This blog takes us to two beautiful corners of the UK, one to the north and one in the far south. We begin with the south, on England’s largest and second most populous island, the Isle of Wight. As the controversy surrounding former Ofsted Chair David Hoare’s recent comments about the Island vividly demonstrates, raising matters like educational disadvantage can be dangerous ground. Whilst Mr Hoare was right to draw attention to the serious problems in coastal England which have continuously slipped under the radar when it comes to funding and interventions, solutions are not to be found in public speeches shaming or blaming those unfortunate enough to be at the sharp end of disadvantage. Labelling children and families as products of inbreeding and their homes as ghettoes was not only scurrilous but neatly diverted attention away from an educational system that seems to have failed them. Whilst Ofsted data suggests the Island’s schools are steadily improving, only 64% of its primary children attend schools categorised as good or outstanding, placing the local authority fourth from the lowest rung on the national ‘league table’.
Yet for many who visit Tennyson’s ‘Enchanted Isle’, Mr Hoare’s description may well have come as a shock. Holidaymakers go there to enjoy the Island’s natural beauty and architectural heritage, testimony to its fashionable heyday when Queen Victoria commissioned Osborne House. Official statistics, however, paint a rather different, sombre view of the Island, with high unemployment and poverty, low aspirations and educational underachievement afflicting many Islanders’ lives. The Island’s fall from prosperity is sadly mirrored in many other coastal areas around the UK. Cheap air travel tempted tourists to resorts overseas decades ago and recession in other maritime industries has left many seaside resorts struggling to survive. Finding ways to address such complex, pervasive problems is not easy and quick-fix solutions have proved to be illusive but clearly education must lie at the heart of community regeneration efforts if they are to succeed in the long term.
Turning our attention northwards, an interesting success story can be found in the Scottish Lowlands, 45 miles south of Glasgow, and it may offer inspiration to other areas battling against the economic tide. CPRT was recently invited to attend an Education Day at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, where we heard about a heritage-led regeneration project instigated by His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales. This innovative project is reinvigorating its local community through a cohesive strategy involving the conservation and reuse of Dumfries House, an 18th century mansion and its estate, to provide employment and educational opportunities, and to rekindle local pride and aspirations. Heritage-led regeneration initiatives like this one can serve as catalysts for economic and social improvement: although the link between heritage-led regeneration and education may not seem immediately apparent, educators know that what happens in schools and classrooms is inseparably interwoven with the culture and conditions of the communities they serve. Aware of this crucial link, the Dumfries House project is focusing its attention on education and is working closely with schools from across the region and beyond to effect positive change.
Linked to the objectives of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, the Dumfries House Education programme has six centres providing opportunities for children and adults to engage with a wide range of hands-on learning experiences and training for employability. The Pierburg Building and Kaufmann Gardens have been designed for children to experience the delights of planting, harvesting and eating their own vegetables, a learning opportunity that keys into the Curriculum for Excellence sustainability requirements. For many of the primary school children who come here this will be the first time they have dug the soil, picked sugar-snap peas fresh from the plant or tasted soup made with vegetables they have grown themselves. The Morphy Richards Engineering Centre has an imaginatively-designed Harmony playpark and well-equipped teaching area where children explore topics relating to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Activities are designed to challenge children, ‘…to imagine, design, build and test solutions to real world problems’.
However, it is perhaps the House and its estate which are likely to inspire children’s curiosity and imagination most. Just as the 5th Earl of Dumfries intended, the beautiful 18th century house and its landscaped grounds leave an indelible impression. The House breathes life into history, introducing children to a fascinating collection of artefacts and furnishings (including The Grand Orrery which is spellbinding to visitors of any age!); the landscaped gardens and the arboretum encourage children to explore and discover the extraordinary diversity of the natural world. Without the regeneration project all this would have been lost and future Ayrshire generations would have been denied these precious opportunities to wander and wonder, and to engage with their community’s heritage.
The Dumfries House Education programme reminds us that inspiring curiosity and imagination is one of the aims for primary education proposed in the Cambridge Primary Review final report, Children, Their World, Their Education. In England, the current primary curriculum has placed greater emphasis on narrowly-defined ‘core skills’, reducing opportunities for giving attention to broader aspects of knowledge, and to developing capacities for creativity, imagination and understanding. Schools should be places that allow space and time for wandering and wondering. There must be sufficient time allowed for children to imagine and to ask questions because solutions to problems and new knowledge are created through divergent thought, curious questions and imaginatively-inspired action. More urgently than ever, we need these qualities to enable us to find solutions to the dilemmas we face, whether in our own, local communities or on a global plane.
The heritage-led regeneration work at Dumfries House is just one, small example of an imaginative starting point but it offers a positive model for areas facing similar challenges and one which accepts the unique qualities of a place and its people as valuable assets. Working in tandem with Scotland’s curriculum based on clearly-articulated aims ‘to develop successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors’, Dumfries House and its Education programme are becoming part of a coherent approach seeking to establish a brighter, more sustainable future for the region.
Returning to the south, the problems identified in the Isle of Wight and other disadvantaged areas need a similarly holistic approach and their problems highlight the importance of tackling the CPRT’s priorities, particularly those regarding:
We’ve seen that it’s possible to start addressing these priorities if joined-up thinking, determination and imagination are used to kickstart change, and if we use the positive attributes of a locality and its people as starting points. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that the CPR’s curriculum model calls for around 30 per cent of teaching time to be devoted to locally proposed, non-statutory programmes of study (‘the Community Curriculum’) to respond to local interests. The CPR Final Report argued that a Community Curriculum could be:
…planned locally by community curriculum partnerships (CCPs) convened by each local authority, or where this is desirable and appropriate by local authorities acting together; each panel includes school representatives, community representatives and experts in the contributory disciplines, and its work must involve consultation with children (CPR Final Report, p. 276).
The Report goes on to say:
…by building on children’s knowledge and experience, by engaging children educationally with the local culture and environment in a variety of ways, and by involving children in discussion of the local component through school councils and the world of the CCPs, the community curriculum would both give real meaning to children’s voices and begin the process of community enrichment and regeneration where it matters (CPR Final Report, p. 275).
Wherever their home is within the UK – north, south, east or west – children have a right to succeed and fulfil their potential. We urgently need to increase our efforts to ensure that these rights are achieved for every child.
Details of the year-round educational programme can be found on the Dumfries House Education website. The programme offers an extensive range of educational opportunities for schools and organisations, including residential courses.
Julia Flutter is a Co-Director of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.