Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Community empowerment - optimism?

So, we have a Community Empowerment ACT now in Scotland. And the Scottish Government are very proud of it too, as Minister for Local Government and Community Empowerment Marco Biagi writes. They should be proud too. Scotland has a long history of community empowerment. The minister highlights the example of community land buy-outs. I find the example of community-based housing associations more impressive – they are predominantly urban and commonly created by people in quite marginalised, deprived neighbourhoods being supported respectfully.* They’ve also managed to avoid the pitfalls of legislation such as this, such as the Localism Act’s “Right to Challenge” which is actually a right to have your services privatised due to European Union procurement rules.

I’m also quite impressed by the Scottish Government trying to use the engagement in political issues that emerged with last year’s referendum to try and deepen democracy and democratic engagement in Scotland.

However, I have two problems with the Act that means I cannot share the Minister’s optimism (not that I’d expect a Minister to be critical of their own Act, you understand). Firstly, unsurprisingly, given my interests, is the issue of possible injustices. As my colleague Prof. Annette Hastings said in her submission and oral evidence to the committee scrutinising the original bill, without adequate community learning and development support it is going to be the most affluent and able communities that will be able to take most advantage of these provisions – they could widen inequality not challenge it (as argued in this paper which you can download for FREE).

But, if you don’t know that argument you’ve not been paying enough attention to my stellar academic career, or this blog, so I don’t want to over-rehearse it again. I want to suggest another reason why I don’t share the optimism of the Minister. I just don’t think people are that bothered. It should also be noted that the Scottish Government listened to the concerns of people about the risks around equity and changed the Bill substantially.

I often find myself at events about participation, occasionally asked to speak (though Oliver Escobar is quite rightly Scotland’s go-to man on that count at the moment), and whenever I do I ask the other folk if they ever attend their local community council, PTA, neighbourhood partnership/committee etc. etc. Invariably, these people who are imploring Scotland to be more participatory and deliberative don’t attend such events because they’re too busy and not interested. I honestly say, from spending 15 months of doctoral fieldwork going to such meetings (the endless debate about a grant to a local Budgerigar fanciers organisation was a particular highlight – community budgeting is the future) you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming to such events.

Even if these organisations were given substantial budgets and power over local service areas, I still wouldn’t be bothered to get involved – I want my local services delivered well without me having to tell the local authority that I’d quite like clean streets, good local schools, and enough activities and youth work to prevent youth anti-social behaviour. Why should I attend a meeting to get good local outcomes if we know how to deliver those outcomes?

And this is where I think the Government have made a bit of an error of identification. I was a presiding officer on 5 May and, it is true that representative democracy has been invigorated in Scotland. Unlike every single other election I’ve worked, I had no time to stop and relax really – there was a constant stream through the doors. In my constituency there was a massive swing to the SNP, but the Labour candidate actually increased his number of votes compared to 2010. Everyone was voting more, because it’s easy.

The sort of participatory democracy the Scottish Government wants to create through the Community Empowerment Act isn’t that easy to get involved with. It requires giving up time and effort. It also involves thinking about issues in a very complex way. I’m a policy scholar – I get paid to think about these things. Most folk don’t.

The Scottish Government are attempting this participatory approach in their new National Conversation on a Fairer Scotland – my colleague Prof Paul Cairney has written well about this. I saw a tweet from the Scottish Government official account the other day:
And I was just thinking, well? Yes? What about these things? Can we have a policy discussion about these? How about evicting older people who are under-occupying massive homes and distorting the housing market? What kind of jobs do we want to create? Those that match the skills of the labour market now, or plan for the future? These are just a handful of the litany of difficult policy questions that spring to mind when you immediately start to think about what a “Fairer Scotland” might be. And heaven forfend that you might suggest some of these debates might cause conflict and rancour and people might disagree! In the New Progressive Scotland we just need to talk more (but not to persuade people, just to listen to them) and hug a bit more. 

