15 local City of Learning proposals

Activity within Kensalfield

By Mike Barter, Director of Education and Learning, Kensalfield City Council

Follow Mike on Twitter @place4learning


15 of my 20 proposals are locally-focused and about steps that we can and should take in Kensalfield, not just by working across the city council’s various functions but with and through our educational and business communities and civil society. These proposals are set out below.

1. Make education our mission, and our city a City of Learning

If we are serious about building a culture of learning that enables all of our citizens to fulfil their potential we need to place this at the heart of Kensalfield’s civic identity, of all that we do as a local authority and a major employer, and all that we encourage and help others to do.

One positive step that we can take towards this is to declare Kensalfield as one of the first Cities of Learning in the UK, an exercise coordinated in the UK by the RSA, already well established in the US and now running in 12 cities there. It is important that everyone understands up-front that this is not a public relations exercise. Rather, it is about working with anyone and everyone that can help provide learners with multiple opportunities and settings in which to engage in accredited learning, and about being overt and public about these efforts.

Critically, the City of Learning approach is about connecting learners, learning opportunities and learning institutions (schools, colleges, libraries, training providers, the university, the new arts centre and so on) through a digital network, one that facilitates the accreditation of learning through a system of ‘Digital Open Badges’. This may sound like ‘techie’ stuff, but one US city that has embraced the model, Dallas, has registered nearly 35,000 learner accounts, 70 percent of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, over the course of just over two years. These learners are supported by more than 200 partner organisations. It would be tremendous if we could have anything like this impact in, say, Harlesford, Mann Green or Mills Brook.

As a public statement of intent I would suggest that ‘Kensalfield — City of Learning’ branding appears on all city council stationery within six months of your election, all advertising within three months, and all online communications within one month. Your political capital — and public and media interest — will never be as high as it is now: use it! And encourage local employers, community organisations and educational institutions to get on board early and publicly. City of Learning should become their brand, not ours. Perhaps we could support its launch with a Kensalfield Lifelong Learning Innovation Fund, something that might pump prime creative and potentially self-sustaining initiatives designed to build learner appetite, engagement and success.

2. Build a movement

Major policy shifts can only succeed if they go with the grain of public opinion

Matthew Taylor — Chief Executive, Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Why policy fails — and how it might succeed

This is about much more than delivering what some might see as another ‘administrative’ programme or council ‘project’. It is about building a movement that, in terms of learning, gets people involved and gets them going. The city council ought to, and is equipped to, play a key encouraging and enabling role, but this is not something that we should seek to ‘run’. Rather, we need to establish (and I know the language is horrible) a “special purpose vehicle”, and get the city’s educators, businesses and civic organisations to own it and drive it.

We should encourage this movement to be creative about what we mean by lifelong learning at every juncture and in every phase, and we should be outward-looking and evangelical about this. This means encouraging the education and business communities in Kensalfield to participate in pilot programmes focused on educational innovation. One possibility might be the development of a citywide ‘Great Ideas’ programme to encourage new approaches to — and new settings for — learning, projecting the message that we are innovators and entrepreneurs in the field of educational endeavour.

3. Learn together

For many who have not previously fulfilled their potential through formal education, the prospect of re-entering learning can be a difficult one — a personal challenge but, if sufficient support is not in place, a lonely task — and one last experienced as a journey that ended in personal failure. For others, learning no longer appears to need interaction, other than with a YouTube tutorial or an online manual.

We need to challenge these conceptions of the lone learner by focusing on building an approach to learning that is social not solitary, perhaps using ‘Learn Together’ as the strapline that accompanies ‘Kensalfield — City of Learning’ branding. This means younger people learning alongside older people, work colleagues and families learning together, work in special education being a part of the educational mainstream, not an adjunct to it, and a welter of activities — from homework clubs to adult reading programmes — that bring learning into the public space, whether this is in the school, college, library or community centre.

4. Lead by example

We need to encourage civic leaders and figures of influence across Kensalfield to share and celebrate their experiences of learning.

