Finding life thriving in a politically imagined ghetto

MA Education
Monday, January 2, 2017

The consternation caused by comments by a senior member of the inspectorate caused a social media storm on the Isle of Wight last year, but served to highlight the powerful drive to improve life chances.

Finding life thriving in a politically imagined ghetto
Finding life thriving in a politically imagined ghetto

In August 2016, the TES reported that the chairman of Ofsted, David Hoare, had labelled my humble home, the Isle of Wight, ‘a poor white ghetto’ that ‘suffers from inbreeding’, while speaking at a TeachFirst conference in Leeds (Vaughan, 2016). Hoare's core intention was worthy enough; to raise awareness of the plight of coastal towns among the educational community. Unfortunately, the manner in which he conveyed his concerns was interpreted as more blight than plight; Hoare lamented that ‘within inches [of the sailing club] there are people who live in a ghetto and we've allowed it to happen’.

Local news outlets, social-media, and local authority officials, were unanimous in their reaction to the comments, reflecting the uproar of residents. On August 5th 2016, the class system on the Isle of Wight thawed to reveal a community united in repudiation of Hoare's comments. In principle, however, the comments were designed to evoke action and, despite his use of derogatory language and false information (especially regarding crime rates), parents and educators were hopeful that the heightened attention might be the wake-up call central government needed. Hoare later apologised for his comments and, with any hope, has now reflected on the ‘us and them’ mentality that his statement inferred. His resignation two weeks later felt like a victory to many islanders who regarded the apology as ‘too little too late’.

One unexpected benefit of the insult felt to Isle of Wight residents and stakeholders was a tangible sense of synergy uniting them against a common enemy or, to phrase it more positively, toward a common goal. In this case, the convergence was two-fold; people felt united to reject the claims of incest and crime, while simultaneously sharing a vision to improve our education system and the lives of young people.

Social-media walls were decorated with stunning vistas of children playing on local beaches, glades and forests, with ironic captions, reading ‘Life in the Ghetto’. Personally, I was not offended by the ghetto comment, in fact, I felt motivated to celebrate the resourceful and ingenious community that had emerged from economic adversity. I imagined Montessori opening her first ‘Casa de Bambini’ in 1907 (Mooney, 2013), and Malaguzzi in the 1960s (Hall et al, 2014), and recognised that adversity is often the birthplace of creativity and innovation.

Statistically, pockets of Ventnor are in the lowest 20 percent of economic deprivation in the country (IMD, 2015), yet community action and endeavour is stronger and more tangible than ever.

The county has a history steeped in creativity – Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Ruskin, all found an untapped spring of creativity in the ‘delightful island’ (Wordsworth, 1888). More recently, Dickens, Lear, Hardy, and poet WH Auden, have all succumb in one way or another to the charm offered by ‘the prettiest place I ever saw in my life, at home or abroad’ (Dickens, 1849, cited in Stafford, 1894).

Fortunately, this creative undercurrent has managed to withstand the recent funding cuts, increased deprivation and damning isolation. The Ventnor Fringe Festival, for example, has helped to establish the island as an overspilling vessel of creativity, channelled into a nationally recognised annual event consisting of workshops for children, poetry, music and drama, that goes a long way toward regenerating the town's historic artistry. The event was initiated by a group of young people, all under 19-years-old, as a creative outlet, and today receives Arts Council funding to enable an all-year-round community initiative.

Statistically, pockets of Ventnor are in the lowest 20 percent of economic deprivation in the country (IMD, 2015), yet community action and endeavour is stronger and more tangible than ever. These kinds of radical initiatives are not born out of abundant economic capital, but are, instead, the synergy of social and human capitals driven by shared vision.

Senge (1990) emphasises the importance of a shared vision for the effectiveness of organisations, without which, people would only come together at times of crisis. This phenomenon becomes palpable in severe weather situations, such as thunderstorms and high-winds, during which time, individuals are primed to communicate more readily, share resources and support each other in response to these natural challenges (DfES, 2006). Arguably, the most prevalent adverse condition facing educators is the reduction of economic capital, the result of which requires new solutions for play materials, equipment, and experiences, as well as the strengthening of social capital in the form of inter-school partnerships and resource sharing opportunities. Unfortunately, a growing majority of schools are developing opaque and insulative business models based on competition and individualism, as opposed to strength in community (Hill et al, 2012).

Thankfully, there are also a flourishing number of outdoor education initiatives that are intensifying in popularity, the majority of which include ecology and resourcefulness as core values (Natural England, 2016). These approaches are what I call ‘common-sense’ approaches, because they strip away much of the absurdity that has arisen from the layers of cultural norms and historically informed policy, and move toward an education system based on values that meet the needs of all children, both today and in the future.

