Learning as the Motor for Fundamental Change

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 by Chris Durkin

I rushed around the house grabbing my papers and laptop in preparation for a day in London, where I was delivering a presentation to an august body on the subject of adult social care. I had also arranged to meet one of my sons and a cousin who I hadn’t seen for a number of years; it looked to be a potentially interesting but long day. The focus of the conference was foundation degrees in adult social care and the subject of my talk was our new foundation degree in sustainable communities, in particular focusing on our specialist pathway in personalisation and commissioning.

As I reached for my laptop I glanced at an article in the paper’s educational supplement. The article was written by an English secondary school teacher; it was autobiographical and concerned a trip the teacher had undertaken. He begins by talking about how he had been caught in a career trap that consisted of always looking for the next promotion; a gifted teacher who could have gone to the top. His moment of self-reflection resulted in him giving up his secure job to work as a supply teacher in some of our most deprived schools across England, where he was often threatened and abused. It is a very depressing article because it is talking about how you teach, control and engage unruly young people.

People may feel the man was slightly insane to give up a successful career with a good salary to ‘take to the road’. However, it asks an important question which is what teaching and education are for and why people go into professions such as teaching and how you engage with disenfranchised and disaffected young people.

The same questions can be asked of people in the so-called caring professions such as social work and nursing. All these professions are supposed to be vocational and yet each of these professions has a high turnover of staff in many areas of the country, particularly in some deprived communities. The young teacher’s experience as a supply teacher in inner city Britain is sadly all too familiar.

The buzz I have experienced from either teaching or social work has been when you can see people engaging, ultimately producing change in a family who are experiencing difficulties or in a student who has blossomed and grown though the power of education. The latter words are deliberately chosen because a student at the conference who had completed a foundation degree in learning disability had talked about how she had changed beyond recognition, an eloquent testimonial to the power of education.

Perhaps the one word that links both these two examples is ‘hope’. Hope is motivational and aspirational, a psychological trait in which person can see a future even if they cannot predict outcomes with any certainty.

In these austere and difficult times with the emphasis on the ‘economic value’ of everything, we are losing sight of the value of education. It is not just as a driver of economic prosperity but it has a myriad of roles. As a sector of innovation, culture and the development of social values, it plays a pivotal role in the development of society. The real concern I have about the cuts is that they are going to make a society that is already very unequal more unfair and more divided, and they will particularly impact on the most vulnerable, chiefly children, young people and the very old.

We are now entering a very difficult period, albeit there are still potential opportunities, because, as Albert Einstein once said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.” Although I still regard the notion of the ‘Big Society’ as a slightly nebulous term, if it is going to mean anything, it is about community, engagement, creativity and innovation, it is not just about volunteering. These ideas may not cost a great deal of money, but they need some form of support, and at times coordination and planning, if they are to succeed. Otherwise all you are left with is a void.

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