Jo Cox and the Politics of Solidarity

Jo Cox and the Politics of Solidarity

Sometimes in politics there are days, weeks or months that you’d rather just forget because they’re so grim. So grim that it’s hard to not think about the world negatively or to think things can’t get better.

This week is one of those weeks.

Across the world, the politics of hate is looming large: Last Sunday, a homophobic attack in Orlando sent the global LGBTQ community into mourning as 50 people were killed and 50 injured, leaving many more lives never the same again.

During the week, the EU ‘Leave’ campaign ramped up its campaign of hate and xenophobia, brandishing new posters scapegoating refugees.

Then, on Thursday, Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in an act of terrorism by a member of the far right, who ran away shouting ‘Put Britain First!’ or something similar. At his first trial, he also said ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ when asked to confirm his name.

None of these things are a coincidence. In the US, not only are the Republican party currently whipping up hate against the LGBTQ – and particularly trans* – community, but their presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is also standing on a pro-gun platform that vilifies ordinary Muslims and plays into the hands of extremists.

In the UK, the movement wanting to take us out of the EU is one predicated on the idea that immigrants are the reason our public services are so poor and why incomes are falling. The political right have managed to circumvent anger at the effects of globalisation and neoliberal governments toward the EU, convincing many that nationalism is the medicine that will let them take back control of their lives.

The likes of Nigel Farage and UKIP have run a campaign based on the politics of hate and fear. Just hours before Jo Cox was killed, Farage unveiled a new banner saying ‘Breaking Point’ with a line of refugees on it, seemingly depicted as trying to get into the country. Tommy Mair’s despicable actions are an outcome of such politics. Alex Massie’s polemic written the after of the attack makes this excellent point about its relevance:

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.’

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The politics of hope is an overused term and in fact what we really need now is a politics of solidarity. Many of the people backing Brexit are working class and, as I’ve discussed, have been won by fear. Only by winning them to a politics that makes everyone’s lives better can we erode the current and growing climate or resentment and hate.

This has to start with apologetically making the case for migration. One of the reasons that the political right’s scapegoating has been allowed to grow is due to the meek attempts of the Labour party and movement to challenge it. Not only did the Party pander during the general election (printing mugs with ‘Controls on Immigration’ on them) but now some are even suggesting that we should curb free movement in the EU after a remain vote. This is not only bending to the pressure of Leave, but it gives oxygen to the idea that immigrants are harming the NHS rather than the Tories.

People have genuine concerns about immigration and our party and movement has ducked this admittedly difficult fight for far too long. However, Polish builders can’t drive down wages if we have strong trade union rights and a statutory living wage. Many bemoan a lack of integration, but this cannot happen if we have large scale social housing available to all. This integrates communities and would also tackle the housing crisis being blamed on migrants. Immigrants ‘not speaking English’ isn’t a problem when you run the education system for the needs of society and remove the financial cost of learning. Nor does the NHS come under pressure when you stop burdening it with private debt or underfunding it. I could go on.

I have no illusions about how difficult these points are to make, particularly given the onslaught of almost daily negative media portrayals of immigrants in the press, not to mention their anti welfare-state ethos. However, capitulating with arguments that immigration is detrimental only serves to bolster the arguments of the nationalist right.

I don’t like the politics of ‘hope’ because it leaves too much to chance, like markets that make society so unfair already. A socialist politics of solidarity is one that tries to put people’s fate into their own hands or that of their communities – something many Brexiters are crying out for, but have been sent down a misleading route. It acknowledges inequality and tries to raise everyone up, rather than pointing fingers and encouraging others to hit people down. Most importantly it speaks to people in a way they can understand and relate to in everyday discourse – this is particularly large challenge for the left if we want to win people to these ideas.

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Politics is a bit grim right now, but Jo Cox personified many of the positive values I’ve discussed above. She was compassionate about those who had less in the world, including refugees, who she campaigned for to be allowed to enter the UK at a time when they were referred to as ‘A swarm’ by David Cameron.

