Choose education not catastrophe
Welcome speech for People and Planet’s Shared Planet conference held at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc), 2 November 2013.
I am so pleased that People & Planet has chosen to have this year’s Shared Planet conference in a sixth form college and in particular that you chose NewVIc. We are London’s largest sixth form college, we have been open for 20 years and we are proud to be both comprehensive and successful. Hundreds of our students contribute to their community as leaders, organisers and mentors and every year around 700 of them progress to university from one of the country’s most economically disadvantaged areas. We are an engine of social action, social cohesion and social mobility.
There are those who say that young people today are apathetic, apolitical, self-centred and celebrity obsessed, that you prefer to be consumers rather than thinkers, to be spectators rather than activists, to be acquisitive rather than inquisitive. But organisations like People and Planet and events like this are proving them wrong.
I am sure you didn’t suddenly become socially aware or politically engaged on your18th birthday. It happens at different times in different ways for different people and it often starts in the sixth form.
When the government withdrew millions of pounds from the families of our poorest students by abolishing the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), our college united in a campaign against this, not out of self-interest but in protest at the greater inequality and hardship that would follow.
When one of our students was threatened with deportation in the middle of her studies for reasons beyond her control, her classmates collected over 1,000 signatures in one afternoon and the college fought the deportation in every possible way, ultimately successfully.
These were not isolated campaigns, they demostrate that our learning community is more than just an exam factory. It is a place where we practice equality, democracy and solidarity and where we take responsibility for the future as well as passing on the lessons of the past.
I think it is clear to most of us that we are facing a global crisis, not simply a crisis of finance. The scale of injustice, inequality and conflict in the world suggests a bigger problem. Faced with this, young people can’t just watch from the sidelines waiting their turn to run the system. They need to take their place as equal global citizens; speak out now and work for global change now.
Sometimes when we think about the state of the world, it can feel like we are hovering somewhere between hope and despair. But in education you have to choose hope and an event like this fills me with hope for the future. H.G. Wells said that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” and Hannah Arendt said “education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it”. By choosing to be here you are choosing education rather than catastrophe and you are choosing to take some collective responsibility for our collective future.
In the words of the great black American sociologist and anti-imperialist W.E.B. DuBois “Now is the time…It is today that our best work can be done”.
So, welcome to NewVIc, don’t waste any time; get to work and change the world!