their parents, their lives, will help the teacher find out more and to initiate more positive relationships.

It is interesting to see which teachers Arthur likes and respects, and why.  Without a doubt, those teachers that are seen as 'fun' are the 'best'.  'Fun' to Arthur, turns out to be enjoying learning with the children - the teacher who plays Ukele, is prepared to laugh at themselves, plays with the children, dances to Abba, who gets into the swimming pool with the children, is prepared to admit they don't know it all, wants to learn with the children, taking risks with them.

The teacher's role is not the same as a best friend, and I'm not suggesting all teachers should learn the Ukele (although would be fun), but that the best way to secure an effective learning environment, the starting point for any teaching, must be to develop good relationships with children and parents.

Useful links: