Tag Archives: Closing Schools for the Future

How not to close a school.

Whilst the logic of school closures is portrayed in communications from the British Government and English local authorities as an act of logic and rationality, school closure invariably generates press stories of incensed parents, irate communities and exhausted teachers. What is frequently lost amongst the sturm und drang of closure however are the tiny stories (Denzin, 1991) of loss: of professional expertise, of collective memory, of shared hopes and fears.

This paper introduces a research programme which asks what is lost from a school community once the programme of closure has been agreed and a school moves inexorably towards its final days. In counterpoint to the national Building Schools for the Future programme, this project is informed by earlier work conducted by Whitefield (1980) Molinero (1988), Schmidt (2007) and Picard (2003). This study is thus both timely and of significance to future policy developments: the lived experiences of the community of teachers, families and children during school closure is rarely researched and a great deal of understanding and knowledge remains uncaptured, analysed or assessed.

This study begun as an ethnographic study of the closing months of a single primary school, Centenary Primary School on the Wirral which celebrated its 100th birthday with its imminent closure just months away. It adopts a multi-method research strategy, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods, the latter of which involves a traditional ethnographic approach coupled to an arts based educational research methodology.

One methodological consequence of adopting an arts based approach to the research has been to engage a team of artist researchers. This means that knowledge of the lived experience (van Manen, 1997) of school users can be developed from different perspectives which privilege not only linguistic forms of communication but spatial, musical, and visual: a method we believe is important to the school given its diverse mix of users and participants. It thus may be of use to schools in similar circumstances who wish to effect positive political outcomes during periods of future rationalisations: and in doing so, transform their tiny stories into noisy histories.

5 steps to getting your research paper published – in a London theatre

Closing Schools for the Future is being published / performed at a top London venue this week, the Riverside Studios, as part of the Tete a Tete Opera Fstival. But how did it get there and what does this process tell us about the connection between research and performance?

1. Start at a micro-local level. The first manifestation of CSF was in Seacombe Library, a small local library in Wallasey. It was presented in the form of a photographic exhibition to families, teachers and local residents.

2. Pitch to a discipline specific conference – in this case, the Oxford Ethnography conference which does exactly what it says on the tin. Talk, share and argue for ethnography. This supplied a friendly ‘on-board’ audience who were not averse to offering some important critical feedback.

3. Pitch to an international audience overseas who start off not having a clue what you’re talking about. The intelligent but ignorant audience really helps you to interrogate your own hard earned findings (in this case at the 1st Educational Research conference at the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). At this point the paper had been extended to take into account not just local, but regional and national perspectives too.

4. Take the leap and present to an international audience, at home: but in the format you’ve been aiming at all along – ie a performed reading with sympathetic, intelligent and friendly-critical artists. In this case, at the BERA conference at the University of Warwick with composer Gary Carpenter and vocalist, Jen Heyes.

5. Put it out there with the support and advocacy of aforesaid artists. Get invited to leading innovative opera festival, in this case the Tete a Tete Opera Festival at Riverside Studios.

The next steps…? Wait and see but this story isn’t finished yet.
What else have we learnt about this process? More to follow, tomorrow.

The death of Powerpoint?

Closing Schools for the Future is an operatic performance which is unique because it draws its subject material not from Greek tragedy, ancient European myths or Italian romances – but from research into the day to day lives of ordinary people who are facing a critical event in their local community; that of the closure of their local primary school.  Our research project has taken two years to look at the effects of school closure in schools across England and has focused particularly on schools in Wirral and Knowsley.

Many people have asked why school closure is a suitable subject for an opera, and whether opera is a suitable means of communicating research: and our answer is a qualified yes to both questions.  School closure is a huge issue these days.  Whilst there have been many initiatives to provide new schools (the government scheme Building Schools for the Future is one recent example), what gets lost in these initiatives are the hidden consequences to peoples communities, peoples jobs and the very fabric of their society.  This generates many poignant stories, larger than life characters and real life drama which often does not find an audience either in the media, in the arts or in education.