Getting mass participatory democracy to discuss such issues is just utopianism, and I say that even though I’ve dabbled in Habermas. For me, Habermas and the political theory of Iris Marion Young are yardsticks, not blueprints.

To be a little bit more critical, I do have to put the ScotCEA into the same category of policies in Scotland that blurring accountability (Paul Cairney again and again). For me, the broader community empowerment agenda has to be seen as part of Cruikshank’s will to empower. Quite often I’ve heard people say that we need participation so people can meet outcomes. I’m sure this is commonly meant in a positive, co-producing way. But I believe it is also about dumping responsibility onto communities – want the council to do something about the closed primary school in your neighbourhood that’s being vandalised and is an eyesore then you should get together and buy it yourself! What? You don’t have enough money? Well, you’re not empowered enough then, are you.


* I used Richard Sennett’s idea of respect in an age of inequality, I used it in my doctoral thesis to argue in favour of a social democratic regeneration policy.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Reflections on Teaching Practice - Student-led Learning

Reflections on teaching practice – student-led learning
In a previous post on here I reflected on how different it was going from small(ish) classroom-based teaching at Heriot-Watt to mega-teaching at Stirling. In this post I want to reflect on my experience of something quite the opposite – last semester I dabbled in student-led learning with a module of 14 students who were in their honours years (third and fourth years).

The module was called Governance and Society and it is ordinarily convened by a colleague who was on research leave. I offered to convene it when I started at Stirling to fill a gap and because I felt reasonably comfortable delivering a module on governance. The time spent wrapping up a research project and running my gigantic module in autumn semester meant I’d had very little time to prepare for running the module, but I knew I would do something along the lines of student-led learning as this was a teaching style I was comfortable with and it would meet the learning outcomes.

The teaching style I’d experienced at Heriot-Watt and that I implemented myself there because I realised it worked, used a lot of techniques that are seen as “trendy” and new, such as the flipped classroom, as just good, interesting teaching. Also, on reflection, I realised that the supervision/tutorial system of Oxbridge, that I had such an interesting experience of, is essentially student-led learning to the max.

I ran the module by doing a deal with the students. They chose three topics from a list I had prepared (I said they could chose others if they wanted) and then they would work in groups to deliver teaching materials in the final three weeks of semester for their colleagues. If they produced good quality materials then I would guarantee that they would not fail the exam – I would give them 40% just for writing their name and leaving the room (I did this on the basis that they were likely to get 60%+ on the question for the topic they had researched anyway, so would probably not get under 40% for the whole exam). In the end they accepted the deal and chose: co-production and the governance of public services; the governance challenges of wind farm developments; and Bourdieu, Putnam, social capital and governance.

For the first eight weeks of semester I led the teaching giving students a basic grasp of ideas around governance, such as governance as a descriptive term (i.e. the rise of the network society) and governance as a normative concept (something governments should do instead of governing). I broke this up with a really interesting trip to Stirling Council to hear their Community Planning manager talk about how they do governance and also brought in a colleague who has decades of experience on governing boards and committees, including an NHS board, who spoke about “good governance” and accountability.

I really wanted the students to get a good grasp of theoretical approaches to power within the module. One of the key parts of this was spending an entire two hour class discussing the second edition of Luke’s Power: A Radical View. It was a book I had not read for a long time and wanted to revisit it. Revisiting with the small group of students was a brilliant, enlightening process for all concerned. It is a difficult book, and the second section of the second edition adds a lot of theoretical meat onto the previous discussion and gets into some challenging discussions on the ontology and epistemology of power. Overall, it worked brilliantly – the students stepped up to the mark.

This section of teaching gave the students the basis for their coursework essays. The student-led teaching formed the basis of the exam. I want to focus on the co-production group as they taught me the most about teaching and learning. In the first week all groups took a very formal approach and basically did a 50 minute presentation of their work to date. I gave each group feedback verbally in class and online through the VLE. The following week the co-production group picked up every point I’d made the previous week and answered the comments through their presentation – it was a case of “you say jump, I say how high”. In the feedback to the group I asked them “were they co-producing?” and “how could they co-produce the teaching in the final session”.

