Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Cooperation for learning and empowered citizenship

As MPs debated the budget, Stephen Twigg, newly elected MP for Liverpool West Derby, hosted a reception for the Co-operative and Workers’ Education Association (WEA) to launch a new partnership to ‘help strengthen civil society, empower citizenship and strengthen democracy.’ John Hayes, MP for South Holland and The Deepings in Lincoln, and Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, proudly displayed his Co-op; membership card and spoke passionately about the importance of learning for a just and cohesive society. He spoke about a ladder of learning, for self-improvement and social mobility, and also for its own sake, enriching the fabric of life. “Community earning is at the heart of what this government is about.” Hayes pointed to a picture of Wilberforce, reminding us of his mission to abolish slavery, and said that he too was on a great mission to spread social justice through learning, and to help everyone fulfil their potential and be the best they can be. John Hayes recently responded to a letter from Democracy Matters and invited us to meet with him in mid-July, so we are hopeful about finding ways of strengthening learning for citizenship, despite the difficult financial times.

The WEA is a democratic membership organisation and the UK’s largest voluntary sector adult education provider, run through a voluntary movement of 450 branches as well as professional staff. The Co-op is also active in education, through the Co-operative College and numerous cooperative schools, as well as online resources for teaching citizenship, which I was not aware of. Many years ago I wrote a book on how to create ‘citizenship schools’, which included activities and ideas for making schools more democratic and empowering. I would love to work with schools on these issues again.

Events like these are perhaps more important for informal conversations and connections, so I came away with several opportunities for promoting learning for democracy and bringing people together round issues as diverse as monetary reform, economic democracy and citizesnhip.

Several people remarked – with a nod to the green screens and budget debate - that financial austerity will make closer cooperation and sharing of resources even more important. Coincidently, in today’s Education Guardian Michael Bichard writes about the obstacles to cooperation between local agencies – inflexible frameworks and funding, narrow targets, costly auditing procedures, and over-cautious governance. His point was that if cuts are to be fair, they need to involve people at the front line and that agencies need to work together to ensure that services are tailored to local and individual needs.

The renewed partnership between the Coop and WEA is long overdue and should lead to many fruitful and perhaps unexpected innovations to meet the needs of the diverse communities they work with. And significantly, both organisations have positioned themselves to make a positive contribution to the ‘Big Society’ philosophy of the Coalition Government. That’s political skill and astute understanding of what their members and customers want.
Titus Alexander

Sunday, 20 June 2010

A vision for practical political education

A few people make things happen, many watch what happens, and the rest don’t know what hit them: my vision for practical political education is that one day most people understand how the system works and make things happen to the solve political and social problems they face.
Political events like the budget, elections and party conferences involve intense lobbying by business, professions, major charities and other interests because they know the difference politics makes to them. Firms pay good money for lobbyists so that politicians and civil servants understand their industry and interests. Likewise, large charities, unions and pressure groups employ campaigners to make sure that their concerns are taken into account. They don’t always get their way – consider the cancellation of Heathrow’s third airport or the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters foundery – but their case will have been considered at a high level.

But many people barely know what’s happening until too late. Jobs come or go; local services improve, struggle or disappear; anti-social behaviour may be intolerable or invisible, but most people feel they can’t do much about anything.

People can, in fact, have more influence about issues than they realise. But it does take knowledge, skill and, above all, contacts. Being part of an organisation that shares your interests is often the key to making a difference. A lot of the information is fairly easy to find, and the skills can be learnt as you engage with the issue. But it takes organisation to involve people, engage your MP, the media and the people who decide what is to be done about your issue. It may not be easy, but taking action often means that your concerns are taken into account in some way, even if you don’t win everything you want.

My main point is that the more organised, powerful interests have more influence on what happens than the majority. In practice we do not live in a democracy, because most people did not vote for the Government (that’s just they way the electoral arithmetic works nowadays) and between elections people feel they have little effective power about anything.

But even without reform of the political system, there are many ways in which appropriate practical political education could help people have a more effective say. They need not be powerless.

So what would it look like?

1st, every community association, civic society, faith community, school governing body, housing association, parish council, local authority, chamber of commerce, trades council, Womens' Institute and other civic body sees the benefits of better political understanding and is not afraid to hold political discussions or even short courses about issues that affect their members and community and what to do about them;

2nd, learning providers, such as adult and community education services, the WEA, learndirect, unionlearn, further and higher education colleges, as well as libraries , museums , the Parliamentary Outreach service and even public services are willing to run practical workshops for people to understand what’s happening and how to influence decisions if they want. People can also find courses and tutors through The School of Everything.
3rd, government and the media encourage people to take part in practical political education, just as they have done for adult literacy or support for enterprise skills over the past 30 years. This would mean, for example, that government websites have a “Citizens Action" link:to advice and support on how to make a difference, including mysociety webtools to help them influence their elected representatives, just as many sites have “Business Advice: For business advice and support services visit Business Link. There would be media campaigns, like On The Move for adult literacy in the 1970s or the annual Adult Learners’ Week now.

To support this provision, every parish, town or district would have an independent “democracy hub” or “social action network” to support and promote this provision at a local level; university politics departments and organizations like the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, Citizens Organising Foundation, ACRE, WEA or NAVCA would train and support facilitators (tutors); and there would be conferences and fairs like Charity Week or Business Start Up at Earls Court where political education providers meet, promote new methods or materials, and develop their craft.

This provision would be paid for through a mixed economy, just as adult and community learning is today – part subsidized by local and national government, part funded through fees, and some sponsored by foundations, charities or companies. Public funding would play a significant role for people on low incomes, through Individual Learning Accounts and mainstream education provision.