If we want to stop a repeat of Jo Cox’s tragic murder, we need to smash the politics that fuelled the climate that made it possible. We must destroy the divisive rhetoric of not only Nigel Farage, but of politicians like David Cameron and Zac Goldsmith who have both played on people’s prejudices when it comes to race. We must drive this type of politics into the fringes and out of existence, follow Jo Cox’s example and fight for a politics of solidarity, that smashes division and makes the case for a better society for all.  

Jo Cox, Rest in Peace

jo cox quote

‘What we’ve discovered is that, if you stop interfering, they show you who they are’ – An interview with Sean Bellamy (part 2)

‘What we’ve discovered is that, if you stop interfering, they show you who they are’ – An interview with Sean Bellamy (part 2)

This is the second part of an interview I wrote for the Phoenix Education Trust. See the original here.

Sands Teaching Credit Ashoka

The teaching environment in Sands is more informal – there is no uniform and everyone is on first name terms. Credit: Ashoka

 

Teaching, Learning and Citizenship

As you chat to people around Sands School, both the students and teachers will tell you that ‘Everything in Sands is learning’. Whether it’s speaking up in a meeting, building relationships with peers or simply sitting in class, the school tries to ensure that its students take their whole experience with them into the real world, not just knowledge from the curricula.

So how does teaching work in a school where every students’ autonomy is sacrosanct?

For Sean, one of the key things to how democratic education works at Sands is authenticity. Reflecting back, he says: ‘By the end of 5 or 10 years, I’d seen enough amazing wisdom from kids … We carry with us a wisdom particularly of what we’re doing. A two year old really has a great wisdom about them about what it is to feel authentically two. And if we hold that in our vision, a 12 year-old has a very strong sense … of what it is to be 12. And if you stop interfering they show you – then your school should model an idea where you can feel deeply authentic at the age you are with your interests and passions.’

In his view, the mainstream asks students to compromise who they are as individuals, through things like uniforms, by top-down modelling: ‘I think the problem with state schools, is that their ideology – well-meant or not – is asking children to be something they’re not: Which is to behave like perfect pupils or delinquent pupils or something invisible.’

‘What we’ve discovered is that, if you stop interfering, they show you who they are and basically you’re trying to retrofit exams and learning around that.’ Sean says school probably should be cancelled on snow days to let children play and, if they don’t come to class on a sunny day, one shouldn’t get frustrated, because not only with they come back to class eventually, but: ‘…what they’re doing is listening to their hearts and their heads in a more authentic way and if you do that, you find a more authentic rhythm of learning and the clever thing you then do is try and do really, really brilliant education’.

Fitting education to the needs of students seems key to how teaching works at Sands. Speaking to teachers at the school, this seemed key and what they do to enact this is keep a close eye on pupils and their progress. One teacher, Huw, told us that when students are not coming to a class they’re simply asked ‘why’ – this allows a teacher to adapt how they’re teaching to the child’s need or to make individual adjustments that may reinvigorate their enjoyment for learning that subject.

Another key aspect to Sands’ success when it comes to teaching and learning is derived from what alumni of the school say to Sean. ‘They say things like, you were a complete bastard, Sean, but now we know why’ he jokes, telling us how he’s mellowed over the years, and taken a more reflective route to conflict management.

‘Nearly always they say it was a place that made them feel they could do anything, even though they didn’t do a lot … it showed them that they had potential because we had faith in them and we trusted them and when you trust people to make mistakes and grow from it – that’s an amazing resource for life. Because if you’re never allowed to fail, you don’t know your deep resources’. Sean really tries to get across the point that failure isn’t shame – this is something that shrouds the educational ethos of the school as a whole.

And then there’s the matter of citizenship. Sitting in the general meeting of the school, one is taken back by some of the well-formed contributions of younger pupils and their ability to articulate problems and solutions. Sean says the reason for this is simple, in that to be in the school ‘… You have to learn how to have an opinion and you need to learn how to make decisions … having an opinion – a real opinion – involves a journey through thinking, and schools are stopping children from thinking 3 dimensionally because there’s only a right answer.’

‘If that’s all you’re learning, aiming towards a linear right answer, you can’t have opinions because you can’t think three dimensionally, you can’t hear someone else’s point of view because you’ve been told there are wrong ideas and right. So you have a culture that narrows the way young people think.’ For Sean, Sands has created an environment where thinking can be explored in all its dimensions, rather than one which is binary.

Overall, the reason Sands is able to create a sense of citizenship in its learning community is because it practices it: ‘You can’t be teaching citizenship while actually the whole structure is hierarchical and authoritarian. You have to make it part of the life of the school, so a citizen is a member of the school, which means if you’re going to have a uniform, make the teachers wear the uniform … model citizenship, don’t model hierarchy!’

 

Sands school meeting

Credit: Sands School

 

What can the mainstream learn?

Sean talked a lot about the differences between mainstream schools and Sands in our interview. He draws clear differences on models for discipline, learning, autonomy and attitudes that many schools could learn from, even if only in part. But what else can mainstream schools learn?

Building relationships between students and staff in the day-to-day running of the school is one way. Sean argues that children have enough wisdom and letting them exhibit it freely can open up the school environment: ‘The only wisdom [mainstream schools are] allowing, is whether a child is clever enough to be behave well … anything that is not that is delinquency’.

‘So, the most important place for children to have a role is in the disciplinary procedures of running how the school is kept safe, because that’s the place where teachers go “Oh my God, they have got our interests at heart as well – they do want to create a safe learning environment.” – and that’s where to get the fastest return.’

Another issue we touched on relates to how you build a school community, or effectively have forms of student leadership in bigger schools. Sean suggests that as part of creating citizens in the school community, you have to make students feel like they can make a difference: ‘And that’s not going to be hard – you can have older kids mentoring younger kids in helping make the difference in making their voices heard elsewhere in the school. You can have what we have; a staff appraisal system where kids appraise the staff with an elaborate questionnaire and that changes the structure of the teaching fabric.’

When you implement ideas like this, he argues that it becomes their school, whereas in many schools, students have little or no ownership.

Lastly, several times through the conversation, Sean raises his opposition to school uniforms, partly for egalitarian reasons and also to allow a freer expression. ‘The uniform actually disempowers them… the idea it equalises – well equalise it right across!’ He points out that many students try to deform or individualise their uniform anyway: ‘Isn’t it telling us that actually we should allow them to express who they are through what they wear?’

‘Of course there’s risk, but guess what – when someone comes to school with an SS badge on, you have an opportunity to talk. No punish, but talk. [A student might say] “My great grandfather was gassed in a concentration camp and that really upsets me, can we talk?”. A brilliant opportunity – but that’s not being fearful to allow bad behaviour to create discussion and opportunity to change.’

The interesting thing I gathered from my discussion with Sean is that he, as someone who didn’t get a Sands-like education himself, has been on a genuine journey as a teacher to somewhere quite different from where he started. This mirrors the school quite well, which has seemingly changed a lot since its conception too as different cohorts have brought different ideas.

Sands may be a small, fee-paying school, but from my discussion from Sean it seemed like not only could the mainstream learn a lot from it, but many ideas at Sands might just be common sense that hasn’t been realised elsewhere.

 

Sands School Elephant

The Famous Sands School Elephant!

DemEd Champions: In Conversation with Sean Bellamy (part 1)

DemEd Champions: In Conversation with Sean Bellamy (part 1)

I wrote this for the Phoenix Education Trust blog. Find the original here.

If you’re attuned to the world of democratic education, you’re probably aware of Sands School and its co-founder, Sean Bellamy. Last year, Sean also took ‘DemEd’ to the international stage after being a finalist for the Global Teaching Prize. Our team met up with Sean to find out more about him, Sands and his perspective on education more generally.

