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A brief view of some of Birmingham’s dalliances with varieties of localisations

The city as a local entity It is a long time since Birmingham was recognised, by Charter, as an administrative structure in its own right. Various surrounding towns and villages were incorporated into the city, making it the largest local authority in Europe. There have been recurring issues lasting until the present: What freedoms and flexibilities does the city have,

Cities and Housing Issues – a bit of an exploration

In various European and North American cities visited in the last decade, housing has been a recurring theme, both as an everyday lived concern of residents and as a policy concern for city decision-makers. Whilst there seem to be universal issues, generic across all such cities, each city has its own particular set of housing concerns shaped by that city’s

Birmingham : a creative city?

This was written as part of a consideration of how developments might lead a city to think of itself as being a creative city. It started as thoughts linked to an online course run by the University of Toronto. In terms of population, Birmingham is the UK’s Second City. It is located in the centre of England. Road and rail

Contemporary Public Art and non-capital Cities (of NW Europe and N America) – A framework for exploration

What follows is seen as a set of lines for thinking along, routes of exploration, rather than chapter headings or specific research topics (although things may end up being both of those at some stage in the future). There are various crossovers between several the elements listed. It is not intended as a description of all the thinking that can

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 2007-2011Birmingham 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 is 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  proposed 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

Thinking outside the box: just another glorious day

Sam is the main character of the ebook ‘Another Glorious Day’. released from the confines of that text Sam is free to be “the man from the box” and to write a blog in that role. That blog has been turned into diary form, wtih dates removed and posts put in sequential order. Sam’s diary can be read here:  Man from the Box.

Doing Poetry: No Sweat

My ebook Made in Birmingham: The Poems’ is a collection of approximately seventy poems. One was called ‘Doing Poetry: No Sweat’:

I’m going to be a poet.

It’s an odd thing at my time of life

but a choice that is becoming

more popular, I’ve noticed.

I’ve bought my first garret

and cut down on food.

I now only need access

to a pub full of artists

and a distant woman

to impossibly love

and I’ll be off

doing poetry.

No sweat.

 

It isn’t autobiographical, just a poem. There is no garret; I don’t eat to excess but that is a health thing not a starving poet thing; and a distant woman to impossibly love is definitely off the agenda (unless you count Agent Lisbon from ‘The Mentalist’,  or the woman detective from ‘Castle’, or Ziva from ‘NCIS’. Do I detect a trend here..??).

A bit of a push

In an earlier posting I talked about planning. Each year I have a set of loosely-sketched intentions. For the near future these include ‘Having a bit of a push on poetry’. This is a broad statement of intent, but I have several elements in mind that might add up to ‘a bit of a push’. I also have a specific image when I talk about ‘poetry’: Not poems that pour out of me, like it or not, but poetry to order, poetry on demand, poetry to a schedule.

Recent attempts at producing poetry to a theme include:

  • Poems written as part of workshops linked to art exhibitions at University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute (and the invitation to read some of the work as part of a public event)
  • Poems written in response to contemporary art works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘Metropolis’ exhibition
  • Poems written in response to the Royal Academy’s ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition.

Developing a poetic career

A few months ago I attended an excellent workshop run by the editor/director of Nine Arches Press which is a UK small press that specialises in publishing poetry. The theme of the workshop was to try to understand what might be meant by the career of a poet. It was clear that (except for a very small number of people) this rarely meant creating a full-time high-income role from writing poetry. Read more

A beginner’s simple exercise in contemporary art: Leger, entropy and me

The initial question in my head was: Can there be the idea of Progress in contemporary art? Turning this upside down (or back to front) you get: Can there be a contemporary piece of art that can have its layers slowly peeled away, as in some kind of archaeology, to reveal influences below the surface?

As part of a series of workshops on Understanding Contemporary Art I attended a workshop at the University of Birmingham’s Barber Institute. The theme was collage and the workshop covered a number of ideas: appropriation/borrowing; assembling found elements; using contemporary media for sources; what the artist brings to the work; how hard to expect the viewer to work; postmodernism, playfulness and the lack of grand narratives etc..

At the same time there was an exhibition of selected contemporary work by new (2013) graduates from West Midlands art schools – spread over three sites in Birmingham, with several pieces on display at the Barber.

On a pre-workshop visit to the Barber I simply walked round the gallery as fast as I could noting which works of art, if any, made me look twice at them. There were two: One from the New Art West Midlands exhibition (‘Entropy’ by Lindsay Booker) and one from the Barber Institute’s permanent collection (‘Composition with Fruit’ by Fernand Leger).

A very quick internet search suggested that Leger developed his early work in the context of cubism – his own style being called ‘tubism’ because of his focus on cylinders etc.. His work became increasingly abstract, with blocks of primary colours. He spent the first two years of World War 1 at the front and this influenced his art, making it into something mechanical (machine art). After the war he was part of Purist art – flatter colours, bold black outlines; and later, as part of the post-war trend to a return to order, his work became more organic. By 1938, when ‘Composition with Fruit; was painted his work was warmer, less over-mechanistic but with some remaining hint of machine parts. ‘Composition with Fruit’ followed in the tradition of Still Life but transposing it via techniques that were contemporary at the time – geometric forms, blocks of colour, incorporation of items from consumer culture, celebration of machine age tempered with organic imagery (the worms in the fruit, hinting at impermanence etc).