In the end they did co-produce the final class by highlighting how student-led teaching was, in effect, co-production and co-producing a discussion about this. Rather wonderfully it started off as a bit of a love-in as to how much they’d enjoyed the module, but it also worked brilliantly in delivering learning. We covered key issues in co-production theory: inequalities, power, professional knowledge and expertise, the opportunities for transformation. It was great stuff.

Ultimately the student attainment was good – not spectacular, but I imagine the small group were more engaged and therefore stretched themselves more than if I had used standard broadcast techniques of teaching. As one of the students said though, they probably put more work into the module than they had in any module in their studies (these were mainly third and fourth years) and they really enjoyed it. They accepted the responsibility for their own teaching and learning. And I got fantastic feedback.


I don’t know if I’d do it again for this sort of module, but I’ll definitely learn lessons from the experience and try and encourage more moments of student-led collaborative learning within my teaching. I’m looking after another module this coming spring semester and am going to start that with a collaborative problem-definition world-cafĂ©, for example. And it’s interesting, it probably didn’t save me that much academic labour, it just shifted a lot of that to a different time – commenting after a class using the VLE, rather than producing PowerPoints before a class. But, overall I’m glad I carried out this little experiment with my wonderful honours students. 

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Opening up the university

As part of a collaborative effort in collecting writing in the “death of the university” genre, I accessed this interesting reading list on university space layout, crowd-sourced in the old skool social medja of the Critical Geographer’s JISC mailing list.*It includes this report from Loughborough university, which unlike most of the guff in the “death of the university” literature is actually based on evidence, rather than just someone moaning in front of a keyboard (I really like this response to a recent awful Spectator piece on the growth of uni admin). The report included this interesting space-utilisation graph:

At both universities I’ve worked at we’ve had space utilisation studies and I’ve always wondered what the results look like. It’s not a surprise. I’m sat typing this at home, so my office is part of that 60 per cent that’s unused.

Anyway, I was thinking about this over the past couple of days. As you’re probably aware if you follow this blog, I swim and generally keep fit to maintain sanity (you can watch me swim here). My swimming training happens at a local secondary school in Edinburgh, with the coaches paying a commercial rate to cover all the school’s costs. On the one hand, I can afford to use this resource at commercial rates and this excludes other groups that might not be able to afford it. On the other hand, this income means that the school can actually afford to keep the pool open and have a swimming pool that their pupils can swim (although one of the kick boards I’ve used had “I HATE SWIMMING” scratched into it) – a difficult balance for a local authority to strike and one we don’t talk about enough.  

At the weekend just gone, I competed in the Stirling Triathlon (if you go and look at the results, in my defence, the swim time includes the 50-60 second run around to transition!). This used the university pool at Stirling and the campus for the run. I’m pretty sure a lot of my race fee went towards the cost of renting the buildings.

But, I want to go back to that diagram above. At an event on the Future Public Servant as part of the Scottish Government’s Participation Week yesterday, I made the point that one of the greatest resources the Scottish Government has to enable participation is its own resources – it has extremely talented individuals who could join committees and do participation in their local or interest communities. They also have buildings throughout Scotland that will be left empty at times that people want some space to use. As a research project I supported showed, what helps people engage is somewhere to sit and have a cup of tea and somewhere to prepare and eat food together – something most public sector organisations have in acres.

It strikes me that a very easy way for universities to become more progressive, change society for positive benefit, and coproduce services with local communities is to open some of this space they have up to a much wider range of organisations and groups. Being an academic, I feel very confident walking into other university’s space (cafes, libraries etc.) and using them for my own ends. If the university is going to be engaged then it spaces should be more open and more people should feel comfortable in them. To put it plainly, a local Community Council should be able to use a teaching room of an evening for free for their meetings. Perhaps this is one way the university can engage again with a social mission akin to the settlement movement?


* if you’re not a member of CRIT-GEOG I’d advise joining and getting the daily digest just to have a daily chuckle at the debates that go on. The annual “stop sending requests for articles” debate is a particular highlight I always look forward to. 

