Design for Learning.

Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and we are delighted to be unveiling a wonderful new building for our Silver Jubilee. In nearly a decade this is the only substantial new permanent addition to our campus and it’s one we’ve paid for entirely ourselves; through a combination of capital reserves and borrowing. Over the years we’ve put up some good quality temporary buildings to increase our capacity as student numbers have risen, but until now, nothing which can be described as a major long term enhancement of the student experience.

At a time when there is precious little capital on offer from the government to renew the college estate, we wanted to make sure that whatever investment we made would address our most urgent needs. We had very high expectations for this project given that there might not be another one for a while. We haven’t been disappointed; our new building exceeds all the ambitions we had for it and has already transformed the college for students, staff and visitors alike.

How did we set about doing this? First we refreshed our campus masterplan; this is a blueprint for completely rebuilding the college campus over the long term. The plan has been approved by our governors and is phased, with each of the 5 phases able to stand on its own without depending on the next. We know we can’t afford to deliver the whole plan without generating income or substantial public investment but we wanted to make a strong start with the first phase.

We identified our key requirements for Phase 1 after an objective survey of the condition of all our facilities and widespread consultation with students, staff and other stakeholders about what we needed most. We knew how much we could afford to spend and the consensus was that we needed 2 main things:

  • Much larger and better library and study facilities for students. Our existing library was under enormous pressure and really needed to be 3 times bigger.
  • A much better entrance and reception area with more generous circulation and social space. Our entrance was very congested and thousands of people were expected to enter and leave the building straight from a narrow pavement on a busy road.

Very early on in developing the brief, it became clear that this new building could be an important addition to the streetscape and reveal to the outside world more of the excitement of what happens inside the college as well as creating a better public realm around our entrance. We also realised that we would have to demolish our Drama studio and this gave us the opportunity to create a bespoke theatre and performance space in the new building. This led us to the idea of a very transparent double height ground floor which would act as a window into the college with the new learning resource centre (LRC) above it over several floors.

Our brilliant architects Shepheard Epstein Hunter (SEH) worked closely with us on the brief and developed an excellent design which has created beautiful and functional spaces in what was the somewhat constrained edge of the campus; with various level changes and connections between new and old buildings to contend with. We made every effort to be good clients by sticking to our aims, making timely decisions and avoiding changing our minds. The way SEH listened to us and responded to the challenges of the site was really exemplary.

At the heart of the project was the student learning experience. We based the design of our new LRC on what we know about how our students learn and how they want to study. Students themselves were fully involved and we can genuinely say that we now have an LRC designed around their needs.

The sixth form college setting sits between the more regimented school learning environment and that of a university where learners have much more autonomy about when, where and how to study. Funding is very tight and teaching hours are limited, so English sixth formers have a lot more time for independent study than their counterparts in other countries. We need to help them to make the transition from closely managed school children to mature, autonomous undergraduates. They will be spending a substantial amount of time in the Learning Resource Centre; whether working individually or in groups. We were clear that our LRC should feel like a university library and the configuration and layout of furniture and resources should naturally suggest how students might best use them.

The day we opened the new LRC to students for the first time this March, we watched with interest to see how they would use the new areas. It was wonderful to see students immediately ‘get it’ with very little prompting. All the careful design and layout of the spaces over 3 floors really paid off; project rooms, group study tables, silent study areas, soft furnishings for reading and all the associated technology – it all made sense to the people they were designed for and they settled into their new LRC as if they’d never known anything else.

Opening mid-year has meant that everyone can remember how things were ‘before’. The feedback from students has been fantastic and in the weeks since it opened we’ve seen the number of visits to the LRC more than double. Spring is turning to summer and as we move towards the public exam season, our students work into the evening bathed in sunlight filtered through the tree canopy and benefit from an aspirational vista right across East London to Canary Wharf and the City beyond.

Adjectives like ‘inspirational’ and ‘transformational’ are overused, but in this case they really do accurately describe the impact of our great new building.

Based on a talk given at the Education Construction Network (ECN) Breakfast Event on 27th April 2017.

More about NewVIc: The college of the future (March 2016)

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Our NewVIc Story: Kate and Matthew Neal

Matthew: Kate and I both attended NewVIc from 2010 to 2012.

Kate: That’s where we met actually.

Matthew: Yes, we met on the first day in our first lesson together; Geography.

Kate: I was running late and remember walking in and spotting Matt straight away.

Matthew: I, on the other hand, was completely oblivious to the world. Before NewVIc I was a pretty shy person.

Kate: But I told him a terrible joke and he opened up a bit after that.

Matthew: Our friendship was cemented when we discovered we were in the same lesson after lunch; drama. Drama has always been one of my favourite subjects. It was one of the reasons I picked NewVic. I knew that their theatre department was great and that I would be able to do well there. Drama has always been a real place of freedom for me. It was the one subject which allowed me to explore who I was whilst gaining better empathy for others.

Kate: Yes, drama is about starting with an idea and building and improving it. In drama lessons there is space to take risks and make mistakes, knowing that the teachers would be there to help you improve.

Matthew: After a couple of weeks hanging out together and being in the same lessons, we started dating.

Kate: Which meant that we could help each other…

Matthew: …and distract each other.

Kate: But we both wanted to do well so we didn’t let it get in the way.

Matthew: I was also studying English Literature and Philosophy…

Kate: …whilst I did English Language and Literature and Music Performance. I loved singing and have done from a young age. I wanted to keep improving and learn more about how music is put together. Music Performance was a practical way of doing that. The teachers always pushed me to try different styles which led me to a deep love of jazz. The one to one support they gave me were extremely helpful too. My singing teacher gave me a lot of confidence in myself. It must have worked because I got a distinction star. Despite my love for Music, it was Geography that I chose to do at University.

Matthew: We spent a lot of time looking at different universities. We applied separately but we both got into Staffordshire University. I studied English and Creative Writing. I loved reading from a young age. Although I was never great at the academic side of things, I studied English Literature at NewVIc because of my love of books. My teachers really helped me improve my essay writing skills. They had a real passion for stories, for picking them apart and seeing how and why they worked. We also learnt a lot about critical theory which is a fundamental part of English at university. Their passion for studying books was contagious and opened me up to a whole new layer of reading.

Kate: As I said, I did Geography. Although I had lived in London my whole life I had a real passion for the natural world. In my lessons at NewVIc I had always opted for natural over human geography, a choice not shared by most of the class. This led me to do a lot of supported independent study. My teacher helped me find the right books and resources to tackle a different exam topic. I also spent a lot of time in the library studying. This supported individualised approach really helped me at university, as I already had some of the skills needed to organise and motivate myself to do well. Being diagnosed at NewVic for visual dyslexia and dyspraxia also meant that I could get the help I needed both at college and at university. And it explained why I was never really into reading.

Matt: We both gained firsts at university and wanted to come back to Newham to work. We got married in August in Plaistow and moved into a flat on Barking Road. We got a job with a local charity, Alternatives Trust East London, as part of their Education Department; REALationships. Now we work with young people in schools and colleges delivering Relationship and Sex Education and running drop-in sessions. Newham, and NewVic gave us so much and we really want to give back. Our work with REALationships allows us to work with young people and really make a difference. We were inspired to help young people in Newham by having so many good teachers who were patient when we were slow to learn and who never stopped pushing us to be better. REALationships had been around whilst we were at NewVIc, coming in with stalls, providing helpful relationship advice and a place to ask questions.

Kate: They helped me and Matt in our relationship by answering questions we had and by being non-judgemental. It’s great that we can now be working with them to help other young people get the same support.

Matt: And it’s great to see NewVIc is still full of aspirational students and inspirational teachers.

Kate Neal and Matthew Neal – NewVIc class of 2012.

You can find out more about REALationships and Alternatives East London here:

Previous My NewVIc story posts:

My NewVIc story: Kabir Jagwani

My NewVIc story: Raymond Fernandez.

My NewVIc Story: Amritpal Gill.

My NewVIc story: Nazia Sultana

My NewVIc Story: Supreet Kaur

My NewVIc story: Joseph Toonga

My NewVIc story: Rumana Ali

My NewVIc story: Zakiyah Qureshi

My NewVIc story: Husnain Nasim

My NewVIc story: Airey Grant



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My NewVIc story: Kabir Jagwani.

My journey at NewVIc started in 1998 after I achieved 10 GCSE’s at secondary school and went on to do A-Levels in maths, physics and performing arts at NewVIc. A mixed combination because I wanted to balance my options with science and arts subjects. It was at NewVIc that I was inspired by my maths teacher; he made students feel comfortable and confident when tackling new topics and gave beautiful examples for every mathematical concept covered with step by step instructions. He allowed us to make mistakes and to work through our misconceptions. I had an incredible 2 years and made some amazing friends. The college provided really good facilities and I was also able to work on my table tennis and cricket.

