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?

  • Good post, its an excellent idea. I’m a firm believer that if you engage young people and treat them with respect, encouraging learning you’ll get the best out of them.

  • susan

    Anything that develops a learning community and involves parents is a good idea. But I think school reform is essential as well. I don’t think it’s true that if you want to learn you will learn. I went to a poor secondary school where many of my bright and talented class mates, (I was in the A stream), left school at sixteen and went into poorly paid work put off from learning by poor teaching and a lack of opportunity to study subjects they enjoyed because of a restricted curriculum. I was good at science but couldn’t study all 3 sciences because there wasn’t a chemistry class. If students are exposed to poor teaching they can be put off learning for life. Other students in my class were good at languages they didn’t have the oportunity to take GCSE’s in languages. Can community groups offer the same breadth of subjects that schools can? Further education colleges are full of mature students returning to education to make up for the lack of qualifications gained at school. Many of them make considerable sacrifices to go back into education; juggling family and part time work. How much better if their potential was actually realised at school. I agree that deprived communities need to be involved in education but it should be as an alternative to school education or as a partnership with local schools. I agree the advantage of the learning dream is that parents and communities recognise their own needs rather than having solutions imposed on them by outside agencies but could the 2 approaches not work side by side – better schools with a learning culture in the local community?

  • idunnomeself

    I think the point about basing community development on ‘assets’ rather than ‘weaknesses’ is very challenging, but could be the key to turning around the performance of our community development sector.

    The same point was made in that OFMDFM report I read thanks to you.

    Good to see you taking up the baton

  • fair_deal


    I have had an interest in the asset approach for a few years now and saw the approach in full effect when I worked in south Boston and Harlem for a few nonths and weeks respectively.

    Unfotrtunately many more seem wedded to the needs approach that perpetuates a cycle of service provision rather than change.

  • susan

    Fair deal how would this approach work? Would it ignore existing education services or work with them? Considering the funding for education is increasingly restricted how would it be funded? I have no brief for established services and living in a deprived area – East Belfast – would be interested in how you see it working?

  • fair_deal


    Best to get it from the horses mouth rather than me trying to answer you from my notes.