13 November 2006
Conversation between Carolyn Hassan of Knowle West Media Centre and Matt Little, Director of Creative Partnerships Bristol
Creative Partnerships (CP) is a government initiative focussed on making schools more creative places by establishing partnerships between them and the wider community and creative sector. CP have been working with schools in Bristol since 2003.
I met with Matt to discuss what he thought the main issues were in terms of Creative Partnerships’ work with schools in relation to the concept of “Connecting Bristol.” KWMC has worked closely with CP on a range of digital media projects in schools in Knowle West through the Blueboard Project – a collaboration with three other community production companies; Calling the Shots, First Born Creatives and Suited and Booted. CP has also been involved with KWMC in a range of other ways too: helping establish the NLarge young photographers group (a model that has since spread to other parts of the country), and through general networking and mutual support dating back to the early days of the initiative.
Matt identified that a recurring theme in CP’s work has been the ways in which communication takes place both within schools, and across the school/community boundary. He thinks that ‘schools and communication’ is a common theme that needs some work and development and that there are a range of interesting structural issues to address. For example, that we need a better understanding of who talks to who and how within, around, and about schools. Some work and tweaking in this area would make things better operationally for all those with a stake in the development and education of children (e.g. school staff, parents, initiatives, wider community and those seeking to help and work with schools. Schools would be better able to seize and then assimilate external help and support; parents could reach a better understanding of the aims, methods, approaches and challenges of schools; school staff would have better information about the children in their care – not least their passions, interests and issues beyond the gate as well as information about how they were responding to the teaching being delivered by the school and their ideas for making this better…)
This work on communication could also have a substantive impact on the quality of learning – communication in this sense is not just a technicality or afterthought. Good communication and connection (and power over this) is something that can reinforce or change our sense of self, confidence and place in the world.
He described the issue as schools often being like a Tupperware box (semi-opaque) with one or two main communication lines in (with these often ‘controlled’ and only open for certain periods of time across a day or year). This is an unusual model and a long way from the type of porous ideal sought within a creative sector company.
This is a challenge for those in the box and outside it trying to help. He said that the schools that fly in terms of their work with CP are often the ones that allow you to communicate directly with children (and these children therefore receive ‘extra’ learning because they are interacting with the world beyond the school), or where the head responds quickly – and this usually means they are confident and proficient at using email and other forms of communication and able to rapidly assimilate the world outside school, seize opportunities, and translate them into learning opportunities within. It has often been a challenge to communicate effectively with heads, and this is in a situation where they have had funding available for projects. It is not necessarily about having a good relationship with schools or heads but about communication flow.
Linked to this point, early on Matt said he realised that relationships have to be formed in different ways – schools simply don’t have the resources to send teachers to meetings during the day – new ways of communicating are key. As well as trying to work with schools to bring about positive changes within them in this area, we have to better understand the pressures they are under. Preconceptions and misunderstandings arise because of limited communication and conversation across the school/community boundary. Teachers may not understand technology, they need to be supported to understand and use new communication forms. Matt felt that there was often not the technical support available when teachers needed it and they had had many examples of weeks of work planning projects coming unstuck because video or computer equipment hadn’t been charged up or supported. Matt suggested that community technicians could be really useful in supporting schools – this model would be particularly relevant in a community like Knowle West where schools could link with technicians based at KWMC providing support and training as and when needed for staff in clusters of schools.
Matt said that schools are not very porous – and asks how can we make schools more open to conversations – with parents, with each other, with new initiatives? There is a difficulty with the flow of communication in schools – and suggested it would be interesting to follow the progress of information material – to track information flow internally and externally – what are the blockages and why don’t messages get through.
Matt felt that improving communication is absolutely key because positive communication and the use of language is a way to bring change into being (personal and systemic). We need to explore the links between positive language and communication, control over image and message, and the impact on esteem and confidence (of the child, family, community.)
We need to learn about communication from experts and from what works (for example, ensuring that we create two-way learning conversations and not fire off bland marketing documents; if possible to use the power and effectiveness of modern media – how can we learn from the fact that most parents perhaps know what is happening on Big Brother but will not hear school messages or for a whole range of reasons attend to their child’s learning in ways which might help teachers?) Linked to this point, we need to explore new ways of working, and new ‘platforms’ and channels for communication that can make learning visible in the community.
Matt suggested that the following could bring about fundamental change:
A joint action research project (schools, KWMC, CP and other relevant partners e.g. DFES Innovations Unit and the National College for School leadership) focused on improved communication within and around schools, and exploring its substantive learning impact, piloting new models that could be replicated across the city and beyond. (CP would be happy to take this forward and pull together if others are up for it and feel that this is a common area of interest!)
How do we begin?
1st Phase – Find out about why communication does and doesn’t work – follow a letter and other specific key communications and where they go – review communication across the boundary between school and community. Look at the information flow around a school, between young people, teachers and parents. Bring in communications specialists to look at blockages and patterns. How are things heard; what key bits of information fall through gaps?
Come up with a concrete action plan to do things differently – experiment with a range of partners! It would throw up interesting questions about who was in charge of communicating, who’s in control of networks – obviously there would be Child Protection issues to be aware of.
In conclusion Matt expressed the view that we need effective but often subtle communications with strong messages to help all of us, including children, to feel better about ourselves. We often have the power to talk things into being – obviously not saying things that are blatantly not true – but we all know the power of positive reinforcement of ideas and actions on young people, and Matt has seen the power of taking young people out of their usual environment to talk about their achievements or experiences – this often has a powerful effect which is fundamentally different to talking about experiences in “home territory”– it can boost confidence and have a lasting impact on confidence and, aspiration and self esteem. It also gives children and young people new experience to draw upon and develops their networks.