via Flickr user artfulblogger

Building local networks for better education: the Compass-NUT Inquiry

The relentless emphasis on the market and league tables, together with the uncoupling of schools, colleges and universities from local authority control over the last 20 years has created a fragmentation of local education services. That’s why we at Compass, in partnership with the National Union of Teachers, have been very busy over the last year conducting interviews, having seminars with students and experts as well as holding national and local events to get to the bottom of the question: How do we build a more equal and democratic model of education?

Currently, we’re seeing a climate of everyone for themselves and a democratic deficit with a weakening of oversight and accountability.

Yet, we believe that we’ve got to go deeper than returning control of education to local authorities. What’s really needed is greater involvement at every level by students, education practitioners and the community as a whole in the development of integrated, local, cradle-to-grave educational provision. In the construction and teaching of the curriculum as in the management of institutions, we strongly support co-production and the cooperative ethos.

A good example of this approach is our proposal to create Citizens’ Learning Networks where people can develop critical thinking skills together and apply them to the myriad problems that beset them. By their very nature, these new initiatives are likely to be autonomous and independently funded – a new form of mutual or cooperative organisation – but drawing on public contributions from local authorities or local enterprise partnerships in some areas. They will rest on the energy and imagination of the people who set them up and support them including visionary local authorities, charities and trade unions. They will draw on the self-organising strengths of social movements and the voluntary nature of organisations such as the WEA andU3A where every learner can be a tutor.

We propose several organising principles for a reformed system with local devolution as the starting point. That means a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities of national and local government and a distinction between service planning and oversight, on the one hand, and day-to-day institutional management on the other. All publicly funded education institutions and services should be required to collaborate in the implementation of locally agreed education plans. Education should look more like the health and social care system or fire, rescue and transport, with a leading role for local government. All publicly funded schools and colleges should be subject to the same regime of regulation and collaboration including academies and free schools.

We propose that Local Education Boards (LEBs) are created in every local authority area – and in some cases covering more than one area as in city-regions – to stimulate participation by local stakeholders to plan and oversee the provision of publicly funded education for all ages, from the cradle to the grave. The Boards, which will be elected as the same time as their host local authority(ies), will be responsible for creating a local plan for education. Chaired by a senior local politician or a leading public figure, the Boards will take over the oversight role currently taken by scrutiny committees. They are analogous to Safeguarding Boards in their oversight and coordination roles but differ in that they would be partly elected.
Local authorities and LEBs will operate in an environment of democratic collaboration and in partnership with students, parents, practitioners, employers and the community as a whole. Student councils, citizens’ forums, school federations, local representative forums, lifelong learning partnerships of providers: these are some of the ways that the community will be able to exercise an active voice. The boards will also ensure a right of redress for students and parents.

Much of what is proposed here chimes with the views of other commentators ranging from IPPR to CBI. The last year has seen a increasing convergence of view about key issues such as the need for an integrated and over-arching national baccalaureate linking academic and vocational skills and knowledge, and for politicians to focus on strategy rather than institutional micro-management. This growing common ground is very welcome in a field that has been excessively politicised for forty years, with successive secretaries of state determined to stamp their mark on the education system. But there is one area in which the Compass-NUT approach remains distinctive and that is our commitment to developing a network of collaborative relationships as the basis for local democratic planning, management and oversight. After all, if we value the fact that we live in a democracy we should aim to practise it at every level. The running of schools, colleges and universities would benefit from the involvement of students, parents and the people who work in them. Educationalists can learn a lot from the new collaborative models of service delivery pioneered by Participle, and we should take steps to ensure that we do.

Martin Yarnit led the Compass-NUT Inquiry’s work on local education governance. You can read the interim report on the Compass website. A complementary report on lifelong learning and further education will be published in the Autumn.

via Flickr user Tim Pierce

Lend me your ears

You’re in a conversation with a colleague, and they mention that they’ve started trying to swim every morning before work. “I used to swim in the mornings,” you respond, “and I found that…” And then the conversation has shifted to you. Before you know it you have lost track of what your colleague is saying.