One option might be for you — and as many other local business and community leaders as you can bring on board — to make a Personal Learning Pledge. This would involve signing-up for a locally delivered programme of study, and inviting every Kensalfield adult resident who is not currently engaged in formal education or training to join you by embarking on their own personal learning journey, signing-up for a course or qualification on a specific and widely promoted day at the start of each academic year.

More broadly, we need to ensure that learners of all ages have access to multiple role models who can demonstrate the benefits of returning to learning — in the workplace, in the community and as individuals, so that they can see tangible examples of learner success in all sorts of settings across the city.

I am wary of the idea of setting a formal target around, for instance, how many new adult learners we ought to engage in learning or how big an increase we ought to seek in attendance at school parents’ evenings, but if we were to see, for example, a 20 percent increase in either (or both) during your term of office, the impact on our city would be transformational, and especially so on the lives of residents in our more disadvantaged areas.

5. Make ‘lifelong’ learning lifelong

We need to encourage our partners to articulate an approach to lifelong learning as something that is genuinely lifelong, rather than simply a post-school corrective for those for whom formal schooling has been less than successful.

In such a model what happens at school is part of the lifelong learning journey, and this places a new responsibility on schools, but one which teachers and school and college leaders are likely to embrace rather than resist, for it takes us beyond the current habit of “tests, targets and tables”.

This means working with parents, teachers and school and college leaders to develop a new Kensalfield City of Learning Pledge — one shared across our schools and colleges. This would be focused not simply on the achievement by learners of strong examination scores, vital though this is, but on the development of an appetite and capacity for learning and of character traits and dispositions (resilience, self-confidence, collaborativeness etc) that will serve them for the rest of their lives. In Kensalfield, to leave school with a stack of qualifications but no love of learning or little ability to either work with others or see a task through to completion should no longer be sufficient.

6. Stand on the shoulders of giants

Too often, those in education justifiably complain that educational initiatives are top-down and developed without their input. Alongside those from the business community, teachers and educational and civic leaders need to be at the forefront of this endeavour, such that their professional expertise and their local knowledge infuses the range of innovations undertaken.

One possibility would be to encourage the formation of a Kensalfield Educational Leaders’ Network, with colleagues drawn from all phases and sites of learning, including children’s centres, schools, colleges, training providers, the university and libraries, including governors and professional association representatives.

Such a group might periodically welcome into its ranks senior leaders from complementary fields — children’s services more broadly, the cultural and creative community, local businesses, social services, health, the criminal justice system, nutrition, sport and leisure, and the voluntary sector — such that, to recall a phrase briefly popular in the early New Labour years, the approach taken to lifelong learning in Kensalfield is a model of “joined-up” thinking, planning and practice. As mayor, you are in a terrific position to pull in the local powerbrokers to this and similar networks, and, if we are to truly succeed in becoming a City of Learning, we need the buy-in of these powerbrokers from the start.

7. Focus on ‘Closing the Gap’

One of the conundrums of offering a plethora of new educational opportunities is that they are often most likely to be taken up by those who least need them. It is a truism that adult education classes are often stuffed full of individuals already educated and qualified “up to their eyeballs”. At a time when resources are scarce it is vital that learning opportunities are targeted at the most disadvantaged.

This means ensuring that the desire to build inclusion drives all that we do. Here a series of Kensalfield Learning Charters setting out our commitment to specific groups might provide a practical means of concentrating minds around persistent gaps in access, experience and achievement, for instance with regard to:

  • Specific social groups afflicted by persistently low literacy and numeracy rates and an associated lack of stable employment opportunities, including members of particular minority ethnic communities and white working-class boys and young men.
  • The families of school-age learners in receipt of the pupil premium.
  • Those who are under-represented in admissions to further and higher education and to the professions.
  • Those with health issues or disabilities, howsoever defined.
  • Children in the care system and care-leavers.
  • Young people and adults who care for others.
  • Those in, or who have been in, the criminal justice system.
  • Those who are out of work or in low-paid and unstable employment, the so-called ‘precariat’.
  • Older learners, especially those who may have missed out on, or been poorly served by, formal education.