Founded in 1987, Sands is a democratic secondary school located in Ashburton, Devon, with around 60 students. Based on the ideas of its predecessor school, Dartington Hall, students are given full autonomy and everyone within the community is equal. Largely, key decisions are made ‘…together in a spirit of equality and mutual respect’ by a weekly general meeting of all students and staff, or the elected student council which deals with discipline and individual issues or disputes in the school.

Students can choose whether or not to show up to lessons and, by-and-large, they do. This model may seem like another world to some, but it’s not new and it’s actually on the rise.

Sands is a lively and bustling community, with an estate full of innovative art, a skateboard ramp and a variety of young people studiously reading books, doing something creative or just socialising with others. For someone who went to a large state comprehensive, it is like entering another world, but it is seemingly one that works in terms of its results and, more importantly, it’s student satisfaction.

 

Sean Bellamy

 Sean helped co-found Sands in 1987 and is still a teacher there

Background and Origins

Sean didn’t experience democratic education himself whilst growing up. He attended a conventional grammar school, went onto Cambridge University and did his teacher training at Exeter. He later stumbled into the world upon graduating, when he became a teacher at Dartington Hall.

When he started at Dartington, he was somewhat a taken back by the unconventional nature of it and the wild lifestyle of some of its older pupils. He jokes ‘I thought “This is weird and wonderful” …. And when I arrived they thought I was an undercover drugs cop!’ Due to his ‘straight edge’ and ‘unboozed’ look as a then-triathlete.

Sean got stuck into life at Dartington, living at the residence, looking after its pupils at the weekend and teaching various subjects at different age groups. However, it was in his second year of working in there, in 1987, that the head teacher announced the closure of the school, following much bad press and a drop in student numbers.

The imminent closure posed a dilemma for many of its students of where to go: ‘We sort of realised that we had a group of children who had often lived at Dartington Hall all their lives. They had been boarding since they were 3, 4 or 5 … and this was their home and so the two teachers who I was teaching with – both had faced the closure of the primary and one who had been the head of the primary – said “This would kill me if I had to be in another school that was closing, throwing these kids out on the street”. So they suggested we start our own, at least temporarily to get those kids through their exams’.

Out of the ashes of the old Dartington Hall, Sands was born to meet the needs of those who been affected by its closure. Other than this, there were few other draws to creating a school and a belief in democratic education took a back seat as a motive for Sean. In fact, the thrill of setting up a school at the age of 25 alone was enough for him: ‘I had affection for the kids, but more it was about me’ he quips.

‘We sat in the garden and we designed [the school] with the kids and it’s been a constant process of co-designing with adults making suggestions, kids countering it’. This, he tells us, has been an ethos within the school ever since, forming an organic evolution of collaboration which is on-going.

Sean currently teaches psychology, history, and geography up to exam level as well as mentoring around 12 students outside of subject based learning. He’s often found playing board games or running icebreakers with newer students to the school.

Sands School Democratic Meeting Credit Ashoka

The school community makes decisions through a weekly all student and staff meeting. Credit: Ashoka

 

Community Led Discipline

When you explain Sands or democratic education more generally to someone, one of the first responses tends to be about discipline and whether things deride into chaos without authoritative teachers or strict discipline. So how does the school manage behaviour?

Sean admits that his teacher training didn’t quite prepare him for the Sands ethos: ‘I thought I had to carry a massive authority to hold kids on a journey that they didn’t want to be on’ but he later went on to realise ‘…if I did it cleverly, they were prepared to give a little bit of their life to be with me, which I think is a really good quality as a teacher – to make them feel like they’re on an amazing journey and they give up playing in the sun, respectfully, to be with you to give them a chance to be on that journey.’

As for the day-to-day discipline of the school, the sense of community amongst pupils and staff is integral: ‘It happens all the time through the school … students are helping monitor what happening in class and saying [things like] “If you’re in the wrong frame of mind … why don’t you go have a cup of tea for 20 minutes” or they’ll say “That’s not acceptable because I’m trying to learn.”’