The ‘Entropy’ picture from the New Art West Midlands exhibition was large (240cm x 120cm), monochrome, pen and Japanese ink on paper. There were two levels to the picture: the overall image and the intricate, elaborate detail. It was intriguing and a bit disturbing; confusing to the eye. The nonlinear marks cascaded, lava-flow like. It has resonances of earthquakes, tsunamis, tectonic movements, detritus, apocalyptic reshaping of landscapes. The text from the exhibition described the picture as alluding to ‘The Great Wave off Konagawa’, 1830, by Hokusai – a painting that I had used as part of training programmes and which held some significance for me. Read more

Core skills achievements in Birmingham: Surely a reason to claim success

By 2013, from a start in 1995 when Birmingham began its determined push to raise whole-city levels of literacy and numeracy, there have been a number of structural changes to both the local and the national education and skills landscape. Throughout all of these changes the city has been able to make meaningful statements about the progress within Birmingham and how it is doing compared with other major cities, and against national average figures. At the same time there have been contradictory statements about whether those national averages are improving or declining; or improving in absolute terms yet falling behind the improvements being made by other countries.

Birmingham’s initial development investments in children 0-5 are now showing through in attainments for those children at age 16. The investments in primary and secondary age pupils are showing through in young people aged 16-25. The investments in adults are showing through in the improved skills levels of the workforce. In 1995 we believed that it might take 15-20 years to get Birmingham, from its very low base, up to national standards for all-age literacy and numeracy. So what do the available 2012/2013 figures tell us?

  • In 1995 only one third of Birmingham children entered the first years of schooling with basic language/number skills in place. In 2013 the early language and numerical understandings and skills, on entry to school, are now at national levels – with double the number of children having the required basic skills. Given the diverse population of Birmingham, the number of under-fives growing up in families recently arrived from countries where English is not a national language, and the persistently disrupting effects of poverty on too many families in the city – this is a very good achievement.
  • In 1995 less than half of the city’s children made the transition from primary to secondary school with sufficient language, literacy and numeracy to tackle the secondary curriculum. Up to 2000 there was a rapid boost to the skills of primary-age children but this then began to lose momentum as schools over-focused on national testing and has only recently accelerated again. The English and Maths abilities of Birmingham children are now double what they were in 1995 and, again, are at national levels.
  • In 1995 Birmingham was in the lowest part of the national performance list for success levels in core subjects at the end of five years of secondary school education. Only one third of 16 year olds had at least five good passes in major subjects. The overall figure for such young people, in 2012, now stands at 88%, above the average for the country as a whole. Even if high-level passes in the core skills of English and Maths are included as a requirement within the five good performances, this was achieved (2012) by 60% of young people – slightly better than national average. By 2013 this percentage had risen to 62%.
  • The number of 16-18 year olds in some form of employment, education or training has increased substantially, meaning that far more young people have a continuing opportunity to improve their core skills, with 95% of young people now being functionally literate and numerate. Functional skills improvement is now a part of all education and training programmes for young people and adults.
  • Birmingham was a national pathfinder in developing whole-city approaches to raising overall levels of adult literacy, English language, and numerical skills. The city established a national and international reputation for this work. Regular skills testing has shown substantial incremental increases in adult basic skills levels between 1997 and 2012. Aspirational floor targets aimed at (‘No locality below this skills level’) were all surpassed, with most progress being made in the lowest-skill areas of the city.
  • Community organisations, housing associations, schools, employability training agencies, major employers, trade unions, probation and prison services: all see themselves as having a role in improving the ways that the young people and adults they work with access opportunities to improve their literacy, language and numeracy skills. This is far removed from the situation in 1995 when developing skills in adults and young people was seen almost entirely as the preserve of colleges and adult education services. The aim, in 1995, was to get the improvement of core skills built in as a connecting thread woven through the infrastructures of the city. There has been considerable success in this.

Much has been said nationally claiming that any national progress could have been due to grade-inflation, mechanical teaching-to-the-tests and so on. There has undoubtedly been an element of this but the city’s progress on the scale outlined above cannot be simply explained away so simplistically. Real progress has been made and the city should be pleased with what it has been able to achieve.

Birmingham has been right therefore to celebrate the shift in achievement levels from the poor performances of 1995 to having closed virtually all the gaps to national attainment levels, and some substantial closing of the gaps between the various groups of children/young people within the city itself.

There is more to be done. Being ‘average’ is not sufficient if Birmingham is to have the national and international edge it aspires to. There are sufficient dedicated people and agencies in the city to ensure that improvements continue to be made. Progress in the near future will rely on ironing out the remaining variabilities across the city. Consolidating the gains so far will not be enough though. Further progress is likely to be highly reliant on a strong and consistent focus on the motivations, behaviours, resources, attitudes and aspirations of Birmingham’s children, young people and adults – and not letting overconcerns with structures get in the way of good learning.

*****

The Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership website has been wound down. Archive material is incorporated into this www.thewordsthething.org.uk website (with administrator@thewordsthething.org.uk as the link email address for all enquiries about the work of the Birmingham Core Skills Development Partnership).