The term ‘common-sense’ here inverts the traditional Gramscian definition of subaltern consciousness as reflecting the values of the bourgeois through stratified-diffusion (Patnaik, 1988) and, instead, alludes to a re-alignment with natural intuition or ‘human-sense’ and ‘metalinguistic awareness’ or agency (Cazden, 1973; cited in Donaldson, 1988), the collective form of which becomes a new collective ‘common-sense’ informed by action and reflection in the base-structure of the oppressed, as described by Marx (Williams, 1973) – who, incidentally, also lived in Ventnor until 1882!

Developing a schooling system that meets the needs of children, both today and in the future, requires a significant amount of lateral thinking and some speculation about how the planet will take shape in the next century. Although it is impossible to accurately predict the kind of job-roles our children will grow into, there are some predictions that should be taken into account when determining the type of skills and knowledge our young people will need in the future.

In 2005, for example, Hirsch produced a report for the United States government that went some way toward confirming concerns among the scientific community that the production of cheap oil would eventually not be able to sustain the demands of a global market driven by a capitalist economy (Hirsch et al, 2005). This concept of ‘Peak oil’ was coined by Hubbert (1962) and has since driven large communities of scientists, from Yale to Cambridge, to determine when and if the sustainable production of cheap oil would end. Although the exact dates and nature of economic decline following peak-oil have not been agreed upon, there is relatively little disagreement that the depletion of fossil fuels will have a significant knock-on effect for communities in the future.

Grassroots ‘permaculture’ initiatives are popping up across the country, based on an idea to achieve self-sustainable communities that can exist without inter-dependency on external structures. These require significant effort and commitment from the individuals involved, but have been shown to be of immense value from both ecological and psychological perspectives (Smith, 2000). Numerous schools in Australia, and a growing number in the UK, are already adopting principles of circular economies and sustainability in their school strategies, with compelling results (i.e. Gannon, no date).

Several initiatives in the UK have had great success in disseminating the knowledge and skills necessary for achieving school gardens that really do make a difference to children's nutrition, wellbeing, holistic development, and broadening skillset (FGST, 2012). These initiatives have managed to resist the cultural norm of educating children in preparation for traditional roles, but have instead adopted a forward thinking ‘common-sense’ approach.

Permaculture is based on principles of economic sustainability and self-sufficiency using whatever means are available to the community (Whitefield, 2012). The methodology is based on principles of circular ecologies, upcycling of waste materials, renewable energy sources and making use of whatever is available without the need for fossil-fuelled machines. In educational terms, these principles are reflected by any school that aims to fully utilise their local spaces and communities, while adopting a creative approach to resourcefulness.

Upcycling waste materials is a valuable source for holistic learning; children learn about ecology, originality, form and function, while practising divergent thinking skills and developing an appreciation and respect for tools and resources. Making use of available resources requires group-thinking, lateral-thinking, divergent-thinking, and risk-taking, helping to slow the crystalisation of ‘functional-fixity’ that reduces flexibility of thought and increases stagnation (Duncker, 1945; German and Defeyter, 2000). Moreover, practitioners who are encouraged to think in this way become instinctively more innovative and creative themselves, feeding an educational culture informed by cycles of reflective action, as opposed to repetition alone.

Making use of natural and local features for educational opportunities is another way of adopting a sustainable approach to education – learning science through direct experimentation with nature; understanding communities by regularly visiting local shops, churches, community halls, and businesses; inspiring young readers by visiting libraries; respecting older generations by visiting residential homes. These freely available opportunities present new experiences for children and go a long way toward enhancing community intra-activity, while modelling and facilitating socially adaptive behaviours.

The synonymy of deprivation and struggle raises questions about the nature of wealth and challenges existing notions of the term ‘deprivation’. Economic deprivation in the form of poverty and the deficit of basic human resources is widely believed to be a direct result of unregulated capitalism. Yet it is from this struggle that new solutions, technologies, and social initiatives are born. In the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, the slave becomes empowered by knowledge and mastery of the skills required to operate and function within his means, eventually overthrowing the master in order to become the oppressor himself, continuing the cycle of oppression (Freire, 1970/2000).

I am hopeful that the reconstruction of ‘wealth’ and ‘success’ as human connectivity, synergy, and wellbeing, in spite of resource deficits, is starting to spread through pedagogical culture globally and nationally. Regardless of David Hoare's construction of the Isle of Wight as a ‘ghetto’, the educational values born of human-sense, and reconnection with a natural order, will be of value to all. Case-in-point: I am writing this article from my family home in a static caravan and I could not be healthier or happier, living the good life.

Key points
  • In 2016, an ex-Ofsted chairman made comments about the Isle of Wight, and levels of disadvantage that provoked a media storm. The comments in many ways provoked the reaction they were intended to, with some areas of the island in the lowest 20 percent of economic deprivation in the country

  • However, the figures do not tell the whole story. Community action and endeavour is stronger and more tangible than ever. These kinds of radical initiatives are not born out of abundant economic capital, but are the synergy of social and human capitals driven by shared vision

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