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.