Unlocking Learning Dreams in Deprived Loyalist communities

Dr Jerry Stein, an American academic with an innovative and successful approach to educational attainment in deprived communities visited Northern Ireland last week as a guest of Public Achievement, Community Relations Council and Upper North Belfast Community Empowerment Partnership and he is hoping to develop a pilot in deprived loyalist communities in North Belfast.In his talk at the CRC offices he emphasised that a culture of learning is the key. Schools impact upon those with a desire to learn and this is why various school reforms have delivered little turnaround in many needy communities. To use a sweeping generalisation, if a person arrives at a school wanting to learn any school will succeed if a person doesn’t no school will succeed.

His programme, Neighbourhoods Educating Themselves, operates in the Prospect Park East River Road neighbourhood of Minneapolis. It began in 1994 following an asset-based approach (focusing on what the community has rather that focusing on need) and social capital (the construction, repair, development of linkages and networks between individuals, groups and communities). The techniques followed were personal introductions from neighbours or friends (no referrals from public agencies), asking a parent what their “learning dream” is and helping them achieve it followed by a parent and child choosing and achieving a common “learning dream”. It only delivered its own classes as a last resort as it believed establishing new linkages was a key aspect.

It seems to have developed a culture of learning and local school outcomes are mighty impressive too. The work contributed to the re-establishment of a school in the area and this school boasts 100% parental involvement, 0% truancy and good exam results. It has also made a range of life-long learning organisations more flexible and responsive in how they deliver in needy communities.

Jerry Stein did not touch on it directly but his argument that school reforms have limited impact is interesting. Are the 11 plus reforms going to deliver the change some expect of it? Is it legitimate concern focused on the wrong issue? Is how much school reforms can actually deliver being overestimated?

Beyond education should our community sector take a hard look at whether the needs-based approach is delivering change?