In fact, a key pillar of students being accepted to attend Sands is their own individual decision to want to learn, meaning disruption is rare and often peer-managed: ‘… there’s a lot of that happening naturally because if you’ve chosen to come through this door to learn, you didn’t come to socialise or to mess about or to get the most out of a social moment because a teacher is doing something horrible to you.’

School rules and punishments are decided by the school general meeting and monitored by an elected student council, working alongside teachers. However, Sean is very keen not to get too caught up in a culture of retribution. What’s important to him and the community in Sands is that there is room for reflection after a rule has been broken, rather than what he terms ‘A quick fix’ of punishment.

He tells us an anecdote about a student getting caught stealing a sandwich: ‘A fifteen year old is going to handle that probably better than me because they actually know how it feels, and you don’t have to be that hard … they’ll find a way so that person’s reflective, because the essence of what we’re trying to do is develop an environment where reflection is happening and often what happens in state school is that it’s all reactive … punishment stops reflection, so if you have a school that’s based on punishment rather than discussion, all the kids are doing is reacting against that event rather than their behaviour’.

‘Then you get into the nitty gritty of trying to work out if the punishment is right when, most of the time you don’t need it. You just need to listen and when the child goes “Wow, I hadn’t seen it that way… that’s really bad. That’s their only food today.” … when you get that reflection, you’ve got movement.’

In short, by giving students the space to reflect on what they’ve done, they’re far more likely to understand the issue and correct their own behaviour. The school also tries to embed elements of restorative justice too, so students may want to repent their actions by doing something that might benefit the community, rather than undertaking a punishment that has little social benefit like writing lines.

 

Testing and the Mainstream

Sands School is an Island which isn’t immune to the sea of government policy regarding education, despite its independent status. As the culture of exams and regular testing grows, where does this leave Sands and its mission of offering a more holistic educational experience?

‘It’s really tricky’ to provide such an alternative type of education in this environment. ‘We also get seduced by the demands of Ofsted and we find ourselves changing subtly to please, to stay safe, not to be judged, not to be threatened against things we’d probably happily defend.’

Exams, and the growing emphasis on them is one thing that Sands sometimes finds difficulties in managing: ‘We are internally very liberal and understanding, but we do offer more exams – kids feel like they have to do exams more than they ever did. And the truth is they don’t – they think it’s a way they get valued by the world, and although we try not to reinforce it, by the very fact we offer GCSEs … reinforces the idea that learning in this way is somehow the way you become a better person which is weird, because it’s not what we believe’

‘The mainstream affects us quite strongly; it’s not a subtle influence and you have to work quite hard to push it away. But it’s hard because if you’re seen to be lacking, you threaten the future of the school.’

Despite moving toward the mainstream somewhat, Sean also suggests the tectonic plates of Education Policy has left them still quite far out of it: ‘We’re more radical than we were than we started, because the mainstream has moved’.

Going into more depth, he explains what he believes to be the results of putting such a strong emphasis on competition between schools and pupils: ‘Schools are factories which barcoded products, which is comparable to another school and the only thing you’ve got to base that on is quantifiable material and quantifiable is not happiness or emotional intelligence. It’s attendance, it’s exam results.’

He argues that the result of this also leads to STEM subjects being prioritised as part of the race to get good quantifiables. However, ignoring other parts of education does not offer a well-rounded education either: ‘People were saying it’s because we’re trying to prepare young people for a world of technology. Actually, in order to be a full human, you need to embrace your creative, your expressive, your religious, your spiritual, your whatever. These things are being minoritised for the wrong reason – we’ve hung on to those things like play, creativeness and communication that we and all those other things at the heart of what we do.’ He goes on to say how the ideology of competition in education focuses on logical, left side of their brain thinking and excludes creative who may use the right side.

