An alternative way of learning

The story of life at Findhorn continues with an explanation of the community's role in educating peo

Early December marks another turning point in the year – the ending of several of our longer-term (3-month) training programmes and the departure of those who have been taking the courses – folk who have become part of our family.

One of these programmes that is especially dear to my heart is the Findhorn Community Semester (FCS) programme. This is an accredited semester for students at US universities, counting towards their degree programmes.

Findhorn is one a number of ecovillages around the world that offer such courses, under the aegis of the Living Routes programme based in Massachusetts.

At root, what I love so much about this programme is that it's more or less exactly the kind of training programme that I would have loved to have had on offer when I was a young adult. This is education that engages head, heart and hands and that fires the imagination. I teach the Applied Sustainability course, where the ecovillage infrastructure really helps make the concepts come alive.

Some vignettes from the last couple of months.

Having spent the first part of one morning discussing how the global food economy works and its various impacts – including deep cruelty to animals force-fed on hormones and other growth agents – we go up to Wester Lawrenceton Farm, that is linked into the community.

There we take a farm tour in silence, with the farmer, Nick, occasionally holding up pre-prepared text written on pieces of paper. Next to his chicken-house, with chicks scrubbing around at our feet, Nick holds up an A4 sheet: ’90 per cent of hens in the UK spend all their lives in an area no larger than this sheet of paper’. The students deeply get the message – in their guts.

We spend the first part of another session talking about water and how we could design sustainable treatment systems. Then, we walk around our own Living Machine sewage treatment plant – an indoor, biological system, where plants and the various organisms that attach to their root systems filter out toxins so that the water coming out at the end of the process meets European bathing water standards.

It is beautiful, with flower blossoms tumbling out of the processing tubs. And the sight of snails and myriad water-borne organisms working way in the process of transformation in this elegant, watery cathedral is worth more than a thousand words on the concept of waste treatment delivered in a dry and arid classroom.

Classes (or parts of classes) on ecological building techniques happen on the building site, with the self-builders explaining their designs and describing the various trade-offs they are making between up-front costs and ecological sustainability. (Often, the most eco-friendly option is the most expensive). During the economics class, we play physically with the community currency we have created here – and trace its course through the community economy.

A theoretical session on Peak Oil and how communities can respond to the coming energy famine is brought to life by a visit to our four wind turbines that make us net exporters of electricity. The bases of the turbines have been painted by community members and local school children in beautiful patterns – in the shape of footprints, describing visions of the sustainable future we are trying to fashion.

We build on a theoretical exploration of permaculture principles with the construction over the course of the semester of a sustainable garden next to the Youth Project building. The young people of the community are ‘the client’ and our FCS students work with them in preparing the designs and then doing the building – or at least starting the building. Next semester’s FCS students will complete the job and, by next spring, the area in front of the Youth building will be ablaze with colour.

This is education that works. It stimulates the mind, engages the body and allows the imagination to soar. It has been joyful to watch the 12 young people who have spent the last three months with us open so gracefully and creatively to the transformation they have seen here. And the good news is that it is never too late, after all, to have a happy childhood. For, even though my own spirit and creative imagination were all but crushed in an appalling and brutal educational system that paid respect only to the rational mind, the inner youth in me watches on and dances in celebration of the fact that education like this now exists.

Tonight, we say goodbye to our beautiful students with a sumptuous community feast. Then we breathe for a while before opening up space to receive the next intake.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.