Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’.

How do we understand the difference between the behaviour of an individual and that of a society, between a small group of like-minded people and a political movement or between the ecosystem of a few acres and that of a whole planet?

Clearly these are differences of scale, but some of the properties of the larger more complex systems can’t simply be explained as scaled-up versions of the properties of the smaller constituent parts. Those properties of the whole which can’t easily be explained at the level of the parts are emergent properties. These properties operate at a different level and require different explanations which is why social and political phenomena can’t be explained by psychology alone and biological processes can’t simply be explained by physics or chemistry. Reductionist explanations which involve understanding how the parts work can be very useful in helping us to understand the whole, but they never tell the whole story.

The most interesting questions are often about the translation between what is happening at one level and the next one ‘up’ or ‘down’. It’s by studying this interface that we begin to understand how chemical changes could have life or death effects on a whole organism, how individual human behaviours could influence a whole society or how human activity could have a planetary impact. To do these translations between levels we need to be confident with the rules and explanations governing both the levels we’re interested in, in other words to understand the properties of both the parts and the whole. This can put the overspecialised expert on just one level at a disadvantage.

In his brilliant book ‘Thinking Global’ (‘Penser Global’, Flammarion, 2015) the distinguished French sociologist Edgar Morin aims to help us get our heads around the overwhelming complexity of a modern world where so much is at stake, including human survival itself. Like Morin, holists reject the idea of breaking knowledge up into subject areas and fields of study but Morin suggests that this can itself be a form of reductionism – seeing only the whole and failing to take account of the constant dynamic interaction and feedback between the different levels. Morin is neither a reductionist nor a holist; going beyond the distinction between parts and wholes to see the key issue as the complexity of the system itself.

The first task, according to Morin, is to contextualise. Things only make sense if they are seen in their context; like a word in a sentence or human action within a human culture. In looking at humans in our world he sees both unity and diversity; a striking genetic, physiological and emotional unity – we all smile and cry, experience pain and joy, but this commonality translates itself into a great diversity of cultures and behaviours. Morin says that at a time when we all share a common planetary destiny:

We have to recognise others as both different to us and the same as us. If we see others as entirely different we cannot understand them. If we see them as entirely the same we cannot see what makes them original and different.

In order to start thinking about a global human society we need to understand the relationships between the parts and the whole and the emergent properties of a complex social system. Individuals and groups interacting with each other have produced languages, cultures and structures of power and regulation such as states with laws and institutions all of which can endure beyond any individual lifetime. The whole both releases and limits the potential of the parts but amounts to much more than the mere sum of those parts.

Social changes can be seen as disruptions at the social level which eventually transform the whole system, like capitalism growing from within feudalism or a new technology revolutionising the way people live. But historical evolution should not be seen as linear; the smooth flow of a majestic river. Instead, we need to understand that it is often triggered by apparently marginal events or accidents which set off deeper systemic change.

The more complex human society becomes, the more interdependent we become; relying on a web of connections, interactions and tensions which we barely understand. At the global level, this leads to greater uncertainty and risk. Emerging global challenges require some perspective to be properly understood and addressed and we need time to come to terms with these; time which we can’t always afford. Morin reminds us that during his youth in the 1930’s, European society seemed to be sleepwalking towards disaster and he quotes Hegel: “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk”. Given the colossal challenges we face today, we need to seek to understand the human condition a little better if we are to spread our wings a little faster. The parlous state of our human condition demands urgent action.

However, as Morin says, all action is a gamble full of uncertainty and success can never be guaranteed. No sooner do we make what we think is a wise and enlightened decision, it is released into a social, economic and political context outside of our control and may have all sorts of unintended consequences. This is not a counsel of despair, simply a reminder that our current understanding is always partial and that we need to combine the desire to deal with urgent problems with some humility about our abilities. We only need to reflect on the genuinely held fallacies and misconceptions of the past to recognise that we are probable just as prone to error and illusion today.

Morin makes the case for a new paradigm to replace a reductionist and atomised view of knowledge with a more ‘connected’ paradigm of complexity. We are in a period which Morin describes as the ‘prehistory of human thought’. Early Homo Sapiens had essentially the same brains and capacities as we do but we now have to operate at a new level and face new threats; fear, fanaticism, murderous conflict and political regression. We also have more powerful tools – both real and conceptual – at our disposal. But human society is a constant ‘work in progress’ and we need improved tools for global thinking.

Morin concludes:

Faced with all these dangers we need to seek a more open way of thinking, one which is both more global and more complex. We need to reject dogmatism; the hardening of our ideas and the refusal to test them against reality. We need to abandon a closed rationalism which cannot grasp what might be beyond conventional thinking and instead commit to an open rationalism which knows its limitations. We have to struggle constantly to avoid believing in those illusions which could acquire the solidity of a belief system. In this global world we are faced with the challenge of global thinking, which is the challenge of complex thinking. We are living through the beginning of a beginning.

Based on the final chapter ‘Pensée complexe et pensée globale’

See also :

Citizens of somewhere, citizens of anywhere (May 2017)

The social origins of human thinking (March 2016)

Gulliver’s levels (May 2015)

Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

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10 things which could improve education

I’d like to offer the following tentative 10 point charter to improve education at all levels as an initial contribution to the debate about the future of education in England.

1. Build a comprehensive system rooted in equality:
We should all be regarded as being of equal worth and deserving of equal access to educational opportunities. Rather than creating more barriers and inventing new ways to select and segregate, education should be promoting greater equality and inclusion. Publicly funded schools, colleges and universities should have a common status and common funding regimes and should be required to work together and serve the whole community. We need a National Education Service to provide everyone with the opportunity to participate and benefit as equals, with access to a wide range of educational opportunities as part of a lifelong entitlement to free education.

2. Offer a broad liberal education to all as a universal entitlement:
We need to define what areas of knowledge acquisition and skills development we regard as essential for all and use this as the basis for an outline national curriculum from 5-18 culminating in an inclusive school leavers’ diploma accessible to all. This means defining what we mean by an ‘educated’ person and providing a good platform for lifelong learning which can support us in accessing the full range of human knowledge and culture and help us to understand our common humanity and diversity.

3. Inject more democracy into education:
We need to address education’s democratic deficit and create opportunities to debate and shape education policies locally, regionally and nationally. Education policy is the rightful concern of the whole community. Minimum expectations and standards should be set nationally and at local and regional levels those who shape and oversee the education system should be accountable to, and elected by, local people.
Education should help us to make our voices heard, individually and collectively and to play a part in creating our shared world. Our schools, colleges and universities should provide a practical apprenticeship in civic participation and foster the habits of democracy. This means educating about our institutions and the use and abuse of power. It also means acquiring the skills to bring about social change, to debate the world and to use democratic methods to shape it.

4. Give education clear social purpose:
We need to educate for solidarity and to learn to work with others for the common good. Education should develop and support our social bonds, our consideration and understanding of others and our ability to exercise and challenge power collectively. We should all be expected to engage in some service learning or civic action which benefits others. This ‘applied social learning’ could be part of a new mutual contract between the individual and the community to underpin the guarantee of free education.

5. Connect learning and work:
Learning is work and education is not separate from the ‘real world’. What we learn can help us achieve our personal, social or economic aspirations and the links need to be made clear. Every employer above a certain size should offer apprenticeships or paid internships and be expected to contribute to a local educational offer and release their staff to train, mentor or advise others.

6. Educate for global citizenship:
We need to think as global citizens at both the local and the planetary level if we are to understand and address the great global challenges facing us, e.g: injustice, inequality, conflict, disease and environmental degradation. We need to learn to make the best use of the finite resources at our disposal and consider our impact on others, including future generations and other living things. Education should promote an understanding of sustainability and the ways people, processes and resources are interconnected.

7. Encourage action, reflection and connection:
Every educational course or programme should be set in its wider context, supporting reflection and good judgement and making connections between past and present, with other areas of knowledge or skill and with different people and perspectives. We should value and pass on our common human intellectual and cultural heritage. Education should offer us a good understanding of tradition; what is known and has already been achieved while also helping us to exercise our judgement in learning critically from our past to support the creation of new knowledge and insights.

8. Develop a research culture:
Education should encourage inquiry, scepticism and rationalism and help us to develop as critical and questioning beings. We should continually foster and channel our natural curiosity about the world. We need to be capable of questioning the way things are and of exercising judgement based on evidence. We should all have the opportunity to undertake some substantial research and to contribute to at least one ‘masterpiece’, which could be of some benefit or interest to others.

9. Educate for liberation:
Education should empower and emancipate us. We need our schools, colleges and universities to be the workshops of a better future, broadening our horizons and helping us imagine new ways of living, of seeing things and of doing things. Every education provider should regard itself as a school for innovation where people’s enthusiasm for making things better is encouraged through opportunities for discussion and debate, community activity and community leadership. We have enormous unrealised potential which can be released by working with others.

10. Promote capability and creativity:
Making things and changing things requires knowledge, skill, creativity and teamwork. Everyone should have the opportunity to acquire and master at least one skill or craft in depth and “find their genius”. We need to recognise that this requires experimentation, false starts and some failure. We should understand and be open to change in the world and in ourselves. Education should promote the possibility of social and personal transformation and creativity and develop our understanding of historical change and the development of ideas.

For discussion and refining. Feedback welcome.

See also:
Giving young people a stake in their future (July 2017)
Reconstruction in an age of demolition (July 2017)
Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)
Going beyond (October 2016)
Education: what’s it all for? (January 2016)

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The last Corsican.

“I’ve decided to keep this diary because I’m going to die in the next few days…I am condemned because, having refused to be evacuated with the others, I will be annihilated by the incendiary bombs which are systematically ravaging the Corsican interior. Already, Zonza, the village where I took refuge is melting and all the houses in the local hamlets are collapsing under the effects of napalm. The molten rocks are forming a lava flow on the charred soil and occasionally a roof explodes like a forgotten pot in the oven. Soon, the Island of Beauty will be wiped off the map…”

So begins Jacques Mondoloni’s apocalyptic story Le Dernier Corse, available, in French, in the short story collection Corse Noire alongside stories by Mérimée, Flaubert and Maupassant.

The fictional ‘last Corsican’ of the title is the priest and former independence activist Pascal Geronimi whose mother was English and father Corsican. Having played an active role in violent resistance against the French state he has turned his back on extremism. During this final conflagration, he remains on the island and sends his account of his homeland’s destruction to a fellow priest in the Vatican.

In these diary entries, Pascal tells us something of his life as well as explaining how things have come to this. The premise is that the xenophobic, nationalist La Flamme party is in power in France and refuses Corsica’s call for independence. Citing the general ‘lawlessless’ and ‘terrorism’ of the Corsicans and their alleged ‘Arab’ origins, the government has won a referendum to apply a scorched earth policy and expel Corsicans from their homeland; deporting 200,000 Corsicans to North Africa and Italy;  precipitating a refugee crisis and ultimately a plan to completely eliminate the island.

Corsicans are used to the idea of emigration and diaspora; they have often had to leave home to escape poverty and underdevelopment. The island has experienced major falls in population, notably around the 20th century’s two world wars. But whether the island is shrinking or growing and wherever its people find themselves, they carry an idea of home – often an ancestral village – with them. For any small nation, the fact that home exists, however distant, is reassuring and essential. And the possibility of that home being destroyed is beyond imagining.

This story is not only a record of the last words of this ‘last Corsican’ but an exploration of the unthinkable; the end of Corsica itself. It’s majestic landscape destroyed and it’s people dispersed; leaving only a memory of Corsica, an idea of Corsica. This particular scenario may seem unlikely, and yet the Mediterranean today is the scene of greater refugee movements than envisaged in this story and sadly human history is not short of precedents for the deliberate obliteration of places and the annihilation of populations.

Other posts on Corsican themes:

Boswell in Corsica (March 2016)

Escher in Corsica (January 2016)

Sebald in Corsica (December 2015)

Edward Lear in Corsica (August 2015)

John Minton in Corsica (July 2015)

Paoli in London (March 2015)

Conrad in Corsica (August 2014)

Seneca in Corsica (August 2014)

Village wisdom: Corsican proverbs and sayings (August 2014)

Poem: Corsica (July 2015)

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Matisse in Corsica.

The great artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was inspired to use colour in radical new ways during his first visit to Corsica.
After their wedding in early 1898, Matisse and his wife Amélie Parayre spent their honeymoon first in London and then in Ajaccio.
In London, Matisse was able to view Turner's work of which he later said:

Turner lived in a cellar. Once a week he had the shutters fully open and then what incandescence! What dazzlement! What jewels!

Amélie and Henri then travelled to Ajaccio in Corsica, where Amélie's sister Berthe would later settle, taking up the post of Director of the Ecole Normale d'Institutrices (women's teacher training college) and welcoming Matisse family members regularly to the island.
From February to July, the couple stayed in the Villa de la Rocca (now the Villa Matisse) near the Hospice Eugénie (now the Académie de Corse) in the town's fashionable quartier des étrangers.
Matisse, who had grown up in North Eastern France, was totally dazzled by the light in Corsica. He said of this experience:

Everything glistens, everything is colour, everything is light.

This was one of the pivotal moments in Matisse's life as his own 'shutters' seemed to be opening.
As a young man he had started training as a lawyer but took up painting aged 20 when his mother gave him a paintbox to help him pass the time while he was convalescing from appendicitis; another turning point. In his own words:

From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.

By 1898 he had been painting for nearly a decade and had become more adventurous with colour, for example re-interpreting a Breton mill he had first depicted in a range of greys, using bold crimson, cobalt, yellow and green brush strokes instead.
But in Corsica Matisse literally saw the world in a different light. He seems to have developed a new, stronger understanding of colour as the key medium for his imaginative expression. The 50 or so paintings he produced in Ajaccio paved the way for his 'Fauvist' period which followed a few years later.
Fauvism (not Matisse's term) was characterised by the bold use of clashing colours to express feeling as well as form. Although short-lived as a 'movement' it led Matisse to further and greater innovation.
Matisse spoke of this period in Ajaccio as a "revelation":

I felt growing within me a passion for colour.

In Ajaccio he painted what was close at hand; views of the Hospice Eugénie (Landscape – the pink wall) using a range of pinks, blues and violets. He painted olive and peach trees, the sunset, the garden of an old mill and, of course, his wife Amélie. He loved the nearby coastal route des Sanguinaires but didn't venture far for his subjects.
Back in mainland France the reaction of colleagues to his Corsican canvasses was less than ecstatic and they were deemed too primitive and disturbing to be shown. One painter friend said of a batch which arrived in Paris that they looked like they had been "painted by a mad and epileptic Impressionist".
By July, Amélie was pregnant with their first child and they moved on to Toulouse in South West France to be with her family – another new location which inspired another series of paintings and a further phase of Matisse's artistic development.
Speaking to Hilary Spurling, Marie-Dominique Roche, former curator of Ajaccio's Musée Fesch, recollected that Corsica meant a great deal to Matisse and that he was always truly moved when he spoke of his time on the island:

He felt himself at home everywhere…the Corsicans appealed to him. They were the opposite of all those people who turn their back on you. Everyone felt at home, even in someone else's home. That was what struck him.

Hilary Spurling's brilliant biography is the definitive source for Matisse's life.

Illustration: Landscape – the pink wall (Henri Matisse, 1898)

Other posts on Corsican themes:
The Last Corsican (July 2017)
Boswell in Corsica
Escher in Corsica
Sebald in Corsica
Edward Lear in Corsica
Conrad in Corsica
John Minton in Corsica
Seneca in Corsica
Paoli in London
Village wisdom: Corsican proverbs and sayings
Poem: Corsica

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Giving young people a stake in their future

In the wake of the general election there’s been a lot of talk about the youth vote and young people’s renewed commitment to the political process. At the same time, there is evidence of young people’s pessimism about their future and what the chair of the Social Mobility Commission has called a ‘stark intergenerational divide’. If the turnout of young people has indeed increased, this has the potential to bring their concerns into the centre of political debate.  If young people are increasingly seeing the point of engaging with politics that must be good for our democracy, but only if that engagement offers some prospect of addressing the profound unfairness and inequality they experience.

Some of the talk is of the youth vote having been ‘bought’ with purely economic benefits such as the abolition of tuition fees. It’s as if tax cuts and pension triple locks aren’t also designed to appeal to particular demographics and somehow young people are uniquely motivated by self-interest. The fact is all spending decisions have winners and losers; the question is: what are the underlying values which lead to a particular set of priorities?

A vote for free universal education goes well beyond self-interest. It is a vote in favour of education as an unconditional human right in a civilized society and a vote against the idea of education as a commodity which has to be rationed and can only be valued for its economic benefits; a better paying job or social mobility for a select few. If we have no problem with the idea of universal free healthcare for all funded through general progressive taxation, why hesitate about the same principle being applied to education?

But if our support for young people and their education is expressed merely in economic terms we are missing an important dimension of the political case for universal free provision. Those of us who argue for the return to Education Maintenance Allowances and free tuition for all also need to explain why education matters to society as well as to individuals and we need to build young people’s experience of using their knowledge and skills for the benefit of others as well as of themselves.

I think this means making the case for a richer, more challenging and more demanding education and also for a new social contract between society and its young people. If we want government to fund 16-19 education at the same rate as pre-16 or higher education, we need to offer ‘something for something’ by broadening our uniquely narrow offer. Equally, if we are offering young people more, perhaps they should be encouraged to give something back and start putting their education to use as soon as possible through some kind of civic service.

We live in troubled times, but if recent tragic events have demonstrated anything it is the enormous power of the social bonds between people and their ability to connect and support others. Clearly we shouldn’t need a disaster or a terrorist outrage to bring people together in solidarity, that potential is always there even if it isn’t always tapped. Educators need to help with the work of building a stronger society where people learn to care for each other and to participate in democratic and collective action to improve the world they live in. None of this just happens, it needs to be worked at, and educational settings are well placed to develop the understanding, skills and habits of democracy and solidarity in a culture of equality.

I suspect we would be pushing at an open door. When the opportunities are available and well organised, young people are very willing to give their time to volunteering or ‘service learning’. When programmes such as the National Citizens’ Service go beyond outward-bound activity they show the transformative potential of civic service. I think it’s time that we designed a truly universal citizens’ service which could engage all young people in community and research projects as well as education for citizenship. Every hour of such activity contributes to building a stronger society and establishing lifetime habits of solidarity. This could reach across the generations and a mutual commitment to some form of national civic service could be everyone’s contribution to a social contract which promises us all free education.

Today’s young people are far from being a selfish or self-absorbed generation. Those of us who work with them are constantly impressed and delighted by their capacity for hard work, care for others, creativity and collective action. Their increased election participation is just the start of realizing what they can achieve given the opportunities. We need to expect more from ourselves and from the young people we work with if we are to really mobilize their potential and give them a bigger stake in the future.

A version of a Comment piece which appeared in the Times Education Supplement on 7th July 2017 as: ‘The next generation will reward our belief in them

See also:

Reconstruction in the age of demolition (July 2017)

Citizens of somewhere, citizens of anywhere (May 2017)

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

Crick reloaded: citizenship education and British values (September 2016)

Post-16 citizenship in tough times (May 2014)

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Reconstruction in an age of demolition

A national project is always a ‘work in progress’ as implied by the title of Carol Ann Duffy’s brilliant performance piece based on the words of people across the country during the EU referendum campaign.

So what sort of work is our national project? A collective effort to build a better society or a ‘war of all against all’? Reconstruction or demolition?

It does feel like we are going through a self-destructive phase as a country. Much of our national effort is being devoted to dividing and demolishing rather than unifying and building. Examples abound, but the colossal demolition job represented by Brexit is perhaps the most obvious; committing us to years of dismantling for little evident benefit while also hardening and deepening divisions in our society. Under the circumstances it seems reasonable to ask: what is our strategy for repair and reconstruction?

Another example of national self-harm is the continuing disinvestment from our public services and the widening inequality it leads to. One recent story in the education press crystallised the inequality of educational opportunities for young people in England. It contrasted on the one hand the 16-year-old apprentice groundskeeper for whom general education will effectively cease, paid £3.50 an hour by a private fee-paying school to tend their extensive playing fields with on the other hand other 16 year olds attending that school at a cost of £35,000 per year – safely on track for several years more education and on the high road to a well-remunerated career. The chasm of opportunity between these 16-year-old is as wide as that between tower block residents in North Kensington and their more affluent neighbours in Notting Hill. If we find this shocking, what is our strategy for repair and reconstruction?

I was asked to review the current condition of post-16 education within the wider political context. In many ways, 16-19 education in England is a case study of deconstruction and disinvestment and it offers a warning of where pre-16 education could be heading. It is characterised by selection, marketisation, low expectations and inadequate investment. To take these in turn:


We are plagued by binary thinking about learners and providers: ‘top’ universities, ‘academic’ students, the ‘skills sector’, ‘technical’ qualifications etc. These categories limit our thinking about young people’s capacities, they narrow horizons and undermine the idea of a universal entitlement to a broad general education. If we believe in a comprehensive system, we need to take care not to buy into these binary models which dictate what ‘kind’ of students we serve and what ‘kind’ of pathways we offer them. Rather than describing our learners as ‘bright’ or ‘less able’, ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’, comprehensive colleges like mine can offer countless stories of students who left school as ‘failures’ at 16 and have subsequently reached university after starting on level 2 or even level 1 qualifications.