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reflections on teaching practice - changing practices

If you’d not already gathered, I moved to the University of Stirling in July last year. I knew teaching here would be a bit different when in my interview I was challenged as to how I’d changes my teaching practices, particularly my enjoyment of student-led learning and interaction that I had developed from being taught at and then teaching at Heriot-Watt, to suit a class of 300. Apparently my answer impressed as I got the job. This will be the first of a series of blog posts reflecting on this change of teaching scenery and context.

Stirling has the “Stirling model” of undergraduate degree. In the first two years you will have one or two core modules you have to sit to progress in your subject and then you can chose what you want from across the introductory modules offered by the University. Numbers of these modules are limited so the classes are commonly enormous. You specialise down in your honours years.

I was coordinating one of these mega introductory modules – Understanding Social Policy. It had 367 students. There was only one lecture theatre on campus big enough for it. If it was any bigger it would have had to be split in two. The constraints this imposes are immense – my timetabling options were nil. It had to be run as two lectures a week for 12 weeks with ten hour-long tutorials. Even the coursework essays had to have staggered hand-ins to prevent the student office being overwhelmed.
In these reflections I want to focus on two aspects: lectures and what I’ll refer to as “not teaching”.

Firstly, lectures. This was my first time when I felt I was properly lecturing in the old school style. I had 50 minutes and I had to broadcast out a group of students to begin their learning process. I was stood at a lectern with c.200 faces staring down at me. And, actually, boy did it feel good. I’m clearly a thwarted actor. In my lecture on poverty I got a little bit carried away and ended up shouting about the scandal that 40 per cent of children in Scotland experience poverty at some point before the age of five. The faces in the audience looked visibly shocked as I boomed into the microphone and banged the lectern.

However, the limitations of the lecture as a teaching medium were very apparent during the exam period. Even in the run-up to the exam, the emails from students, mercifully few it has to be said, revealed that the students understood the exam merely as an opportunity to memorise a lecture and then dump these memories onto the page over three hours. On some of the answers to the exam questions, you could see this was exactly what students had done – not read widely, but regurgitated the 50 minute narrative they had heard as it roughly answered the question.

This is where my PGCap know-how and the idea of devising your assessment to the learning outcomes has really helped. As I joked on twitter the other week:

The basic learning outcome is to get students to read beyond the basic material in lectures. But this, although fun, would not be the ideal way to assess learning outcomes. Instead I’m going to shorten the exam and have the first half of it as comments on contemporary sources – data, quotes from policy documents, the Daily Hate Mail etc.

The second issue I wanted to talk about was “not-teaching”. By this I meant the strange sense of detachment from the learning process from being a coordinator of such a large module. I didn’t run the seminars/workshops, and didn’t do all the lectures (the modules are team-taught). I got to know literally a handful of students by name and only moderated around 15 per cent of the work. This was extremely different to teaching classes of 30-40 where, although you didn’t know every student well, you definitely got a sense of learning with them, rather than teaching at them. Therefore I ended semester with very little idea of how the students had actually got on during semester, except their performance looked like that of a group that were only marginally engaged with the subject (the majority of marks were below 60 per cent). I used a Google Form to get more feedback off my students and achieved an admirable 89 responses which were helpful, if not contradictory, as ever.

Anyway, it can’t have all been bad as I won this:

Monday, 27 April 2015

I attended a community action event

Some organisations I'm involved with in various ways, primarily through research (namely: WHALE Arts, Prospect Community Housing Association and SCORE Scotland, along with the City of Edinburgh Council) organised a community action event in Wester Hailes on Saturday and I went along. It used Open Space - a technique I'd never seen before, but that I was very impressed by. Here are my random thoughts on the event in no particular order.

It was diverse! As I said to many people on the day, it was the most ethnically diverse room I've been in since I moved to Scotland. The 2011 census showed that only four per cent of Scotland's population is from a Black Minority Ethnic background (BME), which means most events in Scotland are as white a ream of photocopier paper. Also, SCORE brought along their youth club, so it was diverse in ages too.