At the end of my 2-year programme I decided I wanted to do some part time teaching and got a job working for the London Borough of Newham teaching ICT on summer school programmes. I then went on to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of East London where I achieved a 1st class Honours degree. I was offered the opportunity to study for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) in secondary mathematics where students were paid to do the course because of the shortage of maths teachers. After my PGCE, I was offered a teaching post by a few schools but decided to enhance my skills working at Stoke Newington school as a data manager to learn about student tracking programmes.

After that, I was offered a position at The Cumberland School with a good starting salary. I decided I would do a year and complete my NQT programme in order not to lose the value of my PGCE. Time has flown and I have been working at Cumberland since 2005. Since then, I have moved into a middle leader role as work-related co-ordinator and a few years later I achieved my Chartered London Teacher status. I then achieved my greatest goal, becoming an Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) which requires a very rigorous external assessment. Working as an AST enabled me to further develop my leadership skills and I was then promoted to my current role of Associate Assistant Head.

I have taken on many roles and responsibilities and been part of the leadership team at a time of change and implementation of new models for the curriculum, the school day and assessment. I am working to devise an intervention programme for our year 7 intake which requires looking at primary school data and placing pupils on the correct intervention pathway to improve their numeracy or literacy skills by providing them with extra support in small groups. My other roles include planning and teaching the key stage 3 and 4 curriculum in ICT and Mathematics. I help to create and share resources, update schemes of work. In the past I have also coached the school cricket team, helped organise diversity events, judged a talent contest and the Jack Petchey Speak Out challenge, mentored and run the PGCE and schools direct programme. I have provided informal support for colleagues and been involved in a lot of coaching. I have run internal professional development sessions to all staff on: Stretch and Challenge, The Outstanding Lesson, Visible Learning, TEEP and many more. I have supported newly qualified teachers when they join the school and had some amazing opportunities to support pupils on educational visits to places such as the Globe Theatre and a 3-day visit to Paris.

The passion I have for education has come from my own experiences at school, college and university. I was born, brought up, studied and worked in Newham and this is my chance to give back to the place which has given me the opportunity to work with young people which is surely the most rewarding career a person could ask for.

Kabir Jagwani – NewVIc class of 2000

Previous My NewVIc story posts:

My NewVIc story: Raymond Fernandez.

My NewVIc Story: Amritpal Gill.

My NewVIc story: Nazia Sultana

My NewVIc Story: Supreet Kaur

My NewVIc story: Joseph Toonga

My NewVIc story: Rumana Ali

My NewVIc story: Zakiyah Qureshi

My NewVIc story: Husnain Nasim

My NewVIc story: Airey Grant

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Dear candidates…

How to talk about post-16 education in the election campaign.

Dear candidates,

The general election campaign has started and you’ll be wanting to talk about all sorts of issues and hoping to win support. You can’t expect to be an expert on every policy area but you will need to have a quotable opinion on pretty much everything. No doubt your party will provide you with talking points and brief you about how to phrase things.

Education should be an important election theme and the 16-19 or ‘sixth form’ phase deserves its share of airtime.  We know you like soundbites and political shorthand, so here are just a few brief tips on how to talk about post-16 education in England and some suggestions about what to avoid saying.

1. Stereotypes:

Please avoid the easy stereotypes. Remember that 16-19 year olds are as diverse as any other age group and don’t come in neat types, so you might want to avoid labelling them as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘bright’ or ‘less able’. You might also want to steer clear of assumptions about them based on how well they achieved at 16, whether they happen to study in a college or a school sixth form or whether they’re planning to progress to university or not. Don’t make assumptions about providers either, based on what they’re called; they are pretty diverse too, whether they’re schools, sixth form colleges or further education colleges.

2. Skills:

Please don’t idolize ‘skills’ in isolation. Education is about both knowledge and skills. They are essential and inseparable and we’re as much a ‘knowledge economy’ as we are a ‘skills economy’ so please don’t talk about the ‘skills’ sector when you mean ‘colleges’ or ‘training’. Education and training are both necessary to equip people for work but they don’t of themselves create jobs. Please don’t promise that apprenticeships will solve unemployment or skills shortages; they are jobs with training and are not an employment panacea. Remember that vocational students go to university too, so find out more about vocational courses before describing them as confusing or inadequate and don’t assume that the elusive ‘parity of esteem’ can just be bought or wished into existence.

