“Power of the grassroots": reflections on a step into alternative education

“Power of the grassroots": reflections on a step into alternative education

This piece attempts to reflect on a preliminary step in bringing a radical, alternative education into mainstream institutions in our local area, delivered by external facilitators from our squatted social centre.

What is an educator concerned with radical politics to do in the context of the UK? An educator concerned with the liberation of the oppressed, the transformation of this unjust, life destroying economic system. How can an educator, who is concerned with a pedagogy which critiques the very foundations of this economic system – so necessary a task – cope with employment in state education – a system which serves to reproduce the next generation of obedient wage labourers? Must they do what they can within the confines of state education? Must they go along with unthoughtful disciplinary procedures instilled by a school hierarchy, when in truth finding themselves more often than not on the sides of supposedly vagrant pupils? What is to be done, if one finds enjoyment in interacting and learning with young people, and then is forced to see one another, both students and fellow staff, trapped together in a classroom’s unpleasant atmosphere, waiting for the school day to close? One who enjoys the inquisitive minds of young people, how strange to be part of a process which crushes their creativity, disserves them so dearly, and to succumb to the panic, fear driven teaching which puts all emphasis on achieving A grades above the child’s holistic development as a human being.

There must be an alternative for individuals aspiring to develop themselves as educators, to gain experience, and to be fulfilled without making the demoralising compromises that come with employment in state schools.

This blog seeks not to deal with the admirable ways in which an educator concerned with radical politics can emancipate individuals whilst employed within the state system. This piece attempts to reflect on a preliminary step in bringing a radical, alternative education into mainstream institutions in our local area, delivered by external facilitators from our squatted social centre.


The initial idea for this project came from my experience working as a learning support assistant in the Humanities in a state school in North London. A learning support assistant who assisted a number of Geography classes, it occurred to me that many of the ideas explored in GCSE Geography cover many important ideas and concepts which are central to any radical political understanding of the world. One example of this would be the subject of ‘Appropriate Technology’. The students are to learn that Appropriate Technology for communities in the global south must be ecologically sustainable, thus ensuring the technology is preserving the local ecology for future generations; and was understandable and in control of its users, so that the local community were not dependent on a foreign aid programme or specialised knowledge.

I considered that these were transformative ideas for us here in the UK. The students, however, were not to reflect on whether we have control or understanding over the technology we use. When switching on a light, or when buying food in a supermarket; how much understanding or control do we have over where our energy or food comes from? Our national grid is heavily centralised; the vast majority of citizens in the UK have no democratic control over our energy system. In a GCSE classroom, this is left unconsidered. Appropriate technology is left a distant concept only for NGOs to implement in less industrialised parts of the world.

Within much of the literature one finds in GCSE Geography (and the Humanities in general), students are taught an array of concepts and histories, which once understood, have very radical implications. It is uncontroversial to explore ideas of Appropriate Technology, civil disobedience and direct action (as in the case of the Suffragettes or the Civil Rights, two topics taught throughout History in Key stages 3 and 4). What is missing is an exploration of the relevance of these ideas in our everyday lives; what practical implications there are for us here in the UK in 2016.

Using familiar terms and concepts used in mainstream institutions, we hoped we would be able to communicate with teachers or youth leaders who might otherwise be wary of hosting a workshop too laden with radical politics. Using less controversial language, we would be able to frame a discussion which uncovered the underlying, radical implications of these ideas.

In undertaking this project, we hoped to join ongoing attempts amongst radical circles to break down the barrier between ‘activist ghettos’ and mainstream society. Further, there was a resolute ideological commitment in our collective not to support the social divide exacerbated by private education. An educator who seeks a radical transformation of our economic system cannot turn their back on the reality of students’ day to day experience in state schools.

Encouraging members of the public or mainstream institutions to take steps into autonomous spaces is an ongoing challenge for our movement. In the squatted social centre our collective live and work at, there have been valiant efforts, with both success and failure, in creating a friendly, welcoming environment for visitors. We have experienced on numerous occasions reluctance amongst civil society to visit as a result of our legal status. This is affected not least by bureaucratic procedures; teachers, for example, must complete risk assessments sometimes 20 pages long for trips to the museum.

Whilst ensuring our autonomous spaces are as friendly and welcoming as possible, we must equally make efforts to have a dialogue in a setting more familiar to those we are to communicate with. We must facilitate overworked teachers and youth leaders to engage their students and service users in radical perspectives. By making connections and building relationships, it is then easier to encourage groups to visit spaces that are on an antagonistic footing with the police and the state.