With the best of intentions, our thoughts, judgements, interruptions and perspectives can often get in the way of hearing what someone is saying. It’s human nature. We’re so eager to show empathy, and the first way we think of to do that is offering our own experiences and feelings as evidence that we’ve “been there”. This is especially difficult if we’re trying to help someone sort through a problem. But sometimes the best way to show empathy is to sit back and help them work through the problem by listening to them, rather than offering advice.

Your strength lies in drawing out the strengths of other people.

At Backr part of our service offer is one to one coaching. Members looking to make progress in their careers or find work have the opportunity to sit down with a volunteers coach and talk. Coaches practice active listening and guide the conversation, reflecting back what they think the person is trying to say rather than providing advice. Backr coaches open a reflective space for someone to work through their own perspectives. We want our members to feel empowered to do something and we know that people are more likely to do something if they have come up with the idea themselves. The coach is there to help the member realise that they have more assets and knowledge than they might realise. This realisation boosts confidence in a way that “If I can do it you can do it” just can’t inspire. As a coach, your strength lies in drawing out the strengths of other people.

It’s hard to leave yourself and your experiences out of a conversation. We know that active listening doesn’t happen automatically; like everything it is a skill that comes with practice. Learning not to act on your impulses to interject and offer advice first requires you to be aware of those tendencies. Self-awareness is what the coach is both trying to bring about in the member and also in them. It is a mutual learning process.

If you are interested in helping others to make progress whilst developing your active listening skills, why not come to a training session and learn how to be a coach? Our next one is on the 24th September in South London. I’ll be there, and I can’t wait to hear all about what’s going on with you.

Tiphaine Tailleux is Project Developer at Backr. You can find her online at @tiphstar

If you’re interested in training as a Backr coach, where you can learn more about mindfulness and using networks to improve your career, email You can read more about Backr on the blog, or check out Robin Chu’s piece on coaching school children with CoachBright.

coachbright postits 2

A ‘Tough Character’ Takes Flight: CoachBright and Confidence

September is back to school month on the Relational Welfare blog, so we spoke with Robin Chu, founder of CoachBright, to get his take on how a personal connection affects the way we learn.

CoachBright connects recent university graduates with ​​children that are struggling in school. These coaches work with the pupils to discover what motivates them. Then they figure out how they can use that as a driver to help them reach their goals and make better use of their education. We’re hired by schools to do this in increments from 6 weeks to a year.

The whole programme is built around the question “What do you want your future to look like?” It’s a big question, and intentionally so. It gives people the freedom to answer it in the way that’s most meaningful to them. What we tend to find is that people come up with weird and wonderful things. We hear everything from “I want straight A’s” and “I want to get into a leading uni” to “I want to be more empathetic” and “I wish I were less shy”.

One pupil’s answer really stuck with me. Chris* was fifteen years old and his teachers in Peckham described him as a “tough character”. In our programme, the first week is goal setting. There’s a lot of one to one time to let the coaches and pupils get to know one another. We train coaches in listening skills and building a safe environment for people to communicate. For a lot of these kids, it’s unusual to have an hour all to themselves to talk about how their week was and what’s on their minds. So when Chris decided to open up a little bit, he told us that what he really wanted for his future was to be a pilot. Why? “I want to travel,” he said. “I want to feel independent. I’ve lived in Peckham all my life and I’ve never been above the river.” He didn’t really enjoy his home life, and wanted to leave.

Without the relationship between the coach and the pupil, none of this works… If they don’t trust you, they won’t tell you what they’re thinking. Why would they?