3. Selection:

Please recognise selective practices where they exist. Remember that there are plenty of comprehensive sixth form providers and there’s nothing natural or necessary about selection at 16 although selective sixth forms have proliferated. Before celebrating the ostensibly higher achievements of selective providers, make sure you ask who they keep out. If you are opposed to schools deciding who to select at 11 or 14, consider how you can justify the same practices at 16.

4. Choice:

Please don’t assume that opening new providers is always a good idea. Remember that 16 year olds are already free to choose where to study although they don’t all have the same range of options open to them. Opening more sixth forms and offering people more choice sounds like a good idea but increasing the number of providers can often lead to a narrowing of options as new sixth forms tend to want to offer the same things, jeopardising a broad, viable offer in many places.

5. Funding:

Please tell us what kind of education you think all young people should be entitled to and tell us about your priorities for any new investment. At the moment, we are barely funding 17 hours of teaching per week for our 16 and 17 year olds, and 18 year olds receive even less. What do you think we should do about our current low ambitions and part-time offer for this age group?

We would also love to know how you think education should be better organised and to hear your aspirations for the future society which today’s young people will live in.

16-19 education is critical to our future as a country. It needs to feature in this general election campaign, so please do talk about it. Good luck making yourself heard and good luck with your campaign.

See also:

Shaping an alternative education policy (April 2017)

Sixth form resolutions for 2017 (January 2017)

What future for Sixth Form Colleges? (December 2016)

Going beyond (October 2016)

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Education and the French presidential election.

This Sunday, 23rd April and then on Sunday 7th May, French voters go to the polls to elect a new head of state. This will be followed shortly afterwards by parliamentary elections on the 11th and 18th June.

All the leading candidates agree that France’s unitary national education service; ‘l’éducation nationale’, faces many challenges and needs reform. So what are their competing visions in this important policy area?

This post briefly compares the stated education programmes of the 5 candidates scoring highest in the opinion polls and from left to right:

  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise)
  • Benoît Hamon (Parti Socialiste)
  • Emmanuel Macron (En Marche)
  • François Fillon (Les Républicains)
  • Marine Le Pen (Front National)

Only two of these will make it through to the second round and currently this is a very close call between four of the candidates (Mélenchon, Macron, Fillon and Le Pen) who are polling at very similar levels.

In terms of additional investment, 3 of the candidates have committed to training and recruiting more teaching and support staff with Mélenchon promising an additional 60,000 posts, Hamon 40,000 and Macron 9,000 over their term of office. Fillon proposes to introduce performance-related pay, greater institutional autonomy over teacher recruitment and more school-based training.

Macron and Hamon have both set themselves specific targets for maximum class sizes in primary schools and in designated disadvantaged areas: 25/20 from Hamon and 12 (infants) from Macron who is also proposing greater incentives for staff to work in disadvantaged areas. Hamon wants to offer the option of nursery education to children aged 2 and above in disadvantaged areas and Fillon suggests compulsory education should start at age 5 rather than 6.

Mélenchon is in favour of a fully funded national programme of extra-curricular activities for all school students, Hamon proposes a 25% increase in such activities including a new ‘Arts for all at school’ scheme and Fillon also suggests an extension of after-school homework clubs. Le Pen would end all ‘cultural’ or mother tongue language classes.

Fillon and Le Pen are both keen to introduce school uniform rules and Macron wants to ban the use of mobile phones in primary and secondary schools. All the candidates are in favour of some kind of civic or military service for 16-25 year olds – whether compulsory and military (Macron and Le Pen) compulsory and civic (Mélenchon) or voluntary (Hamon and Fillon).

All but two of the candidates (Hamon and Macron) are critical of the recent major reform of the secondary curriculum and would revisit it. This reform saw schools gaining more autonomy to manage some of the weekly hours of teaching using more individual support and thematic interdisciplinary project work covering 2 different themes per year such as: health, the environment, ancient civilizations etc.  with a view to helping students make more sense of their studies. A new ‘Brevet’ qualification for 15 year olds was introduced, graded through a combination of continuous assessment of a common core, some oral exams and written exams in maths, science, history, geography, technology, French and moral and civic studies.