Even when research about those events are communicated within educational circles, the way those stories are communicated are often arid texts, written and communicated in academic terms and the results frequently ignored.  This leads to a real disconnect between those whose stories were being communciated and the audiences who are listening to those stories.  However, using music and drama to tell those stories – through the discipline of Arts Based Educational Research – communicates that research more effectively, with more emotional vibrancy and it has the chance for a greater impact – and for the lessons learnt in the research to be acted upon.

Closing Schools for the Future has already been presented in 3 educational conferences in Oxford, Ethiopia and Warwick.  At its last presentation, the audience left asking, Is this the Death of Powerpoint?  And whilst this might be an over ambitious outcome for the project, we certainly hope that by using opera as the means to communicate research findings, that these performance provide new opportunities for the results of our research into school closure to be acted upon.

Production team credits

Nick Owen, Director of the Aspire Trust, is a producer, director and artist educator who has worked across the UK and internationally. Recent publications include Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning (Routledge) and Outsider | Insiders: becoming a creative partner with schools (International Handbook of Creative Learning) and the film, My Life as an American (Latent Productions).

Gary Carpenter, Composer, has written operas, musicals and a radio music-drama (with Iris Murdoch) as well as film, dance and concert music. He was Musical Director on ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973) and won a British Composer Award in 2006. His portrait CD Die Flimmerkiste is released on NMC. Gary teaches at the Royal Academy of Music and the RNCM (Manchester).

Jen Heyes, Vocalist, is a director, producer, performer, educator and artistic director of the Liverpool based company Cut to the Chase Productions. As a theatre maker Jen has worked regionally and nationally (touring and individual works) and internationally (Berlin, Porto, Lisbon, Luxembourg, and Hong Kong) working on small, medium and large scale productions. She specialises in multi-media site specific theatre and always strives to use live music within her work.

Brian Hanlon, designer, is an Arts practitioner with specialist skills in design. He works in a range of settings from Youth Theatre to the West End. He recently worked on the Manchester Day Parade, for the second year with Walk the Plank. And with the Aspire Trust Scouse Wedding: The Opera.

Tiny Stories, Noisy Histories

Tiny stories is a  technique used within the practice of creative writing workshops. Nanofiction or microfiction are terms given to writing exercises in which the length of a story is arbitrarily determined to perhaps absurd lengths: Stern’s microfiction model for example states that micro-stories should be no more than 250 words. The World’s Shortest Stories (Moss, 1998) is more stringent: stories should contain no more than 55 words (excluding the title which must be no more than 7 words long) and each story must contain the following four elements: 1) a setting, 2) one or more characters, 3) conflict, and 4) resolution.   Snellings Clark (2008) refers directly to the term tiny stories and whilst offering another set of limits on length (100 words) also directs the writer not to use the same word twice (albeit making an exception for contractions).  She also offers a set of aesthetic criteria which describe how the tiny story might most effectively function:

Little stories that are larger on the inside than they appear on the outside.

Stories that leave an aftertaste, that linger.

Special nod to stories that include elements of the fantastic.

Little things with big effects: lost keys, a scrap of paper, a chink in the armour, a missing screw.

The inexplicable in the definable, the fantasy in the reality, the uncommon in the everyday, that something under the surface.

The secret little things….

The results of  the Closing Schools for the Future project are written as a series of tiny stories which conform to the Snellings Clark model: no more than 100 words in length, in commemoration of the age of the school at its closure.  78 tiny stories were written, each one representing a child who would have been on the school role had it been kept open in September 2008.

Whilst this constitutes a small ethnographic project where n=1 and where the characters, narrative, dialogue and critical actions appeared to inhabit a microworld with microscopic movements, cataclysmic change was felt widely, resonating out across the landscape in which the school is based in ways not fully understood or predicted.

