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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.