In upper secondary education, Mélenchon wants to extend the vocational baccalaureate from 3 to 4 years and to create a national careers service. Hamon wants parity of esteem for all bac routes and Macron is keen to extend the bilingual and European streams while reducing the number of compulsory subjects in the bac and introduce more continuous assessment. Fillon also values vocational education and training, seeing this as part of a strategy to reduce unemployment. Le Pen wants to introduce vocational streams from age 14 and sees the bac as a tool for selection and guidance with more emphasis on basic skills and an end to all interdisciplinary projects.

Mélenchon also offers specific policies on Higher Education, with a plan to abolish university fees with effect from this Autumn as well as to create more affordable student accommodation.

Each of these candidates, if elected, would fully expect to be able to shape the system and implement their specific proposals across the board because France still has an education service run along national lines.

One thing is clear, whether they come from the left, the right or the centre and whatever their policy differences, none of the candidates for France’s highest political office is advocating the ‘Anglo Saxon’ competition and ‘choice’ market reforms which have taken hold in the US and UK. There is little appetite in France for anything which might undermine the idea of a single national education service based on national values, with national standards and serving national objectives.

See also:

Market autonomy or democratic autonomy? (May 2016)

Scale and efficiency in upper secondary education (October 2015)

Educational inequality in France (May 2015)

Inspectors make the case for comprehensive colleges (January 2015)

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Shaping an alternative education policy.

The Labour Party National Policy Forum Consultation 2017.

Labour is currently consulting on its Early Years, Education and Skills policies and the consultation document merits the attention of anyone who is interested in developing alternatives to the current direction of travel in English education policy.

The consultation paper starts with a vision and then poses key questions in each of the main policy areas; early years, schools, further education and adult skills and children’s social care and safeguarding. This response offers a few initial thoughts on the broader vision while being mainly concerned with post-16 education policy.

The vision: egalitarian, social and economic

The very first sentence defines education for self-realisation in broadly egalitarian terms:

“…to make sure that everyone, whatever their background, is given the opportunity and skills to reach their full potential and live a good life.”

This section goes on to describe the objective of “a world class education system…excellent schools and well-funded services…” and to highlight the gaps in attainment between lower-income children and their wealthier peers which “are evident before they even start school”.

Both economic and social imperatives are addressed; the general aspirations of ‘reaching one’s full potential’ and living ‘a good life’ are counterbalanced with statements about how essential education is to future economic health and t achieving a skilled workforce.

Going beyond the broad aim of giving everyone the opportunity to “live the life they want to” this section could benefit from more specific examples of how education can help us to achieve our economic, social and personal objectives. It could offer some aspirations around education’s potential to develop active citizens, shape communities, promote social solidarity and help us cope with changes and challenges.

The need for a system

There is also the commitment to create a National Education Service (NES) “open to all throughout their lives”. This is a good overarching policy framework which could be used to signpost solutions to many of the problems of our fragmented and divided education ‘non-system’. The idea of mobilising all publicly funded education providers to serve the whole community could be a real vote-winner if it can be attractively fleshed-out. Using the NHS paradigm for education implies a big shift in the way we think about our schools and colleges. People will need to understand what a National Education Service might look like in their area and how it might benefit them. This requires concrete examples of how a fairer and more effective system could be assembled from the somewhat dysfunctional set of elements we currently have.

In order to make the case for an NES, there also needs to be a clear critique of the marketization of education. Providers in all phases in England are operating in a market where they compete for students and under a high-stakes accountability regime where any performance below average is seen as failure. The school section suggests the need for “a permanent infrastructure of support services to help them function effectively” and “evidence-based…sustainable school improvement” but more work needs to be done on how to build such a high-performing and supportive system starting from where we are now. The question of balancing local or regional democratic accountability with a national service standard will also need to be addressed.

Modernising and improving access to further education and adult skills

This section rightly highlights the under-funding of 16-19, further and adult education following several years of disproportionate cuts. A commitment to re-balancing per capita investment between pre-16 and post-16 students would certainly be welcome. As with the schools section, more is needed on how we might move from a market based on competition to a system based on networking and collaborating.

The critique of current apprenticeship policy is welcome, but this section seems to equate further education with skills training and therefore assumes purely economic objectives for the sector. The overall narrative has nothing to say about what the educational aims of a 16-19 phase should be and there are no questions about what young adults could expect from a National Education Service. Surely, the promise of the good life and the wider social aspirations sketched out in the first section should apply as much to sixth formers, FE students and adult learners as to their younger selves. Older teenagers may be closer to the labour market but they are also closer to full, active citizenship and adult social responsibilities.

To address the questions:

Does our further education system provide for the skills we need in a future economy?

We need to establish educational objectives for all 16-19 year olds which include an entitlement to a broad curriculum including a range of subject domains, literacy, numeracy, citizenship and work-related learning including work placements or internships. The ‘future economy’, just like the present one, requires people to have a good grounding in foundational knowledge as well as experience of using wider skills including communication, collaborative, creative and research skills as well as sector-specific skills.

How can we improve access for adults that want to re-skill and develop the quality of workplace learning? What role can universities play in this? How can we raise the quality of apprenticeships? What can we do to address the skills gap and promote better strategic planning for apprenticeship and training? What role do University Technical Colleges have to play?

Colleges and universities are already working with employers to develop advanced and higher level apprenticeships for over-18’s which can work, further qualifications and progression opportunities. This is where apprenticeship investment should be directed. Adults could be offered an entitlement to further education or training throughout life, prioritising for public funding those who have received the least or achieved the least.

For under-18’s, the priority should be making a broad and stimulating educational offer available to all – including an entitlement to good work-related learning. This should be available wherever they are studying and whatever their prior achievement or skills levels. Low-level apprenticeships for 16 year olds with low prior achievement are not on their own a good route to progression or higher skill employment.

Compelling ‘signature’ policies needed

This consultation is the first step towards developing policies which can be put to the electorate with a view to winning power. As well as deciding how much additional investment can be found for education from total public spending, any party also needs some concrete ideas which symbolise their approach well and can win votes.

What might such ‘signature’ policies look like, based on an ambitious, egalitarian and life-long vision of a National Education Service? I would suggest two:

  • Create a National Baccalaureate for all young people to aim for – generally by 19. This would be a single coherent national framework which would accredit a range of subject and work-related learning and skills. Achieving a full diploma would be recognised as a challenging and valued milestone for all young adults and a passport to further progression.
  • Extend the National Citizens Service to include all volunteering and civic activity with the opportunity to ‘earn’ a fee-discount for university or adult education based on the number of hours of activity. This would be a mutual ‘something for something’ way to move towards lower fees while promoting community development and cohesion at the same time.

The consultation period closes on 31st May 2017 and submissions can be made until then via:

See also:

Going Beyond (October 2016)

Education: what’s it all for? (January 2016)

Developing Labour’s vision for education (September 2015)

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

For a National Education Service (July 2015)


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From ‘slumming’ to solidarity.

The evolution of responses to urban poverty and inequality.

Part 2. From London to Chicago and back again

Two selective and interlinked chronologies:


1884: Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel was founded by Canon Samuel Barnett and his wife Henrietta Barnett (1851-1936).

1889: Charles Booth published the first edition of Life and Labour of the People in London while working at Toynbee Hall and with the help of Toynbee Hall residents, School Board visitors and other researchers, including Beatrice Potter who later married Sidney Webb.

1889: Mansfield House in Plaistow was established by students of Mansfield College, Oxford. This settlement pioneered an early version of free legal aid ‘The Poor Man’s Lawyer’, organised orchestras, choirs, dramatic and leadership development, ‘brotherhood and civic societies’ encouraging participation in politics. It’s first warden Percy Alden was also a Fabian and a councillor on West Ham Borough Council and later became MP for Tottenham, first as a Liberal and then for Labour.

1892: The associated Canning Town Women’s Settlement was established. Its first warden was Rebecca Cheetham, serving until 1917 and also active in public life. From 1903 to 1939 she was a co-opted member of the Education Committee of West Ham Borough Council, England’s first Labour controlled council (from 1898), overseeing the rapid development of new schools and colleges.

1903: William Beveridge joins Toynbee Hall and works with Barnett on unemployment relief.

1905-1909: Beatrice Webb and Charles Booth serve on the Royal Commission on the Poor Law with Webb producing a minority report advocating minimum levels of welfare.

1910: Clement Attlee becomes Toynbee Hall secretary for a year, and wrote on ‘The teaching of citizenship in public schools’ for the Toynbee Record. His 1920 book ‘The Social Worker’ drew on his experience at Toynbee Hall.


1888: Jane Addams visited Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel having previously been to London in 1883 and been deeply shocked by the poverty she saw in East London.