So how does Sands square the circle of the national curriculum and exams against their ethos of giving students autonomy and choice in how they learn? ‘In their heads anyway is a story about the value of exams. The teacher should model doing something brilliantly, something to aspire to … I should model something that makes them realise whether we’re going for exams or not, doing something with depth or sincerity matters and the by-product of that … is that they do well.’
‘If we teach well with passion … they should get a pass at the very least, if we tutor them in exam technique, they should do better than that … but we should also teach them that it’s so much more than that – they bring with them qualities as a person’.

As we see later in the interview, alumni certainly attest that Sands does promote an individual’s qualities to them. In addition, students get ‘Good’ achievements from exams, due to ‘…a result of good teaching, an effective curriculum and excellent learning environment’ according to Ofsted.

Sands really does seem to show that another way of doing things is possible in education, not only in creating happier students, but in getting them to engage with education on their own terms.

Sands School Community

 The Sands Community. Credit: Sands School

Another Europe is Possible: The left argument for ‘Remain’

Another Europe is Possible: The left argument for ‘Remain’

I originally wrote this piece for [Smiths] Magazine

It’s pretty bleak being a left winger in the midst of the current EU debate. On the leave side is a campaign obsessed with kicking migrants and removing workers’ rights, and on the remain side is a campaign that can be summed up in the sentence ‘Isn’t business great?!’ Even my own party, Labour, has fallen into the latter trap, except it occasionally talks about how Alan Johnson used to be a postman.

There is a relatively small group on the left – largely made up of fringe Trots, Tankies and Bennites – who are campaigning to leave. Their argument hinges on the fact that the EU is a ‘capitalist club’ and a vehicle for neo-liberal ideas. As true as that may be, I find this analysis a bit shallow.

There are some pretty negative aspects of the EU, such as its unelected Executive branch, its abhorrent treatment of the Greek people and their democracy, as well as its obsession with driving free-market economic policies such as TTIP, which could threaten the existence of our NHS if implemented.

The left should not apologise for the reactionary elements of the EU, but it is worth acknowledging some of its more progressive elements. For example, the notion of free movement of people and labour is genuinely a more humane development compared the erection of borders that exclude people on the basis of where they were born. The various working directives are also a testament to the European Labour Movement, and grant certain rights at a continental level. The Europe-wide Convention of Human Rights guarantees many freedoms and stops things like capital punishment.

Anyone whose politics lie on the radical left should be in favour of international co-operation – just like the bosses in Europe have done away with borders when it comes to trade, the left needs to fight for ordinary people in the same way. This brings me to the point of the Europe we need to fight for: Rather than just focusing on trade, we need a truly democratic Europe that works in the favour of workers.

Guaranteeing a living wage for all Europeans, trade union freedoms, universal healthcare, ensuring liberty and saving the environment should be at the centre of this Europe. Also ensuring member states can never be made to do away with these at the whim of the EU, IMF or ECB due to the mistakes of the bankers is vital.

The EU referendum is based on commotion created back the Tory backbenches and UKIP. If the UK votes to leave in June, it only serves to shift the Overton window toward their ideas of free market and anti-immigration dogma. It may also strengthen hard-right Eurosceptic forces in other countries too. This inescapable reality shouldn’t be the totality of the left’s arguments to stay, but we should think long and hard about the Britain we may wake up to on 24th June, and whether it benefits our ideas or those of our detractors. I think it’s the latter.

In order to further democracy, you often have to go through the structures that currently exist as bad as they may be. In Britain, it wasn’t calls to boycott or stop recognising Parliament that brought us universal suffrage, it was movements based on the organised actions of workers – like the chartists and the suffragettes – that won us these rights. To make more progress we need a movement to enhance democracy across borders.

Those on the left calling for Brexit are right to criticise the Bosses’ Europe we currently have, though in reality its existence is down to member states themselves being neoliberal. We should not miss this opportunity to talk about the type of continent we want to live in and another Europe based on people is possible if we fight for it. Voting to leave to the EU, however, is not the way to achieve it.

