East London meets Findhorn

Jonathan Dawson describes what happens when youngsters from East London come to Findhorn

There is a vibrant good news story doing the rounds this week, in the shape of 24 school kids from the Rokeby School in Newham, East London and their deputy-head teacher, Willie Deighan. The story has its roots in a conference we hosted here in September last year with the title (appropriately given the solutions-based nature of what we are about), What Schools are Doing Right. Willie was a participant at that conference and left enthused at many of the positive approaches promoted.

How, he wondered, could these be applied in the context of Rokeby School? The school was not short of problems. It had a reputation as a rough school and for various reasons, ‘Special Measures’ – shorthand for new targets to be achieved urgently to avoid closure – had been imposed. The entire management team had recently been replaced.

Well, perhaps surprisingly, the positive methods learned at the Findhorn conference had an immediate effect. Recently appointed as deputy-head, Willie took on responsibility for developing a new ethos to improve the quality of the students’ unstructured time and specifically for addressing the perennial problem of bullying.

Rather than focussing on the problem, he introduced a method learned at Findhorn called Appreciative Inquiry – a planning tool based not on identifying problems that need solving, as in most conventional approaches, but rather on positive previous experience that can be built upon. The word that kept on coming up in the consultation with the students was ‘respect’ – they wanted more respect than they felt they were getting.

So, the ‘problem’ of bullying was reframed as the opportunity to request more respect. Definitions were sought of just what the students and staff meant by respect and these were synthesised into six core principles that are now posted on the school’s notice boards. In parallel, the students started studying and developing a taste for non-violent communication, another tool gleaned from the What are Schools Doing Right conference that aims at promoting more self-aware and responsible ways of relating.

A school leadership council has now been elected, with two representatives from each form, and this is playing a leading role in providing student input into the design of the new school that is to be built within the next three years. Even if they are not entirely clear what it means, the students do know they want it to be an ‘eco-school’.

Willie suggested the possibility of visiting a community that works with Appreciative Inquiry. One that attempts to integrate non-violent communication into the fabric of its operations and that is a good working model of an educational campus with sustainable design at its heart. And so, the idea of coming to spend some time at Findhorn was born.

There was still the small matter of raising the funding to make it all possible. In the event, the students exceeded their wildest dreams in raising £7,500 from the Newham Youth Parliament and a further £15,000 from the educational organisation, London Challenge.

So now they are here – 24 kids between the ages of 12 and 15 from a diverse array of ethnic backgrounds – engaged in educational sessions from 9.00am to 9.30pm every day for a week. They are studying non-violent communication techniques, making visits to local schools, studying how the various eco-technologies about the place operate and joining the teams in our own work departments..

One might have thought that these urban youngsters would stick out in such an alien environment – a good number have never been out of East London before. But they generally seem to feel at ease and are a comfortable, if somewhat unusual presence about the place. We people truly are less different from each other than we are sometimes inclined to believe.

The students’ time is now almost up – they leave on Saturday morning. The process of sharing what they have learned here begins almost immediately – the young people will be involved in training students from other schools in Newham in a little over a week.

It is a wonderful opportunity on so many levels for the community to host this kind of group. It helps us remain relevant to the needs of a multicultural 21st century Britain. It provides a great opportunity for us to exercise our privilege in service to something larger than ourselves. On a personal note, I find it deeply comforting that a community that is so nurturing to middle-aged, middle-class white people like me can also enthuse and inspire others that clearly do not fit this profile.

As the baby-boomers move into late middle-age, the perennial danger for ecovillages is that they become comfortable New Age, old-people’s homes. Weeks like this help keep us relevant.

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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser