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R:2025 – a contemporary exploration of ideas, people and places

R:2025 is an extended, fifteen year, creative programme of activities within a flexible framework, constructed from notions around: contemporary; writing in a range of styles, for a variety of purposes; cities and urban living; places, spaces, neighbourhoods and locations; construction of identities; learning and development; wellbeing and flourishing; evidence, research, knowledge and understandings;  emergence, complexity, uncertainty and contingency. The overall

Public and Private Issues

As with a number of other articles on this site, this is meant to be in the spirit of an exploration, bringing together a number of different aspects of a broad topic and seeing if any sense can be made of it all. At one level, it is a matter of simple semantics: whatever one understands words like ‘private’ and

Some lines of thought arising from being researcher-in-residence

During the researcher-in-residence sessions at Grand Union gallery’s Im Bau exhibition (Artist: Aideen Doran, 2015) a set of recurring threads of thinking were revisited over and over. Also thrown into the mix was a visit to New York, midway through the researcher-in-residence period. Although I had gone for other reasons, connections to the emerging thoughts from my sessions at Grand

R:2025 – An interim stocktake (Sept 2016)

R:2025 is an extended, fifteen year, creative programme of activities; a contemporary exploration (to 2025) of things linked to representations, ideas, people and places. It has a couple of overall intentions. One of these (To engage in a range of exploratory activities, making the outcomes from these activities freely available) is felt to be substantially being met.  There will now

How did all this come about and where might it be taking us?

There are a large number of things happening that seem unusual, unsettling and unpredictable – and it all appears to be taking place more rapidly and in more widespread ways. It seems that a set of disconnected events come rushing at us. This can simply be accepted as the way things are in contemporary society, part of the world we

Expert Observation: More to it than meets the eye?

Studying people is fundamental to changing society for the better. It is important to understand how and why different people behave as they do; getting a sense of human patterns and motivations. Within social studies this is often approached using questionnaires or interviews. Rather than attempting to get at beliefs, values, attitudes via self-reporting, with all its issues of truthfulness etc, another method is the direct observation of people’s actions and behaviours and to use these to work back towards imputed attitudes and beliefs.

Observation, here, is more than the spontaneous, passive observing of things (although there is a useful role for that). It is, rather, the active, deliberate observation of those things that are the focus of enquiry at the time.

Even in casual everyday observing, not everything can be noticed all the time. The brain continuously selects, isolates, focuses, overlooks. With deliberate observation, much of that sifting and sorting of what is important has already been done through some pre-observation thinking and decision-making. By having a clear observation framework perception is sharpened in particular ways. The researcher is attuned to notice the specific features under observation so that what might be of particular interest stands out within the wider mass of things seen.

This article looks at some of the features of this ‘expert’ observation and describes one very simple practice exercise where observation was used to explore the various uses of park areas. Read more

Children in Distress: Responding to known and unknown needs.

There is a, quite correct, intense focus on the needs of children variously categorised as being at risk, in need of care, or in distress because of neglect or abuse. The numbers of such children varies and has recently been rising. What are the factors within families that are most likely to lead to children being abused or neglected? What is the threshold for statutory intervention? What is the current and likely future scale of the issue? Are there new kinds of abuse emerging, or unrecognised forms that are not yet on the radar of those watching out for such things? How prepared are we, as a society, to respond rapidly to any new sources of distress to vulnerable children?

It is clear that the neglect and abuse of children is far from a new phenomenon. My own first academic contact with the issue was Alec Clegg and Barbara Megson’s book “Children in Distress” in 1968 and the UK White Paper “Children in Trouble” which led up to the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act.

Children’s everyday experience of distressful lives did not start with their public accounting in such documents. This is an old and extensive problem that continues to take new forms and occur over fluctuating scales – always demanding new attentions and expecting new responses.

Currently the focus is on the expectation that something should be done, immediately and robustly, whenever abuse or neglect is suspected; that preventative mechanisms should be in place for early detection of such risks in order to head things off before they become more serious; that being alert to such situations is the responsibility of everyone and not to be left to particular individuals; and that new forms of neglect and abuse are constantly emerging so that vigilance and foresight are required more than ever.

The threshold between the rigours of childrearing and the spill-over into abuse or neglect is not crisp. The extremes are obvious. Just as healthy contexts for childrearing will ‘make’ children – so there are a number of risky contexts that, if not addressed, can ‘break’ children. Around the boundary between these two are family contexts which may, or may not, turn into something risky – but things cannot always be assumed to be problematic. Family behaviours may simply be transient, may sort themselves out, especially if early help is on offer. Read more

Some exploratory thoughts on Progress

The idea of progress is a complex concept. Normally it is taken to mean that the human condition is improving over time and will continue to improve into the foreseeable future.

This conceptualisation of progress include a sense of advancement, forward movement, and gaining a higher understanding or ability. It is an upward linear progression, a continuation, a development. Progress is Onwards and Upwards.

It also has the more subtle sense of simple passage of time; a going from place to place, a procession or journey, things being underway – as work being in progress: an unfinished thing that may or may not work out well.

The Enlightenment struggles with the idea of Progress were attempts to rationalise ways forward. Do we have similar impulses and methodologies that allow us to sense ways forward, to make contemporary progress, in a world that seems more fragmented, with uncertain sets of relationships. How will we agree what constitutes progress in a context that is complex, ambiguous, and kaleidoscopic? Read more

Thinking about ‘Contemporary’: a hesitant exploration

As with so many useful terms, there is no simple single understanding of ‘contemporary’. It is still being explored and in some ways may never be fully settled on. At the same time, there are some clear lines of sight that help people see a way through.

Contemporary, by its roots, is about time and belonging together. That apparent clarity is immediately one source of difficulty. Its common-sense understanding has contemporary relating to particular things coexisting within this current time period (Contemporary = of the present) but (a) there is a different sense in which anything in the past was contemporary with other things in that same past period. (Everything is contemporary in its own time – so there is nothing especially contemporary about today); and (b) not everything that exists together in the here and now might be judged to be contemporary in its values.

Maybe one answer is to declare that the currently contemporary relates to the now of today and simply ‘is’, as something that cannot be generalised beyond its very fragmented existence. This sees the contemporary as being a highly diverse set of outlooks (more so than things have been in the past) – with diversity in cultural production, exchange, consumption, materials, meanings …. and with little expectation of being able to neatly draw boundaries to contain it. That, in turn, leads back to contemporary being able to encompass everything and anything, so long as it is thought of as contemporary.

This contemporary-as-diversity arises from an understanding that we currently live in a very different kind of world, and that any socially-constructed activity will reflect things that are shaped by a unique set of stronger, broader, different forces. This brings some paradoxes and puzzles: The world (physically and socially) is more connected than ever before but, at the same time, feels more fragmented. There are widespread, almost universal, influences but these play out differently everywhere: Think global; Think local.

This was also true, in its own way, of past eras of expanding trade and industrialisation. There is something particularly new and different in the nature of those same influences, making the contemporary what it is today. What is so specific about the shaping forces of now? What is it within anything contemporary that clearly marks it out as such: as being characteristic of twenty-first century existence rather than of any previous age? Read more

Writing in a Flash: Changing the ending

One of the core skills of a writer is to be able to write to length. Sometimes this involves stretching the word-count to get to something credible without losing the plot. Often it means chopping back and back to remove all superfluous text and cut a rambling piece down to size.  Sometimes it means complying with the word-maximum criteria of an editor, a writing competition or some other challenge.

Book-buyers may exercise their own, individual, rough and ready, on-the-spot judgement about value-for-money: The weighing of the number of pages of a novel against its cover-price; pound weight for pound cost.

How long is long enough? Does it really matter? It all depends. Read more

R:2025 – a contemporary exploration of ideas, people and places

R:2025 is an extended, fifteen year, creative programme of activities within a flexible framework, constructed from notions around: contemporary; writing in a range of styles, for a variety of purposes; cities and urban living; places, spaces, neighbourhoods and locations; construction of identities; learning and development; wellbeing and flourishing; evidence, research, knowledge and understandings;  emergence, complexity, uncertainty and contingency.

The overall driving idea is:  To use creative activity to make demonstrable contributions to changing the ways in which people think, behave and interact, in order to better understand social processes and developments; and gain potential for some leverage on a number of shared social issues.

A fuller description follows, including

  • A more detailed  development prospectus
  • a flexible framework  which summarises the work is being carried forward
  • the range of social issues being thought about and worked on
  • a possible change model
  • A link to the ThinkingForwards blog, which shows background workings-out

Read more

Child Poverty: What can a large complex city do to reduce levels?

In response to national legislation Birmingham (UK) set out the range of planned actions that were most likely to have an impact on levels of child poverty across the city, and that were already contained within City Council plans and within the plans set out by partner agencies. These included actions with immediate impact on child poverty; actions that will impact on child poverty in the near future; and actions that will impact on child poverty in the longer term.

Across the four-year period 2007-2011 Birmingham reduced its level of child poverty at four times the national rate. Not only has Birmingham has been making better than national average progress in reducing the level of child poverty (closing the gap to national figures), most progress was being made in the wards with highest levels of child poverty (closing the gaps between high-poverty wards and the city average).

Child poverty remains a significant issue for Birmingham, not least because of the size of the child population. Of the major cities, Birmingham had the fifth largest proportion of children living in poverty but, because of its population size, Birmingham continues to have by far the largest volume of child poverty to deal with of any local authority in England.

The next 3-5 year period presents new challenges to combatting levels of child poverty in the city, not least because of the impact of several recent national budgetary and local economic decisions. With all this is mind, in moving forward 2014-2017, there is a continuing need to ensure that this work gets carried forward at the scale and pace needed in the city, with sufficient traction to continue to make differences, and plugged into other social inclusion processes already in place. The city’s thinking framework and the successful actions can be maintained such that – despite national austerity measures impacting heavily on poor families in the city – Birmingham can continue to take seriously its duty to counter levels of family poverty in the city.

A link to a fuller account with statistics is here: combatting child poverty in Birmingham

Poverty and some of its impacts: What might be done?

This article is a composite write-up based on a number of presentations and interviews undertaken in September 2014 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. It intended as a broad-ranging, general interest exploration of a set of ideas, puzzles and practicalities, covering: 

  • Recent economic trends  
  • How poverty gets thought about, recorded and measured;  the realities in some people’s lives
  • Policy and social approaches that affect levels of poverty
  • How poverty links to the development of children and families
  • How these influence life chances
  • What things might reduce the numbers of people growing up in poverty

A full write-up of the inputs can be read here:  Poverty and some of its impacts

 

What – if anything – can be learnt from the so-called Trojan Horse Affair?

Background

The so-called Trojan Horse Affair arose from an anonymous letter that was circulating within Birmingham in November 2013. This letter set out mechanisms for the takeover of schools by new governors (and senior staff) in order to implement a more restrictive faith-based curriculum and ethos. The letter was aimed at people in a number of other cities and claimed that such events were already underway in some schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham.

There was considerable doubt about the authenticity of the letter. Nevertheless, it was passed to the local counter-terrorism police on the basis of needing to establish if any crime had been committed and because some of the sentiments in the letter verged on things that could be regarded as extremist. The police found no immediate links to terrorism. The letter was subsequently referred on to central government departments. It was, at that stage, felt that the letter exposed issues serious enough to warrant deeper investigation.

There were various discussions at local and national levels and a number of reviews were set up to explore what (if anything) was happening. Ofsted (the national body for inspecting education) was sent into a number of schools, some of which had only recently been inspected and judged to have good management in place.

Some of the schools were under the control of Birmingham City Council, as the local authority. The rest had converted to Academy status, independent of the local authority and run under contract by the national government Department for Education.

The whole episode attracted considerable media interest, over an extended period of time. It is hard to believe that some of the issues raised were of significance to Birmingham alone, but since the letter (and its reported activities) arose within Birmingham the episode became labelled the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The daily news repetition of that label, in an essentially negative context, created a degree of damage to the reputation of the city as a whole and, to some local communities, it began to feel like a form of Islamophobia – particularly when the Secretary of State for Education appointed the former head of counterterrorism to head up the government’s review.

This article:

  • Looks at the wider historic factors around the issue.
  • Asks if it could all have been foreseen and prevented from developing as a big issue
  • Reviews the ability of language to clarify or cloud the issues.
  • Sets out the core issues
  • Looks at the outcomes from the various reviews, inspections and investigations
  • Explores the puzzles/issues raised and insights gained
  • Asks is this the end of the Affair, or are there similar beliefs and practices still at play – and how would anyone know?

The full article can be read here:  Trojan Horse lessons

 

 

Employability programmes: Getting the best outcomes for learners

Employability programmes are seen as being to improve those basic generic skills that employers are looking for, and which are likely to help the person secure initial employment and maintain ongoing employment. Sometimes employability programmes supplement these generic skills with access to more vocationally-specific training and awareness. Sometimes there is heavier emphasis on the practicalities of sorting out a way forward for each participant, or dealing more substantially with underlying issues of  attitudes and motivations.

There are a range of people for whom employability is seen as a key learning need. Whilst employability courses are often thought of as being for young people disengaged from regular routes to employment, this is not always the case. There are also young people who are motivated, and on track, but simply lack some simple skills or knowledge relating to the world of work. An employability group may contain a variety of people. Programmes may thus need to be flexible enough to be able to meet a range of needs.

This article outlines the features of successful employability programmes. Read more