Approaching institutions

Convincing institutions to take on our workshop proposal was the most time-consuming aspect of this whole process. Notoriously overworked, with routine deadlines and targets, agreeing to take on workshops such as ours appears to many teachers like more work and a distraction from the curriculum. With persistent phone calls and emails we eventually caught the attention of proactive teachers and community workers already sympathetic to the political sentiment of the workshop.

Acknowledging this workload, our strategy was to emphasise the relevancy of the workshop in meeting the needs of the school curriculum for students of the social sciences (Geography, Citizenship, Sociology, Politics and History, Key stages 4 and 5). We suggested the workshop would replace classroom work, saving the teacher time and workload.

The workshop was aimed at ages 15 – 18; we decided to first make contact with schools, sixth form colleges and youth centres in our surrounding area. The workshop was to be provided free of charge, made possible by the modest living costs squatting permits.

We decided to make an effort to conform to the dress codes of the institutions we visited, fearing that distractions from our appearance would hinder our attempts to reach an honest dialogue within the time constraints of the workshop.

We would mention that one member of our collective was DBS-checked (a government procedure that identifies candidates who may be unsuitable for certain work, especially that involve children or vulnerable adults), but as we would be accompanied by teachers or community workers, this was not a pivotal factor.

Delivery of the workshop

Drawing inspiration from Seeds for Change (http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk), the Trapese Popular Education Collective (http://trapese.clearerchannel.org/) and the Economic Justice Project (http://economicjustice.jubileedebt.org.uk/) we used participative and experiential learning techniques to engage the participants in a way that aimed to make them feel different about the issues they were studying as part of the curriculum, not merely as bystanders, but as potentially active participants in society. The aim was to illuminate the links between the topics they study and their daily lives, for the participants to feel empowered by this knowledge and engage with these issues; politics as something not purely the activity of politicians in Westminster, but something we can all participate in.

We explored horizontal learning techniques, where the emphasis is on the collective knowledge of the group rather than viewing the teacher as the expert. Although we provided content and added our own input to the discussion, our facilitation techniques were aimed to bring out the participants’ own ideas and conclusions.

The workshop begins with the group sitting in a circle, with each individual introducing themselves. We used an ‘icebreaker’, with the aim of creating a relaxed, participatory environment where everyone felt they could contribute. Our ‘icebreaker’ involved asking the participants to choose one person in the circle, and to run around this person three times, resulting in everyone bustling around each other in a chaotic fashion before sitting down.

Before developing a horizontal relationship with honest dialogue, one must attempt to develop a degree of mutual trust. Mutual trust relies on party members having enough evidence of each other’s intentions and humanity (Freire 1970). This is severely limited in just one visit, but small differences in how the group is introduced to each other, how the chairs are aligned and how eye contact is made, can have an impact.

Breaking into group discussions, the first exercise explores a world of global inequality. The participants are asked to draw connections between images (illustrating themes such as pollution, globalisation, resource depletion, food security, poverty and climate change) and land map distortions (shown here - http://www.worldmapper.org/), each country warped in size according to their greenhouse gas emissions, national income, arms exports and other criteria.

During the group feedback of this exercise, the discussion was broad, covering a range of issues from conflict over resources, exploitation of labour and unequal resource consumption. The intention of this exercise was to participate together in the naming of the world, a world of global inequality and injustice.

This naming of the world was led by the participants. Throughout the workshop almost all of the reflection was articulated by the participants. As a collective, we were insistent with each other that the dialogue we entered was for the participants first to name the world, so that they, after naming it themselves, can transform it.

How we communicate must always be laced with some humility, an acknowledgement as educators that perhaps our opinions or analysis could be incorrect. On one occasion we were tested by one vocal participant who made it clear his support for the Conservative Party and the expansion of fossil fuel sectors; issues our collective campaign on. Even though this individual saw in the content of this exercise an implicit rejection of western corporations in the Global South, we were hopeful that by communicating with humility we were able to create a safe space for a range of reflections and emotions.

The next exercise employed a spectrum line, a facilitation tool which asks the participants to position themselves in the room depending on their view towards a given question. One question used was: “I can always trust the media”; the participants were told to stand on one side of the room if they fully agreed with the statement, and on the other side if they fully disagreed with the statement.