It also means strengthening Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) services and ensuring that those with the greatest need, including individuals from the groups listed above, have priority and early access to this guidance. This will require us to work closely with and through local employers and with all of the relevant agencies to ensure that lifelong and life-wide learning is supported by a culture and practice of lifelong access to appropriate and skilled advisory support.

Finally, it means deliberate action to raise the aspirations of our poorest communities. Here, we ought to encourage the university to ensure that children and families in areas like Harlesford, Mann Green, Mills Brook and Willesby are exposed to the full range of educational and career opportunities. We need to get bright young undergraduates and graduates, and academic staff, into the city’s primary and secondary schools to share their experiences with children and young people who might not have considered that a higher education is “for them”.

We should reject the charge that, today, “too many young people are going to university”. This is certainly not the case in our poorest communities, where far too few are progressing to either further or higher education.

8. Think digital

Technology is transforming our educational options, personalising and broadening opportunities and access, for instance, through YouTube tutorials and Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs). But, in what Anthony Painter and Louise Bamfield describe as the “new digital learning age” (RSA, 2016), these opportunities need to be harnessed for all, not just the “confident creators” who are already using them. As a city we need to bring together the brightest tech-brains in the region to advise and guide us on how we best embrace current and emergent technologies, especially the ability of these technologies to connect learners, and disengaged learners in particular, within and beyond the city’s boundaries. Our status as a City of Learning, and our resultant ability to learn from other Cities of Learning, will enable us to do this.

We also need to encourage local learning providers, notably those in the adult education, vocational skills and FE sectors, to develop an on-line portal (the LearnKensalfield.com domain name is available) or an app through which:

  • Courses and other local learning opportunities can be showcased by providers.
  • Learners can assess and sign-up to what is on offer.
  • Content from around the world can be accessed — both by learners and by teachers, tutors and others involved in providing support to learners.
  • Advice and guidance about learning choices, can be delivered to, and accessed by, learners of all ages and in all circumstances.

Such a portal or app might be funded in the longer term through support from advertisers and/or corporate sponsorship (perhaps from locally-based ‘tech’ sector businesses) but is likely to need some start-up investment.

In particular, we need to engage the so-called ‘app-generation’ as fully as possible, not least because smart-phones and tablets appear to have been more successful at crossing the so-called ‘digital divide’ than other earlier technologies.

9. Make learning local

The current moves towards devolution of both political authority and educational funding — notably the adult skills budget — allow us, as a city, to localise our educational offer, especiallythat provided through our three FE colleges, to a much greater degree. This ought to enable us to ensure that there is a match between local provision, employment possibilities and the broader needs of the city, not just as a group of residents and council tax payers, but as a community of citizens.

At another level — that of the individual student — research tells us that reluctant learners often shun conventional schools and colleges as places for learning because of their earlier experiences of the ‘system’. For this reason, there might be mileage in exploring the potential of using empty ‘hard-to-let’ retail units in neighbourhood shopping centres as Community Learning Hubs or, more simply, ‘learning shops’. These could be coordinated through our FE colleges, function as advice centres and provide a series of ‘pop-up’ “classrooms on the corner”, especially in areas like Harlesford and Mann Green. Many of the empty retail units in these wards are council-owned and might require only light touch renovation.

Research also tells us that when reluctant learners do re-engage with schools, it is with primary schools as parents. We ought to encourage our primary schools to use this opportunity to get people back into the system, especially young mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds, by placing our 68 primary schools at the heart of our efforts to promote learning in the community, where possible using schools as sites for adult and community education.

Locality is also about civic identity, about the heritage of the city and its communities. This means working extensively with and through those based in local creative and cultural organisations, such that our heritage is shared, enriched and understood by all, not owned by a ‘creative’ elite to the exclusion of others, especially those who may not have confidence or social capital to engage in such an arena. The newly established Kensalfield Community Arts Hub could help us to do this.