We operate in a market free-for-all where institutions decide what to offer and how selective to be and where there is no coherent planning to respond to need. The growth in the number of smaller, niche providers leads to consumer confusion and a rush to the ‘elite’ end of the market. At a time of limited resources, too much spending is tied up in wasteful duplication rather than improving the offer. New providers proliferate, leading both to over-capacity and lack of choice. The result is both Knowsley and Newham; the one with no A-level capacity available within the local authority area and the other with too much.

Low expectations:

We are simply not offering our 16-19-year-olds the full-time, rounded education which would equip them properly for life in the 21st century. Whatever the pathway, none of our typical 17h a week programmes are providing either the breadth or the specialisation which young people need. No other developed country allows its teenagers to stop studying their national language – whether on a general or a vocational programme and we have no expectation of citizenship or cultural education post-16. We need to raise our expectations of what all young people should be studying and could achieve. This could be done via a national baccalaureate which guaranteed access to the full curriculum; allowing for breadth, choice, exploration and specialisation. Having higher expectations does not necessarily require more high-stakes testing; putting students under even more pressure is not the best way to raise their educational achievements.

Inadequate investment:

16-18 provision is at the bottom of a funding ‘Grand Canyon’ with less being spent per student than in the school and higher education phases on either side. We may have made the transition to a fair national funding formula some years ago but we are simply not using it to invest enough in this critical phase of education. Rather than simply moaning about how underfunded we are, we need to make the case for ‘something for something’; investment in the more expansive and ambitious education we want for all our students.

Developing the alternative:

What of the alternative education policies which were on offer at the election? Labour was right to focus on universal free public education as an entitlement. And above all else, the idea of a National Education Service offered an answer the question about how we might bridge divides and reconstruct a proper national system – something which most developed countries take for granted. The party now needs to flesh out the concept and populate it with some strong signature policies, for example a single status for all schools, a national baccalaureate for all by age 19, a lifelong learning entitlement and a national civic service. Labour should also be drafting a single short Education Bill to create a new system in order to be ready to legislate immediately on taking office. As with the creation of the National Health Service, there will be lots of practical issues to be resolved about how accountability is shared and resources allocated. As with the NHS, a National Education Service will face many challenges. The important thing is to make a start on the construction of a system which we can then debate passionately as we continue to shape it.

All around us, the deconstruction of public education continues apace while we all work hard to do the best we can in our own sphere of influence. How much more worthwhile would it be if we could all work together to lay the foundations of a better system. That would be the kind of constructive ‘work in progress’ we could all sign up to.

One of the reasons for calling the 2017 general election was ostensibly to strengthen national unity. But the result has shown that simply speaking the language of unity is not enough, we need policies and actions which are genuinely capable of healing our divisions and building on the best of our capacities. We need to switch our default setting from demolition to construction.

Based on a speech made at the Annual Conference of the Socialist Educational Association (SEA) on June 24th 2017.

See also:

Education 2022: market or system? (June 2017)

Dear candidates (April 2017)

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Going beyond (October 2016)

16-19 education: from independence to interdependence (April 2016)

Starting to think about a National Education Service (September 2015)

For a National Education Service (July 2015)

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The best of things

We were delighted to officially open our new building on 30th June in the company of our guests of honour: Greater London Assembly member for City and East London Councillor Unmesh Desai and Fred Jarvis as well as a number of governors, friends, partners, colleagues and NewVIc alumni.

We were particularly pleased that so many Newham councillors were able to join us for the occasion. It was 25 years ago that the London Borough of Newham made the bold and wise decision to establish a sixth form college in order to increase the participation, achievement and progression of 16-18 year olds in the area which were far too low at the time. The college was an immediate success; enrolling more students and achieving better results and progression than expected and it has grown and thrived ever since. The council’s decision to create the college was absolutely the right one.

25 years later, the college continues to educate around 25% of all Newham’s 16-18 year olds and sends 700-800 students per year to university. Tens of thousands of our former students / alumni live and work locally – most of them graduates now and contributing to the local economy in so many ways.

At the ceremony, we were entertained by former NewVIc student and singer-songwriter Lauren Dhamu who has just launched her first album on the E3 label, who sang ‘Didn’t you know’ by Erika Badu and ‘LKD Soke Remix’ accompanied by Femi Akinyemi and John Crockford. Lauren is the latest in a long line of NewVIc alumni who have made careers for themselves in the performing arts while keeping up their connection with the college and supporting other emerging artists.

NewVIc’s campus was created around the former Cumberland school which itself occupied the site of the former Plaistow secondary and Plaistow Grammar school – with some additional purpose-built buildings. The campus has grown since 1992 with new accommodation being added periodically – although most of it has been temporary.

It was wonderful to hear from our good friend Fred Jarvis; a lifelong champion of comprehensive education and the only person to have led both the National Union of Students and the National Union of Teachers and chaired the TUC. Fred attended Plaistow secondary school in the 1930’s and 40’s going back to the very earliest days of this campus. Fred has written about his time in Plaistow in his book ‘You never know your luck – reflections of a cockney campaigner for education’ Like the great actor Terence Stamp, who attended the school post-war, Fred is an honorary NewVIc alumnus.

On an occasion like this it’s slightly embarrassing to recall that for a number of years, we had actually planned to move the college to Stratford – based on the Olympic effect and allegedly better ‘travel to learn’. Looking back, we are delighted that instead we decided to build on our past and develop our current campus. The centre of London is certainly moving East but it looks like E13 is going to share the benefits as much as E15 or E20.

We developed a campus Masterplan which mapped out the complete renewal of our accommodation at Prince Regent Lane over a number of independent phases.  What did we want most urgently for Phase 1? Our priorities were: a new entrance with a new relationship with the street, more open and transparent social spaces, a new theatre and a much larger university-style library.

We want to thank our visionary architect: Charles Dokk Olsen from Shepheard Epstein Hunter (SEH), our project manager Grant Charman from CPB and our builders InterServe Construction for creating a beautiful, generous, light and functional space for young people to learn, socialise and circulate. They all worked closely with us throughout the design and construction process and many of the ideas have come through the involvement of staff and students. This building is already a source of real pride for the whole college community.

There’s more about the design and the process here.

It’s worth saying that we have paid for this building entirely ourselves; with no capital grants or donations from anyone else. Our reserves and borrowings are clearly public money and this shows what can be done by judicious and visionary public investment in public services. We hope that the government will come around to the view that investing in education infrastructure is important otherwise it will be some time before we see a Phase 2 built on this campus.

A new school or college building is an expression of confidence in the future and in young people in particular. We’ve seen a lot spent on regeneration in Newham and our borough has been transformed in many positive ways. The regeneration we’ve started here is a long-term investment in the transformation of a whole community; showing confidence in everyone’s potential and contribution.

What we’re doing is investing in learning, culture and exchange:

A library is a place of cultural preservation and transmission, of delight and discovery. It needs to be rich in information and communication technology but also full of books which can open so many windows and doors to us. Since we opened our new library we’ve already seen a doubling of the number of daily visits – a real measure of its success.

A theatre is a place of cultural exchange and creation, of critical dialogue and debate as well as of sociability, celebration and escape. It’s a place to assemble to reflect together on life; it’s joys and challenges.

This is what we’ve invested in.

We live in difficult times and young people face many challenges and uncertainties. One of our slogans is: “New thinking for a new future”. If we’re going to solve the problems we face as a society we will need new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. Education is about transmission and renewal but it’s also about transformation and developing that new thinking which is so essential. Even at the worst of times, that means doing the best of things – taking responsibility for each other and for the next generation.

So, our promise to our community is to continue trying to do the best of things based on the values we have always championed. NewVIc will continue to be an inclusive and comprehensive place of ambition and success, committed to renewing and building our community.

Based on my speech for the opening of our new building: 30th June 2017

The delicious snacks were provided by Roberta and her team from Mazi Mas, run by women from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Our guests were able to view an exhibition of beautiful photos taken by students of the site and some of the workers who helped build it. They were also able to see some of the amazing work on display in our annual Art show.

See also:

Design for learning (May 2017)

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