It’s not just the steel industry that Port Talbot is set to lose, it’s a way of life

It’s not just the steel industry that Port Talbot is set to lose, it’s a way of life

I wrote this piece for The Independent. You can find the original here.

You’d probably be forgiven for not knowing much about Port Talbot before this year. My hometown is the sort of place people usually drive past on the M4 on their way to Swansea. Even the site of the majestic steelworks, which dominates the local landscape, tends to stick in the back of your mind until you actually meet someone from the town who mentions it.

But for us, the steelworks is a big deal: it puts food on the table and, more importantly, it forms a huge part of the town’s identity. Steel pumps through our veins and into the heart of the town itself. With the insecurity that now looms, to lose the steel industry at Port Talbot would be to lose a huge part of ourselves.

I’m not keen on the pollution the works produces, but it does feel like it might put something special in the air. For a relatively small town, Port Talbot has created some huge stars including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton and Michael Sheen. There are also a plethora of lesser-known actors or artists who come from the town. There is something about the industrial milieu that inspires so many, including the director and producer Ridley Scott, who based the Blade Runner film on how the works looks at night.

Sadly, we’re used to bad news when it comes to the steel plant. When I was growing up, it was all too common to hear that jobs were being trimmed here and there. Yet the last few months have truly sent shivers down people’s spines in a way I haven’t felt before. When 750 job cuts were announced in January, a sense of panic began to swell. Comments like ‘Without the steelworks, this town is nothing’ are heard a lot in cafes and shops now. These remarks are as much about our identity as they are about the local economy.

Many people like me come from three or four generations of family members who made steel. An uncle once told me it was the proudest day of his life when he, his siblings, father and grandfather all got the bus together on his first day there. People are proud of our industrial history, but what’s great about the 100 years of steel production in Port Talbot is the diversity it’s brought us. The town has Italian and Irish diaspora communities who settled generations ago, and the friendships between many of these families has generally survived throughout this time.

When many industrial towns were being ripped apart as mines or plants shut, Port Talbot managed to remain one of the few exceptions. As a result, it is still a relatively close-knit community. I dread to think what shutting down the hub of the local economy would do to that. Even if a purchaser for the steel business found, it seems likely that assets could be stripped and sold or more families could face financial insecurity through further redundancies.

One option for saving the works could be a co-operative model; given the strong attachments people have, I’m sure workers, managers, locals and former residents would all invest in community shares, in addition to government intervention.

The current crisis in steel production cannot last forever, especially if the right action is taken. In towns like Ebbw Vale, residents will tell you how the end of steel production meant things were never quite the same again, just like losing a loved one. I worry that if the government continues to sit idly by, it will not only oversee the end of an industry, but it will make an irreparable tear in the cultural fabric of Port Talbot and it’s proud working class, industrial heritage.

How the closure of Tata Steel may hurt my home town

How the closure of Tata Steel may hurt my home town

I wrote this piece for The Tab. You can find the published version here.

My home town of Port Talbot has perhaps seen better days. In January, our steelworks was hit with the news that 750 people would be made redundant, and just a week after that guillotine fell, it was announced that its owners would be selling the business altogether.

The site now employs under 4000 people, down from its postwar peak of 20,000 though it still forms a large part of the local economy. For every 1 job at Tata, it is estimated that another is supported in the local area including in local businesses or in the regional supply chain. You can only imagine the dread people may feel at the current crisis.

I am the son of a Steelworker and there are about 3 generations before my Father who proudly toiled away at the Port Talbot plant. This is not an uncommon thing locally, and many school children are those of Steelworkers, sitting in classrooms where their ancestors have sat for multiple generations too. Steel is what has built strong social ties in the town, as well as putting dinner on the table.   

The feeling I notice when speaking to family and friends is one of despair and helplessness. Despair as the economic hub and beating heart of our industrial history hangs in the balance and helplessness at the lack of political action to deal with the causes of the Steel Crisis.

