We’re a couple of weeks into term, but the queues at the clinic and the college’s housing office speak volumes about how well (or rather, not so well) the Christmas festivities went for some of our learners.
Getting in shape is also on the agenda. The college gym is busy with staff and learners alike, keen to keep on top of their resolutions. The salad bar in the canteen is busier than usual.
There’s a new programme of “British values” tutorials, too. It’s early days but, so far, they have been well received by learners. And despite my scepticism around the whole Prevent agenda, I’m pleased that the sessions are going well. It was my job to help write the lesson plans.
There have been some hiccups, though. It was naive of me to assume that all our students would understand what we mean when we talk about Britain and the difference between Wales, Scotland and England, not to mention the complications of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not all were able to recognise an outline map of Britain. The progress tutors did the college proud, though, and most taught an impromptu geography lesson before getting down to the more nuanced and subtle subject of what it might actually mean to be British.
Part of the session was based on a worksheet that asked learners to think about Britain’s characteristics. “If Britain were a car, it would be…”, “If Britain were a food it would be…” and so on. Students’ answers were fascinating, veering between the very positive and the utterly miserable. The responses to “If Britain were a sound…” ranged from “the noise of a carnival party” to “an old man farting in his sleep”. Discussion then followed. Some learners felt that Britain was a great place to be, a land of golden opportunity, while others didn’t. The picture that some students painted was rather bleak; a country in poor shape with little opportunity for change. One tutor recounted that the conversation quickly moved on to crime; she was taken aback to discover the strength of views around punishment. It seems that some of our learners are rather draconian.
The shape of the college is ever-changing. The shape of the nation changes, too. And while some of us might be keen to develop, the changes our learners see around them can cause fear and leave them deeply unsettled. The positive reflections from the lesson were encouraging, but it’s important not to dismiss the more negative feelings expressed about what it’s like to be British. The learner who compared Britain to “a clapped-out Ford Cortina”, for example. National identity is important, but positive images of Britishness can only come when each 18-year-old feels that they matter within the bigger shape of the nation. And I’m not sure how we’re supposed to achieve that. I’ve a funny feeling that it will be much harder than losing two stone before summer.
Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College @revkatebottley