Deprived estates won't change overnight

15th December 2000 at 00:00
Damilola Taylor's death in a Peckham stairwell highlights the challenge at the heart of the neighbourhood renewal strategy. On the one hand the bleak pictures of uninterrupted urban flatland remind viewers that the landscape of metropolitan poverty is as stark as ever. On the other, the CCTV pictures of a boy hopping from stone to stone, or skipping along the lines marked in a public square are pictures of hope and promise.

It is desperate to move so fast from that bubbly exuberance to death. And as in the case of James Bulger almost a decade ago, desperate, too, that there seem to be cameras to police our every movement, except when it matters.

Not far down the road from North Peckham, the Aylesbury estate in Southwark presents many of the same features of flawed, large-scale social planning. Almost 20 years ago, the Inner London Education Authority sponsored a week-long action research project on the Aylesbury. Outreach workers from all over inner London worked together to try to identify what learning opportunities might make a difference to the lives of local people.

After the week, they continued to meet and to reflect on what they had learned and what their employers ought to do. The product of their work, the Aylesbury Report, was seen as sufficiently provocative for theILEA to refuse the offer of publishing it. So it was published by Southwark Institute of Adult Education. For the last decade, copies of the report have been passed from hand to hand.

Finally, this week, it has been re-published with a new forward by Dan Taubman, NATFHE's assistant secretary. As a Southwark outreach worker, he was one of the moving spirits behind the project.

As he observes, the report has much to offer contemporary debates about how best to make an education system fit for all our communities. He describes the last 20 years as a dark age for progressive adult education, and the publication of Aylesbury Revisited: Outreach in the 1980s represents a determined attempt to stop the wheel needing to be reinvented all over again.

So, on the subject of what the Government's social exclusion unit report on skills calls "community champions", the report has this to say: "There are real 'resource' people in the community who can relate to their neighbours and teach them a thing or two. They may not have strictly bona fide recognised educational qualifications, though they may have considerable industrialcommercial service experience overa number of years, and skills which they can share with other people."

It is clear from the report that the tension between widening participation and raising standards is not new. Mike Cushman and Dan Taubman describe a long-running battle "around the issue of 'educational standards' put forward by the inspectorate as having universal application, but seen in the light of workers' experience to be only narrowly valid". And in a thought-provoking piece, Sally Nicholls and Evelyn Murray remark: "In our daily work we have been constantly trying to present adult education in terms that encouraged people to use it, and then having to present to Southwark Institute activities and demands that were not compatible with their terms of reference."

It is unlikely that the Learning and Skills Council will escape without having to face that dilemma.

Outreach workers themselves can be gatekeepers with their own boundaries. Nicholls and Murray ask how, faced with a bewildering range of challenging social crises, so many outreach work initiatives focus on family learning initiatives, good as they are, and so few on the rehabilitation of drug offenders.

On the same day it published Aylesbury Revisited, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, where I work, published two other books on outreach work - one focusing on information and communications technology, the other, Veronica McGivney's impressive overview, Recovering Outreach: Concepts, Issues and Practices. Veronica's analysis reinforces the conclusions drawn in the neighbourhood renewal strategy, that it is only when people in the poorest communities feel empowered and supported in shaping the regeneration of their communities that significant change can happen. And effective outreach work, backed by enough patience and flexibility, can support the gains in confidence and agency for that transformation to happen.

But a system driven by audit finds it difficult to be patient enough. One local education outreach worker cited in McGivney comments: "You can talk to people and raise their awareness but it may be six weeks or six months before they come back."

Results take time. And there is the rub. We have a system impatient for results, and a world where catastrophe can happen at speed, but you cannot force the pace at which people choose to reshape their own experience.

Alan Tuckett is director of the NationalInstitute of Adult and Continuing Education.

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