The soundscape of the territory was a microcosm of silence. Resistance had been purposeless, directionless if not completely futile. Questions remained unanswered, under investigated, under challenged: the assumption of logic, incontestability was all pervasive.  In this world of tiny stories, teachers identities were sometimes subtly, sometimes seismically challenged: John, a class teacher of some 15 years in the school had decided he just wanted to continue to teach in any school, despite being offered extra pay for taking on enhanced management duties.  But he just wanted to teach; and unable to play the job interview game refers in an observed class to the on-looking new head in a throwaway aside as an old witch  which didn’t enamour him with her – so he failed to win the job in the new school and had to revisit his cv, his approach, his understanding of how he did what he did.  No longer a respected teacher for 15 years who had taught at the school classes across the range – he was now back in the market place with a label of as being a bit of a trouble maker.

These tiny stories were not part of the building schools for the future meganarrative of secondary schools; no bright new shining vision of educational pods for sophisticated young people who are able to opt for down loading content from their mobile phones over the attendance of a master class by an overperforrming uberteacher who would be performing ballet steps one minute an entertaining the visiting private sector funders the next.

These stories had no shine, no brighter picture of a future but were stories of a quiet, seeping desperation which was prevented from turning into a collective madness by the efforts of teachers and children who continue from day to day as if nothing was about to happen. This was not a indignant narrative about the alleged lack of consultation of the authorities, an ironic parable about administrative dysfunction or a moralistic tale of performative brutalism – although each of those narrative genres emerged in the fabric of this story of school closure as it unravelled in its last few months.  It’s  a collection of tiny stories of a tiny school told by tiny narrators.

Behind these tiny stories, more complex narrative compete for attention and recognition as sources of authoritative voice.  The  bigger narratives pull at the microscopic texture of school and community and family relations and the unravelling of that texture pulls on deep seated threads which pull elsewhere in our civil fabric: echoes and rumours of closure and melt down permeate the rest of the community.  The loss of a name is mirrored close by with the demolition of  a local church and the  slow seepage away of local sights, knowledge and identity:  the local Centenary Vic Working Men’s Club has to announce it’snot closing in a letter to the press, perhaps indicative of  a microscopic flaking away of community of which the school is part of.  These microscopic actions have macro effects which are unpredictable, chaotic, complex and still only partially understood.

Closing Schools for the Future is to be performed at  Tête à Tête Opera Festival, Riverside Studios, London, 4 – 5 August. 

A Waiting Story: Closing Schools’ Death Partners

One morning, waiting at some traffic lights on a motorway junction, I suddenly saw next to me, a travelling companion: my death. He was a well dressed fellow, politely sat looking out the car window, occasionally looking at his wrist watch and smiling. Not a big ogre figure but a patient, well mannered sort of chap who’s biding his time: because it will come, that time, at some point. It seems we all carry our deaths around with us but it takes time to see them in their fruition and in all their glory. There aren’t figures with scythes and black hoods but every day workalong guys with wives and kids to go home to.

The closing school is just that: a real live school which has been living alongside its death partner since it first opened its doors to its staff, its children, their parents and the many other landowners and stakeholders who have something at stake in that community. Its death partner, like mine, has been looking at it askance for some time, tapping its wrist watch and smiling.

The closing school, the dying school is not one that is somehow fading away out of its own volition. It is one that is being killed off: it is being put down and there are no mechanisms in place to help people through that – no bereavement counselling for those inhabiting it or any advisory measures for those who took the decision to put it down.

An Identity is being phased out and obliterated and the one thing that might help those going through this painful process would be the recognition that it was happening to this organism, the community, the school community. This is not an industrial plant that is being decommissioned, but an organism that is being laid to rest, having its life blood and oxygen slowly being sucked out of it.

Slowly and surely the school death partners take their places in the classroom and within the corridors, and in reversal of the processes which build towards creative relationships divide people, break up relationships, cause a loss of interest, stultify curiosity, and unalign people and places and things. They separate rather than bind. They deinstall rather than install. They cause the pulse to slow, the breathing to flutter and the skin of the school to take on a pallid hue. They effect inertia, stasis and once in a while you can see them in the wind blowing across the playground and see their reflections in the puddles which have stopped draining away as there’s no- one around to unblock the drains anymore.