In practical terms, one option might be for the hub to develop a Kensalfield Oral History project. This has the potential to connect libraries, schools, colleges and the university with cultural organisations and those in elders’ groups and sheltered housing facilities, thus enabling young people to capture the experience of their elders and to grasp the rich and diverse heritage of our (and their) communities.

10. Make families agents of change

Early years practitioners can provide valuable guidance to parents and families to build rich home-learning environments

Clare McGread — Head of Communities and Early Years, National Literacy Trust. Submission to The Key’s State of Education Survey Report, 2016

Family Learning Programmes have been a largely unrecognised success story of the past two decades, and one that we should build on. Here, there are several options but three, in particular, are worth outlining:

  • Encourage the launch of what would amount to a Kensalfield Family Learning Programme, using our 68 primary schools and 22 secondary schools as Family Learning Centres, focused on building parental understanding of the education system, with initial activity focused on our four most deprived wards.
  • Explore the potential of a re-modeled pre-school and early years service focused on outreach, with early years ‘Education Visitors’ performing a role that is the educational equivalent of the health visitor, ensuring that every family has a basic understanding of how very young children learn, the kind of environment and encouragement that might best support their learning, what they need to do to prepare their child for entry into nursery and primary education, including how they might go about choosing a school, and how they can best navigate a complex and ever-changing school system.
  • Develop a new team of ‘Transition Advisers’ to help families in our poorest wards negotiate the ‘pinch’ points they will encounter as their children move through the education system — into secondary school, into GCSEs, into post-16 learning, and on to HE, training or employment thereafter.

These are just possibilities but the overarching principle is that we need to develop approaches that will enable our poorest families to have access to the kind of cultural and social capital enjoyed and unknowingly taken for granted by their middle-class peers. In so doing, these strategies might offer a means of ‘closing the gap’ and ‘widening participation’ every bit as important and effective as the pupil premium and similar initiatives.

11. Build a network of volunteer tutors and mentors

The London 2012 Olympics revealed the potential of volunteering through its Games Maker Volunteer programme, and volunteer-based reading programmes are well established in a number of cities in the UK.

We ought to learn from these activities by recruiting local volunteers committed to working with adult learners on literacy and numeracy and with those from migrant and minority communities on language development, tapping into existing national and local civil society and business-led volunteer programmes where possible. Over time, these volunteer tutors and mentors, and the kind of ‘Education Visitors’ and ‘Transition Advisers’ suggested above, might evolve into a new cadre of ‘Community Organisers for Learning’.

12. Work hand-in-hand with employers

It is vital that employers and bodies such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Education Business Partnership and the local branches of professional institutes play a central role in the re-invention of Kensalfield as a City of Learning. We need local employers, especially larger employers to champion the value of learning at and through work, and we need local people to be able to access a range of work-based learning activities.

You might encourage the business community, civil society, the education sector and the city council to work together to develop a set of agreed and deliverable work-based learning priorities. These might relate, for instance, to the provision of work experience placements for school and college students, apprenticeship sign-up and completion rates (in light of the recent government target to achieve three million apprenticeship starts by 2020), employee access to personal and professional development opportunities, and education-focused corporate responsibility initiatives.

More broadly, we need local employers to play their part in changing attitudes towards professional, technical and vocational education, such that it is not seen as the poor relation of academic study, either in the community or in our own schools and colleges. All who are active in developing Kensalfield into a City of Learning need to live by this view, through their own work and that of their organisations.

Finally, you should encourage Kensalfield’s employers — across the business, voluntary and public sectors — to be active and high profile participants in the Campaign for Learning’s Learning at Work Week, a successful and long-established national initiative (about which I’ll say more later) and in national programmes to recognise best practice, such as the Learning and Performance Institute’s Annual Learning Awards and the Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning Awards.

13. Work with professionals in the criminal justice and healthcare spheres

If working with a range of professions and sectors is a pre-requisite for developing a city-wide commitment to education and learning, we know that working with colleagues in the criminal justice system and in health and social care is likely to bring particular benefits — in-short, lower re-offending rates and reduced demand on our health and care services, and GP surgeries and accident and emergency units in particular.