In week two, we ask the kids what’s holding them back from reaching their goals. “I’m too young to be a pilot!” Chris pointed out. And? “I looked it up, and pilots need 2 A’s and a B on their A levels.” He figured that his current grades weren’t good enough to do A levels. Straight off, he identified that he could take action on that by sitting up front in class and not next to his best mate. He was so excited about this that he even brought us a signed piece of paper from his chemistry teacher saying he’d done it, which nobody had asked him to do. He’d set the goals for himself and really achieved something. He was thrilled, and so were we. Things got easier then.

Without the relationship between the coach and the pupil, none of this works. If the kids don’t feel your honesty, if they don’t feel like you’re really listening, they won’t trust you. If they don’t trust you, they won’t tell you what they’re thinking. Why would they?

It’s so important, especially for young people, to have a space to get praise and positive feedback. Once they’re in that space, their confidence builds and they can unlock their capability to learn. Great teachers understand this already and are doing their best to make use of it in their classrooms. By bringing in trained volunteers from the local community, we’re helping it to happen at a much larger scale than might otherwise be achieved in a busy school day. After spending time with our coaches, our pupils report that they’re more motivated to learn and feel more likely to succeed. We provide the support, but that vital change in confidence and engagement is truly their own achievement.

Robin Chu is Founder and CEO at CoachBright.​ You can read more of his thoughts online at the CoachBright blog (from whence we got the above photo, thanks guys!) or on Twitter at @RobinChu1

If you’re interesting in working with CoachBright or becoming a volunteer coach, check out their upcoming opportunities

*Names have been changed to protect privacy. 

via Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography

Embrace the struggle

Some years ago when my daughter was really struggling with maths, a friend suggested we try the Khan Academy. Together we were slowly drawn in by Sal Khan’s videos, doodles and most of all by his voice. Sal, who of course we never met, actually felt like a warm human being who cared, was interested and interesting.

As we listened and practised, my daughter’s own anxiety started to ebb: this kind person made her feel she might be able to grasp it after all. Khan began his academy by tutoring his own cousin Nadia in maths. What started as a relationship with family and friends has grown to a network of 16.5 million learners, studying maths, the arts, sciences and beyond. The Khan Academy is open, it’s free and most importantly of all it seems to embrace a very different philosophy of learning.

Nobody’s born smart, Khan explains in his latest video: we all start at zero. And what counts is not getting things right, but the process, the struggle to learn, because as the brain struggles it grows – physically it actually begins to form neural connections.

I love this discovery about the brain because it is not only a marvel in itself but it has so many parallels with the ideas that underpin our vision of relational welfare. Relational public services embrace a concept of a citizen’s constant development. Relational services do not try to “fix” things, but rather to stand alongside others and support them in their struggle so that each person’s capabilities might grow. I wrote about the importance of struggling in our mission statement Beveridge 4.0.

The neuroscience Khan refers to is also a reminder of the need to embrace intellectual change in the way we understand the causes and issues our welfare state seeks to address. We often look only to economics as a way of explaining social problems, but developments in science and technology can radically change the way we can organise solutions and the potential for relational services.

Khan is all about the science of learning and is particularly influenced by the work of the world renowned Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Her research on the growth mindset shows the more teachers and parents emphasise and praise the process of learning (as opposed to the outputs or results) the more intelligence
grows. Emphasis on results leads to what she calls a “fixed mindset” which collapses when faced with problems and in the end results in lower educational outcomes.

Of course this is all a very long way from mainstream British education policy which prizes the collection of exam results above all else and in the process dampens the curiosity of too many learners. But the Khan Academy shows us where a relational education might start from. As my daughter and I sharpened pencils this week for a
new term at school we watched Khan’s latest film – I hope that despite the policies and institutions which currently surround her she will hold on to the belief that she can truly learn anything.


Hilary Cottam is Founder and CEO of Participle. You can find her on Twitter at @HilaryCottam, or read more of her ideas here.

Photo courtesy of D Sharon Pruitt.

via Flickr user Jack Lyons

Pencils at the ready…

Even if you don’t have kids, there’s something about September that feels like a fresh start. It’s a mini-new year, with people going back to school and a snap in the air.  There’s a sense of possibility, but there’s also comfort of routine – a good time for learning.