Many at the works have spent their entire working life there and have remained loyal under various owners and different strains to the industry. However, many feel let down by the lack of loyalty being shown to them as they recently waited nervously for 45 days to see if that service would be drawn to an end by the redundancy programme. Many mothers and wives waited anxiously by the phone to hear word of whether their livelihoods would be threatened.

People like my father might just be ok if, god forbid, Tata Port Talbot was too close. Nearing retirement, a redundancy might just see him to the finishing line, but this is not the case for many of the younger workers. If the worst were to happen, Port Talbot and the surrounding areas could see a depression as thousands of jobs are ripped out of the economy and the supply chain drained of demand. It would have an adverse affect on local businesses and house prices in the area would fall, making things harder for those who may want to move to find new jobs.

As you can guess, the closure could have a dire effect on the town economically which would reach nearly everyone. However, the same goes culturally too – the people of Port Talbot are extremely proud of our working class and industrial history. A closure would mean cutting a hole in cultural fabric of a once vibrant town and would add insult to injury. 

The future of Port Talbot remains unclear. If you asked most residents, they’d tell you that the town is nothing without steel production and there is no obvious way to filling the void that would be left by closure. Many skilled workers who have spent their lives at Tata would be likely be left in a precarious job market, where supply would outstrip demand until something new is found to generate growth.

In short, the Steelworks represents more than jobs – it represents an important cultural link between the past and present in my home town and that is more valuable than anything money can measure. To lose it would be to lose a close loved one and the economic prognosis of any closure looks grim.

5 Ways to Embed Democracy into the Classroom

5 Ways to Embed Democracy into the Classroom

I wrote this piece for the Phoenix Education Trust website. The original is here

At Phoenix Education Trust, we believe democratic education empowers students through giving them ownership of their education and making them active citizens within it.

We work with schools of various sizes and ethos’ who try to apply this in various ways. Not every school can or wants to be a ‘Sudbury’ style school with direct democracy, but even some small adjustments to how you teach can have a massive effect.

Here are some ideas we have developed by working with schools, teachers and pupils alike:

1) Get to know your students at a personal level
This is obviously easier said than done in many cases, due to various factors like class sizes and workloads. However, when you engage with your students on an individual level, they not only feel valued, but they will likely feel respected and want to reciprocate that.

Find out their interests, favourite subjects, areas of interest within your subject or anything else important to them. Bringing these up as they enter or leave the classroom is a great way to engage and make them feel valued.

2) Let students make the classroom rules

Either as a form-group or a subject class, asking students the environment they want to learn in can be important. Letting students decide what is and isn’t acceptable means they can be easily held accountable for breaches, because they were the ones to decide the rules in the first place!

Students may also be more likely to listen to the rules when they haven’t been dictated at them.

3) Ask ‘What do you want to learn today?’

Again, this may not always be possible, but when you’ve got flexibility it’s always a good idea to ask a class what they want to learn and give them options between a few different things. This allows you to be responsive to the mood or needs of a class.

More broadly, this approach allows a class to collectively take ownership on what is important to them.

4) Give your students responsibility

Encouraging leadership is one of the key things we do when we work with students. Outside of the student council, empowering individuals or whole classes with upholding standards, combatting bullying or simply collecting views of their peers can be powerful.

When you trust your students, they will feel like their views matter and this is a great way to make the school environment more of community.

Great examples of student leadership include Corelli College, who have developed a large scale student leadership team.

5) Give students a platform to express themselves

Deliberative space is vital and your role in this should be helping to develop their communication skills. An important part of being an adult or further study is the ability to critically communicate a problem and to find a solution and teachers can play a vital role.

Classroom debates can be an excellent way of achieving this, or spending time discussing the school community, what may be wrong with it and what could be fixed. Help students not only find the problem, but consider the issues that may be behind it.

A classic case tends to be school toilets – rather than just paying for new toilets, get students to consider the reasons why they may be unclean in the first place and get them to consider how they may be able to encourage their peers to take pride in the community.