Although practical political education is challenging for local and national governments, they support it because effective citizens can help to make better decisions and solve social problems faster. Community action could enable the political system get to grips with persistent problems like drug abuse, domestic violence, run-down estates, gross inequality, family breakdown and more. It would bring issues into the open sooner and test assumptions behind major decisions. And it would help to ensure that the poorest and most included in society could learn how to have and use their voice, so that political decisions take account of all citizens, not just those who can employ lobbyists.

This is an achievable vision: 30 years ago, adult literacy courses wre far and few between, often run by voluntary organisations or even taught by volunteers; now they are part of mainstream provision, available almost everywhere. Business training and support is almost unniversal, so that anyone who wants to set up a business can get advice, training and support to increase their chances of success.

Ten years from now anyone who wants to campaing about something, has an idea about how a public service can be improved, or is concerned about an injustice, or sees a threat to their community, should be able to get expertise adivce and learning to understand the issue, how the political system works, and what to do to make a diference.     
Titus Alexander

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Lessons from Young UpRising

UpRising is an inspiring leadership programme for young people aged 19 – 25 from diverse backgrounds in East London run by the Young Foundation. Last night about 50 young people celebrated a year of learning and campaigning at a reception on the 30th floor of Clifford Chance, overlooking the East End and Docklands. Bonnie Greer gave a passionate speech and a panel of young people reflected on their experiences, which were uplifting – read more about what they did here.
The UpRising programme develops practical political skills through seven elements
• monthly learning sessions
• a weekend residential at Roffey Park www.roffeypark.com
• support and advice to set up a community campaign
• one-to-one mentoring
• learning visits
• networking events
• placements

Input is provided by a wide range of partners (I contributed a learning session earlier this year). The UpRising leadership programme was initiated by Rushanara Ali, then Associate Director of the Young Foundation and now MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

Reflecting on the programme, one participant said one of the most valuable elements was mutual support and making contacts within centres of power - "The high walls of the establishment are soft and ready for change."
The programme is recruiting for next year: to learn more email uprising@youngfoundation.org or call 020 8709 9029. A new programme is also being set up in Birmingham.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Open source national budgets: put a spot light onto the Star Chamber

The Prime Minister wants to carry out spending cuts (“deficit reduction”) in a way that “strengthens and unites the country” while the Treasury team promise to give the public a role in the process online and through public meetings. This could dramatically change the way Britain is run, so before the suggestion is smothered by cynicism, stifled by official caution or trampled on by the tough old boots of political realism, let’s encourage the Coalition to be bold and trust people to see the power struggles between the Treasury and spending departments.

So I have three suggestions:
  1. let cameras into the Star Chamber: it would make riveting viewing and transform people's understanding of politics.
  2. allow MPs to discuss the plans and budgets for each Department, through Select Committees and a substantial debate in the Commons Chamber
  3. encourage schools, colleges, local media and civil society associations of all kinds to involve people in the budget process.
Such breath-taking radicalism would show that people really are being offered an "invitation to take part in the Government of Britain."

The British Government was top of the league for financial transparency in 2008, according to the Open Budget Initiative, but may be over taken by President Obama’s commitment to “transparency, public participation, and collaboration", while the US Congress subjects Departmental budgets to more detailed scrutiny than the UK Parliament.

 The Government’s commitment to online consultation, public meetings and putting information into the public domain is welcome but not enough. We need active engagement of people in poor and marginalised communities, the users of public services as well as its staff. The Institute of Directors (IoD) and Confederation of British Industry (CBI) are actively lobbying on capital gains tax and pensions tax relief, while public sector unions are preparing to battle for their jobs, but many local communities will only notice when their taxes rise (probably through VAT), services disappear or charges increase. In many cases there may be cost-effective solutions, where local ingenuity, cooperation and haggling could create better way of doing things. Let government, business and the unions put their case to the people about the detail of spending, taxes and charges, and perhaps people can re-invent government for themselves.

Putting the Star Chamber under the spotlight of cameras will provoke public interest; providing detailed information online will enable greater understanding; scrutiny of Departmental budgets by Parliament increases opportunities to have a say; while encouraging discussion in the places where people meet could bring deeper, lasting change – and a powerful example of practical political education.

Titus Alexander

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The politics of footpaths

Most of us take footpaths for granted – unless we are disabled, or want to go on forbidden routes. My mother had a stroke last year and is totally dependent on others. This weekend we went to Bowhill Country Park near Selkirk so that she could see the magnificent rhododendron blossoms and my six-year old son could enjoy the adventure playground with the longest scariest slide I’ve ever seen.
Pushing her wheel chair round the loch among magnificent trees, reminded me of the campaigns for the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2005 which mean that all service providers must take reasonable steps to give disabled people access to facilities, including the countryside.  In many cases this would not be commercially viable, particularly as many wheelchair users like my mother only pay a concessionary rate, but the law overrides commercial considerations and has opened up many places, buses and trains to wheelchair users as well as baby buggies. We could get my mother's wheelchair into a taxi, take her to the circus and enjoy the countryside in a way that would have been almost impossible ten or 20 years ago.

Thirty years ago I visited Berkley California and was stuck by how many wheelchair users there were in the streets. I wondered where they came from, until someone told me about the Independent Living movement started by Edward Roberts and other wheelchair-dependent people in the 1960s. In Britain wheelchair users were almost prisoners in their own homes, barred by steep steps, narrow doors and inaccessible loos, and you hardly saw them.

Anyone who thinks politics is unimportant should consider the difference which campaigning has made to basic things like wheelchair access to facilities which able-bodied people take for granted.

Long campaigns for wheelchair access, for freedom to roam the open countryside, public footpaths and protection of rights of way are all part of the complex politics of footpaths which improve everyday life for all.