A lot of issues that really matter to people were discussed: the kids complained about being bullied on buses or of being made to carry out religious worship that was not part of their faith; BME people spoke about racial harassment and intimidation; people spoke about massive delays in getting an appointment at the GP; people spoke about cyclist/pedestrian/motor vehicle conflict; people spoke about dog shit; they spoke about dog shit some more; they also spoke about youth anti-social behaviour.

Cultural differences: the cultural differences also became apparent, in two key ways. Firstly, as Pinkster and Droogleever found in the Netherlands, there were different cultural expectations of parenting among new-migrant communities (often from a Muslim or Evangelical Christian background) and the white working class community that was leading to tensions around youth anti-social behaviour. What was seen as "kids being kids" by some people was seen as appalling behaviour and disobedience by others. 

Also, the new migrants were clearly quite committed to the neighbourhood and wanted to make a difference by doing things. However, a lot of the longer-term activists had seen the same issues repeatedly over 30-40 years, seen many solutions thrown at them and were a bit world weary: "we've talked about this all before and nothing's been done" was a common refrain. I'll be writing a journal article on this it was such an interesting dynamic.

People found their own solutions: a brilliant example of this was a group that spoke about what could be done with a particularly bad local problem around legal highs. They agreed three actions: to work more closely with Police Scotland and the Council (fair enough) but also to organise a petition to give to the local shop telling them to stop selling legal highs; and a wee lad was also going to make some posters about the dangers of legal highs. This was asset-based community development working very well.

Evidence: related to my previous very sweary post, in just about every bit of discussion, or problem raised, I could put my fingers on a piece of academic, or good quality, evidence that would either illuminate the problem or provide a very practical solution. At the end of the day when the agenda was turned into a set of action points, I could have gone down the list and said "this is what the evidence says, this is what you should spend your resources on to do something about this". There is a crying need for universities and the academics in them to be providing this sort of knowledge for local communities and local authorities, not just using them as research objects. 

I tried to keep my input to a minimum as I don't live in Wester Hailes, but I suggested that there should be more, very cheap, experimental interventions run in the neighborhood to try and make some of the little quality of life changes that are required. You're not going to cure poverty, but you might make your immediate neighbourhood a wee bit better. The whole Open Space event could easily be joined up with a community budgeting initiative like £eith Decides

And, in the spirit of my last blog post (warning, contains copious swearing) I also put my money where my mouth was yesterday and spent a tenner on some random bits and bobs and dabbled in some guerrilla gardening in my local park, including doing a wee litter pick. I might do some guerrilla maintenance next - repainting the play equipment.

What really impressed me about Open Space was its openness. It is specifically designed to be very agenda-less and open up debate and discussion and move people towards practical solutions to problems very quickly. It was far better than anything involving agendas and Post-It notes I'd been to before. Sadly, very few people from local public services were there - three people in total. No local teachers or neighbourhood workers. If the City of Edinburgh Council is going to have 21st Century Public Servants(PDF) then they need to be working with communities at events such as this.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The death of the university

I wanted to do an erudite exposition on the nature of the contemporary university. Instead I ranted and swore. 

OH FFS, SHUT THE ACTUAL FUCK UP. Expecting “good teaching and learning” is NOT the commercialisation of the university – it’s being accountable as producers to what service users want. It’s what you’ve all been telling EVERY SINGLE OTHER PUBLIC SERVICE TO DO FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS. When you do an irate blog post, or snarky journal articles about other public servants not listening to service users (and you), you’re expecting from them exactly what you’re not willing to provide yourself. And doing a “Pathways to Impact Statement” does not make you a fucking “neoliberal slave”, it means that the government can actually just demonstrate, in a really poor way, that it might actually get some value for money from its research funding, rather than paying you to piss around in your office all day doing fuck-all. If you expect it from the person on the other end of the phone in the council, you should expect it yourself. Oh, and I’m terribly sorry that you find teaching disabled working class students, or students with English as a second language, slightly more challenging than the middle-class kids from comprehensive schools (who are just like you). Maybe it’s because YOU’VE NOT BOTHERED MAKING THE ACADEMY ACCESSIBLE TO THEM FOR THE PAST 1200 YEARS. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Is the right-to-buy a bad thing?