1889: Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House, ‘a community of university women’ in the Near West Side of Chicago, an ethnically diverse community of recent European immigrants; Italian, German, Jewish, Greek, Irish, Polish etc. The aims of Hull House were: to focus on the causes of poverty through Research (gathering information, mapping inequality), Reform (eg: through campaigning, legislation or local government) and Residence (living and working within the community).

Hull House helped to establish the first juvenile court, the first public playground, bathhouse and public gymnasium and influenced legislation on child labour, work safety, unemployment pay and immigrant rights and campaigned on women’s suffrage. The settlement also organised a day-care centre and kindergarten as well as a public dispensary, equivalent to today’s food banks.

By 1920 there were around 400 settlement houses across the U.S. drawing inspiration from Hull House.

1939: Saul Alinsky started community organising in the Back of the Yards district in Chicago. He helped to create an overarching community organisation, The Back of the Yards Neighbourhood Council (BYNC), made up of representatives of community groups providing strength in numbers and solidarity for collective bargaining and to win agreed demands.

1940: Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) which promotes community organising across many urban areas of the U.S.

1985: Barack Obama worked as a community organiser with the Developing Communities Project in Chicago’s South Side.

1996: Obama was elected as an Illinois state senator, a U.S. senator in 2004 and U.S. president in 2008.


1942: The Beveridge report identified the Five Evils of: Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease and proposes substantial welfare reforms.

1989: Citizens Organising Foundation, now Citizens UK, was formed by Neil Jameson who was trained with the IAF.

1996: The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO) was formed at an assembly of over 1,300 representatives of 30 member organisations as a chapter of Citizens UK. Successful campaigns include that for the London Living Wage, Community Land Trusts, Safe Havens, Refugees Welcome and organising regular interventions aimed at holding elected politicians to account.

While there are far fewer university settlements in London today than a century ago, Toynbee Hall is still active in advocating against poverty and for social change. Its vision is of a future free from poverty:

“Our mission is to support people and communities to break down the barriers that trap them in poverty. We act with ambition, integrity and with the courage of our convictions, using evidence-based social action to shape what we do and give us an authoritative voice to challenge, influence and make a difference. Inquisitive and collaborative, we seek out relationships with people, communities and partners to develop, as well as to share our knowledge and understanding; facilitating and supporting them to design their own solutions to tackling poverty. We are open-minded, inclusive and transparent; learning from what we do; seeking fresh and alternative perspectives to shape and influence our practice.”

Different perspectives?

Although there is a continuity of values and approach in the various traditions of urban social action, the practitioners did not always highlight it themselves.

George Lansbury knew the work of Toynbee Hall well but never worked there himself, unlike Clement Attlee, his successor as Labour leader. In his autobiography, Lansbury remarks: “The one solid achievement of Toynbee Hall has been the filling up of the bureaucracy of government and administration with men and women who went to East London full of enthusiasm and zeal for the welfare of the masses and discovered the advancement of their own interests.” He hadn’t always been so critical, but the scorn was real.

Alinsky had similar criticisms of Hull House. A more ‘professionalised’ Hull House was still active and influential in Chicago when Alinsky started community organising. He frequently criticised the methods of the settlement houses. In a 1983 interview, Sidney Hyman who worked with Alinsky in the BYNC and whose sister had been a Hull House resident summarised his objections: “Going to work for Jane Addams at Hull House was a romantic thing to do for young, sensitive women. [Their noble purpose] was to help, but it was always the Lady Bountifuls who were doing the helping. Now Saul comes along and turns it around and sort of sets the whole Hull House idea on its head. He says he doesn’t want the ‘hellfare’ worker, he doesn’t want the Lady Bountiful; he wants people to help themselves and that became a very romantic idea.”

Addams and Alinsky can be characterised as representing opposite poles on the spectrum of social engagement. Addams offers a more fluid, responsive, non-ideological approach, open to the possibility of different paths to success while not against confrontation when deemed necessary. She talks in co-operative, relational terms, always seeking connections between the private and public spheres. Alinsky sees every campaign as a competition or a confrontation; a battle to be won by ensuring that your side builds its collective power. He speaks in goal-oriented terms and uses the language of warfare with ‘tactics’ and ‘victory’ against an ‘enemy’.

Alinsky’s tactics are rooted in his understanding of a ‘real’ world of constant struggle and his tactics can appear ‘stronger’ as well as more pragmatic. Addams herself was very critical of well-meaning but ineffective charity work which was not based on an understanding of the needs of the community.