How does having a relationship with someone influence the way we learn?

In that spirit, we’re going to be exploring that theme this month in our posts here at Relational Welfare. We’ve seen lots of evidence that having better relationships and increased connections in our communities helps us get things done more efficiently, sustainably, and pleasurably. So how does having a relationship with someone, or connecting with a community group, influence the way we learn?

Following that line of thinking, here are some of the other questions about relational welfare and learning we’ve been discussing here in our studio and with our friends. What do you think?

-Rather than simply teaching them, how do we boost people’s capability to learn? Is confidence and trust a part of that process?

-How do people in groups, whether it’s a classroom, community group, or organisation, learn together?

-What does it take for people to be convinced of an idea? Does the fact you relate to the person explaining it make any difference in your reception?

-“Homework.” What is it like to work in someone else’s home? What is it like to work from home when you’re used to being supported by a community? Do you absorb information and come up with ideas differently?

-What’s the learning process like for someone in local government, or social work? What has interacting in person with community groups taught them? How has that affected their decision-making?

Those are just some initial thoughts, but ones we’re hoping to get some answers on through the month. We’d love to hear what you have to say on the matter. Pass us a note under the desk by commenting here or find us at @weareparticiple.

via Flickr user dr pavloff

I’m a social worker. Things need to change, but please not another review.

This post was submitted by user LilyTrent to Guardian Witness under the question “Should there be changes to children’s services in the UK?” We thought what she had to say was so important that we wanted to share it here.

As an experienced frontline practitioner I have tried to master, what now seems to me, the impossible task of providing a service that I know I should provide. I set high standards for myself in terms of the relationships I want to build with children and young people. I want to spend quality time with them to get to know the people behind the ‘cases’ and to help them make positive changes.

High case loads mean there’s just enough time to cover some basics…which are only things that are measured and not the work that leads to better relationships, more trust, learning and growth in children and families.

I have worked in a number of local authorities in London and, with a single exception, have found that it is almost impossible to achieve these standards. Case loads are usually high and leave just about enough time to cover some basics – of course, these are mainly basics that are measured and not the work that leads to better relationships, more trust, learning and growth in children and families. Reports, action plans, minutes, decision sheets, outcome sheets and court statements need to be completed and reviewed in time. Processes, such as child in need meetings, child protection conferences, core group meetings, looked after child reviews, also need to be completed in time. There are statutory timescales in place for many processes and they need to be complied with. A change placing greater emphasis on QUALITY rather than process is happening, however, the change is often slow and not significant and bold enough.

We have had several serious case reviews by Lord Laming following child deaths, many other serious case reviews by other local safeguarding children boards, Eileen Munro’s review into child protection and the child protection task force set up after the death of baby Peter. Many recommendations were made following these reviews and many were made repeatedly over the years. They were often good recommendations, but unfortunately, on many occasions, they were not implemented. This seems to be one of the problems with children’s services.

The other big issue I see is funding. Many recommendations come with a price tag. For example, social workers are encouraged to spend more time with children and families they work with, however, this is very difficult to achieve if the processes remain complex and time-consuming and the workforce is not increased. If the number of workers is not sufficiently increased, then this means social workers will often revert back to doing the things that are measured most frequently.

I currently work in a local authority that sees an exodus of social workers in frontline services. The authority finds it difficult to recruit workers. Speaking to the workers who left, they revealed that they’d left because …

- they could no longer work 50 or 60 hours a week,

- they felt that, even though they put in extensive hours, they are still not providing what they consider a good service.

- they want to work in an environment where they can do what they have trained for – work with people in ways that are meaningful, therapeutic and life-enhancing.

Change can be achieved in many ways. I am however sceptic of the use of yet another review. Reviews do not necessarily translate into the change required.

