Big society was never a government initiative

It was a label to put on the self-sufficient work that communities have always done, and the capacity for which, over many decades a series of governments have effectively eroded. As McKnight says

‘competent communities have been invaded, captured, and colonized by professionalized services’

and I would say seriously weakened as a consequence. Now that some debt needs paying off, and the ‘professional services’ are being withdrawn, the ask is that we pick up where we left off, as if all that capacity and capability could just be turned on and off like a tap.

And, that instead of focussing on real needs, we focus instead on how we can help these professionalised service providers to maintain their empires through ‘volunteering’.

Sadly many of us have been complicit in the professionalisation of services as we convert civic endeavours into social enterprises and re focus community development on state funded policy objectives – instead of having confidence to work on the priorities that we find at our own kitchen tables and at the places where, increasingly rarely, our neighbours meet.

So for me it is about re-discovering self-sufficiency, self-interest and association as the means through which we can build fair futures for as many as possible, with governments and their policies and procedures being seen increasingly as, at best, impotent.

For me Big Society was never an inspiring initiative but really just a political land grab. But the work of building our communities needs to be bought back inside our communities and we need to recognise that any form of dependence on our government as an investor needs to be handled with immense care. For they are often a fickle investor. Much of my work at the moment is helping a range of charities, social enterprises and other components of the beloved Big Society to re-build themselves in a world where the public money has simply disappeared.

Building a strategy for social change based on assumptions that the state will be a benevolent and consistent investor has always been risky.

This post was first published as a comment on, and inspired by Tessy Britton’s piece Big Society R.I.P.

Bonsai People in a Bonsai Culture?

Bonsai = An ornamental tree or shrub grown in a pot and artificially prevented from reaching its normal size

The bonsai is not a genetic variant but has within it the potential to become a fully grown tree.  However it is carefully cultivated to meet the demanding requirements of the gardener.  It is fed few nutrients, kept in shallow soil, not allowed to form deep roots, continually pruned and kept ‘in proportion’; shaped to the precise requirements of the gardener and the specifications of their profession.

Bonsai People

Bonsai people have had their development limited, distorted and shaped by the influence of their environment rather more than it has been driven by their own potential and aspirations.  To an extent we are all Bonsai People.  But some people have been more bonsaid than others.

And some seem to be very content with their bonsai nature.  While others are frustrated at the sensation that there must be something more in them than this.

Yesterday I was on the phone with Rich Huxley and we were talking about developing musicians. I told him of a mentor in Leeds who had boasted to me about how they had worked with a 14 year old boy whose ambition was ‘to be the best bass guitarist in the world’ and had managed to get them to realise just what a preposterous and unlikely goal this was.  Instead he persuaded the lad that 5 grades A-C was a much more achievable and better ambition.

One of my own daughters was told while studying for GCSEs that she should play less netball and see less of her boyfriend in order to study more as she had the chance to get ‘straight As’.  This of course had much more to do with a teacher and a school under a hard performance management regime than it did the ‘spiritual, mental and physical development’ of my daughter!

I was encouraged to pursue my abilities in maths, physics and biology on the grounds that they were ‘the future’ rather than my then interests in community work, punk and ecology.  Funnily enough community, music and sustainability have proven life-long passions.  Maths? Not so much.

Young people are encouraged in all sorts of ways to drop art, music, drama and so on, in pursuit of ‘more academic’ subjects.   If you are going to spend 39k a year on a degree then you had better make sure it has a job at the end of it etc.   It is as if the sole purpose of education is to get as many employer brownie points as possible.  To produce the perfect Bonsai rather than nurture potential and passion.

We might as well put education in the UK into the hands of the Department for Business for heaven’s sake….

And I have worked with lots of professionals, who tell me that they are ‘not in the right job’, that ‘this is not really me’.  Most were offered ‘training’ (usually in accountancy, management or some other commercial discipline) that would be good for their career.  They might not have been enthusiastic, but never look a gift horse in the mouth etc.  Before they know it they are in finance department earning decent money trapped in job that is just not them.  They are bonsai of themselves.

Sound familiar?

There is a massive difference between schooling – training to conform and meet someone elses specification and educating – drawing out and developing potential, exploring and nurturing individuality.  Much of what we today call education is really little more than schooling.

Living in A Bonsai Culture?

Could we be living in a predominantly bonsai culture, where relatively few people are deeply interested in the potential of themselves, never mind their neighbours.  What passes for a culture of self-improvement now largely focuses on enhancing abs, pecs, other bits of the anatomy and ‘style’ rather than the continual development of character, personality and ‘self’.  The main pre-occupation is less ‘what might I become?’ than ‘how can I fit in’ or ‘how can I get by?’

Or instead of focussing on potential we focus on what we are told are ‘flaws’. Corrections of perceived ‘abnormalities’ rather than a genuine exploration of potential and individuality.

Escaping the Bonsai Culture…

…seems like an almost impossible ask.  Once you start looking the tools of the bonsai gardener are everywhere, in the media, adverts, politicians manifestos indeed just about every external stimulus that we are exposed to is designed to influence us, to shape us to persuade us in some direction.  Even this post…

But we can choose to:

  • Spend more time with people who value us for who we are and not what we might do
  • Reflect more on who we are and what we might become
  • Be comfortable talking about our own development, what it might mean and how it might be approached – rather than relying on the prescriptions of our chosen ‘teachers’
  • and think twice about whether a course of action is likely to make us more like the person that we want to be, or more like the person that someone else wants us to become?

If these themes and possibilities interest you then check out Progress School running in Leeds





Shaking Up Education in Leeds

I trained as a teacher in Leeds back in the 1980s.  And ever since there has been nothing but ‘shake-ups in education’.  Nine years as a School Governor in the city was characterised by a succession of initiatives, mostly from Whitehall, to be dealt with.

But inspite of all of this change, very little real progress.  You don’t believe that rise in examination results every year for the last 29 do you?

So what happens when you float a radical idea related to education in the city?  A senior public sector manager snorts loudly and says ‘That’ll never happen’.

Nice.  Way to go.  Innovation Central.  Thank you!

The idea?  Not a manifesto.  Not even a proposal.  Just an idea….

What if every school in the city carried the same proportion of pupils from poor homes?  Instead of some schools having no ‘poor kids’ and others having a majority, why not find ways to ensure that every school has a very similar profile of wealth in its population?

What might the impact be on the quality of education right across the city?

Or how about this?

Why not take the money that we currently spend on inward investment and tourism in the city and instead use it to reduce class sizes across Leeds?  We might then attract employers to our city because of the quality of the education we offer, the resulting talented workforce and providing great education to employers and employees children?  Tourists might come because the citizens of Leeds are actually able to produce an experience  that few can match.

  • What are the other radical ideas that we could explore in relation to education in Leeds?
  • How do we produce citizens who know how to make their enterprising souls sing?
  • How do we overcome the disparity in achievement that is dictated more by a fate of birth than anything else?

Anyone up for an Innovation Lab on Education in Leeds?