Both emphasise the need to listen and learn from people and to give the disenfranchised a genuine voice and both were absolutely determined to bring about a fairer, more just world. Alinsky’s privileges confrontation whereas Addams sees the choice of less antagonistic means as prefiguring a shared vision of a better world; the way we get there is part of creating the kind of destination we want.

Barack Obama’s reflections on his time as a community organizer in Chicago seems to bridge this gap:

“Be open with the issues. Include the community instead of going behind their back, sometimes you need to include people you don’t like. You’ve got to bring people together. If you exclude people you’re only weakening yourself.”

Obama was one of the two major progressive politicians who went on to lead their countries and regarded their first-hand experience of community work as formative and decisive, whether in London or Chicago:

“The social service movement of modern times…has arisen out of a deep discontent with society as at present constituted…It is the expression of the desire for social justice, for freedom and beauty, and for the better apportionment of all things that make up a good life.” Clement Attlee

“It’s by working with this organisation and this community that I found my calling…The measure of my life would be public service.” Barack Obama.

The role of education

Hull House always had a strong educational purpose, organising plays, free concerts and lectures and discussion circles (eg: the Plato Club), classes in language, literature, history, art and domestic activities as well as cultural events and clubs for children and adults. It took its research role very seriously, producing the ‘Hull House Maps and Papers’ which researched demographics, including ethnicity, housing, working and sanitation conditions with the same concern for accuracy and comprehensiveness as that shown by Booth in his maps of London poverty.

Hull House had strong links with the ‘Chicago School’ of Sociology and became the urban branch campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago and is still maintained as a museum by the university.

There are parallels in London in the educational work of Toynbee Hall, Mansfield House and other settlements. They can also be seen in the development of the urban studies think tank, the Institute of Community Studies, founded in 1954, now known as the Young Foundation and actively involved in social innovation.

Citizens UK established an Institute for Community Organising in 2010 as part of its Centre for Civil Society to train community organisers. TELCO has many educational institutions in membership and many of its key activists come from schools, colleges or universities. For a few years, Queen Mary University of London offered a Masters in Community Organising and a central mission of the University of East London (UEL) is to be London’s leading university for civic engagement:

“…extending an invitation to all our students and staff to participate in the ‘living lab’ that east London represents, becoming ‘best in class’ in confronting the very challenges that our students face, providing them with the opportunity to become change agents who help to transform their own communities, working with our communities to deliver applied and sustainable solutions to the societal and environmental challenges that we face, empowering our students and staff to become ambassadors and active citizens for the long term benefit of their communities.” (UEL corporate plan)

The many challenges which face us require this kind of educational response, one where the connection is made between learning, reflecting and acting and which should have at its heart the public university and a network of other civic institutions. Such a network might combine the best practices and traditions of a University Settlement, a Danish Folk school, an Extramural Department or Adult Education Institute, a Further Education College, a Community Centre and a ‘Think-and-Do Tank’.

Such a co-ordinated response needs to draw on community involvement, equality and trade union campaigning as well as on the best of rigorous research and teaching. This local engagement is not about single-issue indoctrination but needs to be anchored in core values of equality, democracy, solidarity and mutual respect while not shying away from differences and debate.

At our college ‘Obama Day’ in 2009, I asked the audience to imagine what we could do for ourselves and our community if every one of us became community organisers, even for just one hour a week. What could we achieve with nearly 2,700 hours of concerted community activity per week; the equivalent of approximately 80 full time community workers?

Community activity could become a central part of our educational culture. Instead of simply encouraging our students to engage in occasional volunteering or charity projects we could embed Service Learning in all our school, college and university programmes. The educational and social impact of making Service Learning part of the educational experience of all young people and adults would be phenomenal. Education could place itself at the heart of building greater social cohesion and responding to community needs and could support a renaissance in social and community development.

This is the second of 2 posts based on a talk given to the East London History Workshop on 19th January 2017.

See also:

From Toynbee to TELCO – via Chicago, part 1. From settlement to social activism

Barack Obama community organiser

Jane Addams and Toynbee Hall

Women and the Settlement Movement  by Katharine Bentley Beauman (Radcliffe Press, 1996)

Slumming – Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London by Seth Koven (Princeton, 2006)

‘Community Organizing: Addams and Alinsky’ by Maurice Hamington

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