I would however strongly support a campaign to …

- reduce bureaucracy in frontline services (less reports, less meetings)

- ensure that every council provides the funding for sufficient therapeutic services in order to drastically cut waiting times for these essential services for families (CBT, family therapy, specialist therapies for personality disorders)

- reasonable caseloads for social workers so social workers can focus on what they do best: direct work with children and families

- independent psychological support for social workers to ensure their practice remains reflective and to provide opportunities to explore workplace dilemmas and the emotional impact the work has on them.

Thank you very much for sharing, LilyTrent. From what we’ve seen on the frontline, you are not alone. If by any chance you read this, we’d love to speak with you to get your input about starting exactly the campaign you suggest. You can contact us via or @weareparticiple.  

View the original as well as other fascinating stories submitted at the Guardian Witness site. Well worth a read.

via Flickr user Betty Tsang

A fair advantage?

Networks, old boys clubs, nepotism, looking after your own, the family……. These are a variety of terms used to describe using  connections to gain something. Something like insight, information or a favour, usually in relation to a job you have your eye on.

At Backr, we  actively encourage our members to examine their own networks to find job opportunities. This network is often composed of people they spend time with socially, ex-colleagues and professional acquaintances. Through our online network and events we encourage members to build new connections. The premise is fairly simple: to find and connect with people who are doing what you want to do, and then to exchange support and information with those people. In a job market where four out of five jobs are unadvertised, this works well. [1] But it’s not always easy to convince people it’s a strategy they should use to find work.

This split between American and British attitudes about making use of connections strikes at the heart of our work. But the sort of networking we’re proposing isn’t at all at odds with the British idea of fair play.

One of the main objections I’ve encountered when working with Backr members has been the idea of networks providing unfair advantage. Aside from being a worry for the individual, I believe it’s somewhat of an expression of British culture. The idea of the old boys network, smoke filled rooms and the clubhouse, are all concepts which (in Britain) are tied to an understanding of aristocracy, or a feeling of an unassailable position in society closed off to the common man.

I contrast this feeling with that of my American coworkers. For them, I see the idea of using connections for the benefit of career or job pursuits provides no conflict. There is no fear or apprehension in the belief that a strong social network has the benefit of providing opportunities, insights and recommendations. For them, building networks is something you do. It goes without saying. Even the modern networking breakfast feels very American in its formation.

This split between American and British attitudes about making use of connections strikes at the heart of Backr’s work. To embrace something which one may, at a core level, consider unfair can be quite a challenge. Applying for unadvertised jobs, building connections, or seemingly gaining an ‘advantage’ perhaps brushes against the British sensibility of ‘playing by the rules’.

In building services which are truly relational in nature, what we’re actually doing is asking people to reframe the way we’ve looked at the various resources that have always surrounded us: The local community group who’ve been meeting for years, our neighbours, our families or even the variety of small businesses that are on our high streets. These aren’t necessarily high society types. They’re the people you see everyday, the people with whom you share a cup of tea or have a moan with over the terrible weather we’re having.

In starting Backr we recognized the world of work has changed, employers have changed and in many ways, so have we. The time calls for a fresh approach. But the great thing is we need not buy or pay for anything new. It’s just a case of making use of things we’ve already had access to, or where necessary, creating new options among old friends. It’s time to harness the power of our own local ‘old boys network’ – a place where we recommend people we’ve worked with, ask for introductions and build up our list of our key contacts. Our kind of network building is about hard graft, using good manners to make others feel at ease, and teaching everyone from all walks of life to tap into the power of connections – in other words, fair play. And what could be more British than that?

Gosbert Chagula is Opportunities Lead at Backr.


1. For example, research conducted by the Federation of Small Businesses over the past decade shows that SMEs advertise in the job centre approximately 20% of the time (top two methods, done every time: word of mouth & existing employees). Data from many sources including this government indicates that somewhere between 84-88% of new jobs come from small businesses.


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