Literacy influences individual capability in all spheres of life. In times of economic instability, low literacy makes individuals and communities more vulnerable to inequality, increasing the risk of social exclusion and undermining social mobility

Joe Morrisroe — Literacy Changes Lives 2014: a new perspective on health, employment and crime, National Literacy Trust, 2014

This knowledge should inform our policymaking and our partnership building as a local authority. The evidence with regard to education and crime is especially clear: community safety can be enhanced and fledgling criminal careers cut short through early intervention. We ought to work with all agencies in the criminal justice system in Kensalfield to ensure that any first-time engagement in the system triggers an immediate educational intervention, and we should work with HMP Kensalfield and Willesby Manor Open Prison to determine that, within five years, nobody is discharged from our local prisons or their associated facilities without access to a pre-employability programme focused on enhancing literacy and numeracy skills, making job applications and developing interview skills. The link between offending and poor educational attainment — and low literacy levels in particular — is an enduring and national phenomenon; locally, a part of our learning mission must be to challenge this.

Similarly, as recent health education initiatives have shown, educative approaches to health and wellbeing can improve life-chances and the quality of life, but they tend to be less effective in areas of economic deprivation. We need to draw lessons from these campaigns to inform our broader work, and take steps to ensure that their messages are clearly understood, especially in our poorest communities.

14. Strengthen governance, participation and voice at every level

Research tells us that the process of participation is an engine for driving personal and community development. Again, as part of the building of a wider learning culture, we need to encourage — across the city but especially in our more deprived communities — community participation in educational governance and in other bodies such as parent-teacher associations (PTAs). Here, we should not just be appealing for volunteers to become school and college governors or PTA representatives, but providing skills development programmes that will build the candidate base for such engagement, and encourage active citizenship more broadly in the process.

This is one area in which the city council might itself take a lead, building a Kensalfield Community Participation Programme, developing advocacy skills such as public speaking, lobbying and chairing meetings. Again, this should be focused on our poorest communities, with the expressed aim of developing community capacity and engagement in places like Mann Green, Mills Brook, Harlesford and Willesby. Some years ago the Citizenship Foundation, a national education and participation charity, led a groundbreaking programme called Youth Act, developing such skills amongst young people in severely disadvantaged communities. We could learn from that, but do something that reached out to all of Kensalfield’s citizens, whatever their age.

Our local Youth Council is thriving and many of our schools and colleges have been commended for their work on student voice. This ought to become the norm across the city and can help us to develop ‘voice’ for a range of other learner cohorts and in a range of other settings.

15. Celebrate success

Every aspect of my life has improved since I have returned to education and I truly believe it is because of the confidence I have gained. I will endeavour to inspire others to challenge themselves. Even though it may not be an easy road, it will be well worth it at the end

Adele Tilley — Adult Learners’ Week (now the Festival of Learning) Patron’s Award Winner, 2015

If we are to build a real culture of learning across the city — to be a genuine City of Learning — we need to celebrate the success of our learners and all who work with them, A series of awards programmes for learners, learning-focused organisations and local employers come to mind — but these need to emerge from the movement that I have talked about, rather than be handed out or down by the city council. In addition, we ought to encourage a culture in which successful learners from Kensalfield are supported to enter the various national awards offered for engagement in adult learning by bodies such as the Campaign for Learning and the Learning and Work Institute.

We also need to work in partnership with those involved in similar initiatives elsewhere, making our contribution to the wider Cities of Learning movement: the local need not be parochial. One option might be for the city to host an annual education conference or a lifelong learning innovation convention — this could evolve into an influential ‘hackathon’ bringing together educationalists, technologists, designers and community activists to share best practice and explore new possibilities in education and lifelong learning. At the very least, and more mundanely, it would allow us to disseminate outcomes from our endeavours as a City of Learning and to learn from others — across the region, the country and beyond. It is to this broader stage that I now turn.

Where next?

Go back…

This article forms a part of the ‘A Place for Learning’ publication

Download a PDF version of the report from the RSA website