The housing world is frothing with vituperative arguments - and quite rightly so - at the launch of the Conservative Party manifesto today and the pledge to extend the right-to-buy to housing association homes. Now, we all know that the original right-to-buy was a Bad Thing. I don't disagree with this assessment that wildly: it reduced the supply of affordable rented homes; it led to the residualisation of social housing as a tenure of last resort; and it led to spatial segregation as the best housing was bought at substantial discount and was now out-of-reach of many lower income households. Finally, and for me most problematically, it left local authorities with an enormous burden of historic debt and no income stream to pay it off. I'm on the board of a housing association with properties with the preserved right-to-buy and I see the impact of this once-in-a-while when one of these properties is purchased and our balance sheet takes a small hit. The mess that local authority housing revenue accounts were left in by the right-to-buy doesn't bear thinking about.

But, was the right-to-buy a Bad Thing in its entirety? I'd say we need some caution and nuance here - and we can end up with a much more radical policy. First of all, to be clear, the right-to-buy was not an invention of the Thatcher government. Local authorities since the 1950s had been building homes for purchase. In Tucker's cracking book Honourable Estates he gives the example of local authorities where you knew the Conservatives, or "Progressives" had won the local election because the "To Let" signs on the shiny new homes they'd built were replaced by "For Sale" signs. My uncle and aunt bought such a property, built by the LCC with a cheap mortgage through the Public Works Loan Board, in Harold Wood in Essex in the 1960s. Further, I can't put my finger on a source for this just right now, but as I understand it the right-to-buy in this format was extended in the 1970s. But the key here is an implementation detail - under these schemes the debt that the local authority had incurred through the construction was paid off by the purchaser. The discounts that have left local authorities strapped for cash since 1981 were not in place.

Further, in my research, and I've spoken to others who have found the same, in deprived neighbourhoods the right-to-buy is actually quite important for long-term residents in two ways. Firstly, it means that if their family wish to remain close by, but become homeowners, they can purchase property, often resold RTB properties. Secondly, for many long-term, committed residents people exercising the RTB is a very positive symbol - it means that their neighbourhood is now good enough that people are willing to invest a substantial amount of their money in property. Of course, the stigma towards such neighbourhoods should not be there in the first place and is exacerbated by the RTB and associated residualisation, but this is where we are and I cannot discount the evidence from the interviewees in my research. Also, that the RTB is being scrapped in Scotland has led to a surge in people taking advantage of it does suggest it's still a popular policy with individual tenants.

So, if we dare to say the RTB is not necessarily a Bad Thing what do we do about it? Well, from a more radical but pragmatic standpoint, I'd say we should do two things: firstly, the discount should be properly calculated as that bit of debt remaining, once maintenance costs have been factored in through depreciation, that the housing authority still has. This might actually mean the RTB is removed from some properties as this is incalculable. Secondly, if individuals can have the right to take property of one institution, then they should have the right to take it off all institutions - that is the RTB should be extended to the tenants in all private property. As the infamous (on twitter) loveandgarbage pointed out, the only person to do this was a (very) Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland in 1997.

This, for me, is the more radical way to deal with the RTB and would also open up new, exciting forms of property ownership in a collective way if tenants in blocks of flats could collectively exercise the RTB. But, of course, as Alex Marsh has excellently exposed, the Conservative policy for the RTB is not thought-free. It is radical, but it is radical in terms of an attack on the neediest in society. It is a radical attack on the state and the idea that some people might be dependent on others for help. It is not a radical way to change housing policy or delivering new social housing. But then, that is also why the Conservatives are proposing to change inheritance tax making wealth even more poorly taxed in the UK. But that's a whole other blog post.