The students were fantastically critical towards authority and mainstream society in this exercise. Their distrust of the media and scepticism over representative democracy provoked uplifting, dynamic discussion. In the delivery of this exercise, our collective were conscious of moving away from any form of indoctrination; we were quite open about our views, but stressed that they were just our opinions, and that they should be treated as nothing more.

The dialogue during this exercise reflected the reality of the group’s daily experience; in our visit with a Muslim school our discussion on the role of the media in society explored the negative portrayal of Muslims, an issue raised more than once by the pupils.

We then used a ‘resource space’, using video and imagery to show thought provoking cartoons illustrating political dissent, as well as case studies of community-led social change which offer inspiration on ways to address, on a local level, the issues discussed in the workshop.

The first video we used was of Grow Heathrow, the squatted eco community, autonomous space and hub of social activity and resistance against Heathrow’s 3rd runway (http://www.transitionheathrow.com/2012/03/new-video-everythings-changing/). The second video was on Focus e15 (http://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2014/oct/08/london-housing-newham-mums-focus-e15-video), the single mothers who occupied an empty block of council houses in Newham in the context of London’s housing crisis.

This content enabled us to introduce the concept of direct action. We asked the participants how direct action might differ from protest. We asked the participants how they felt about political action which breaks the law.

Here, we attempted to make more real the connection between reflection and action, by showing communities active today, who live lives in London familiar to the participants of the workshop. In state schools, where notions of citizenship and politics are distant to our daily reality, we hoped to make action a less abstract notion.

The last activity, called ‘Presents’, was to end the workshop on a high note and to get participants to ‘think the impossible’. We gave out cards with an imaginary present written on to each participant and asked them to describe how they would use their present to solve a problem addressed in the workshop (for example, ‘one minute of prime time TV’ or ‘A thousand acres of land’). Once more the intention was to foster thinking which does not distinguish itself from action, encouraging a mind-set which perceives reality as a dynamic process, rather than a static entity.

The workshop would finish with an ending go around on the participants’ feelings towards the workshop. This was our chance to invite the participants to our squatted social centre, revealing the nature of our home and workplace.


Overall we received positive feedback for the delivery of these workshops. We found the students were engaged and responded well.

In writing their feedback, one community worker stated:

The content and delivery were very good with lots of interactive stuff and discussion. It's not always easy to engage our service users but you did a really fantastic job of it! They were all enthusiastic until the end!

Another wrote:

[the workshop] seemed to allow the group to discuss their opinions and discuss topics that people will not normally talk about. It allowed people to open up and talk about topics that are rather sensitive in a safe setting.

Having two facilitators certainly helped to keep a high energy and offered variety for the participants. As two newcomers, we found our arrival to schools and youth centres were a refreshing input of energy and perspectives for our participants. Even in the simple act of revealing ourselves as ‘squatters’ engaged in direct action can help to normalise these unknown, misunderstood terms.

Our collective were energised in being able to hold discussions in mainstream institutions on direct action, civil disobedience and breaking the law. The workshop tread a fine line; for one teacher, the question of breaking the law was only appropriate as a comment in reference to the students’ studies (e.g. the suffragettes), rather than a concept that could exist in their daily reality.

Feedback from a Muslim school we visited mentioned unease over discussions on breaking the law in light of the government’s Prevent counter-terrorism strategy. Whilst we must reject government intrusion into education that warns teachers of environmental activists, labelling them as domestic extremists (Bloom 2015), there may be occasions where it’s necessary to adjust the direction of the workshop to fit the specific sensitivities of an institution. Whilst being confined by Prevent, our workshop could be conceived as ‘anti-Prevent’, in that we were able to bring radical politics to the students under the government’s radar in a subversive act.

This project was an invaluable step in our exploration of education beyond the private and state spheres. Learning through doing, we gained experience as facilitators without compromising our ideals.

As radical educators, our energy must be one of love and enjoyment. I recall emotions of such happiness and excitement following our workshops, thrilled by the dialogue we had reached. This love of life and love of people that we were able to touch within ourselves is the most accurate guidance that we can have. The enjoyment of what one does is so visible in an educational environment; young people are well-attuned to recognise enthusiasm and passion, witnessing it as evidence of commitment to their cause, to their lives (Freire 1970).

Our collective feels this work is urgent in view of our global ecological community. This is the time of the child, when we look at the horrors of the world and ask demandingly, why it has to be this way (Holloway 2010)? We must not let our dreams be inhibited by the experience of school discipline and adulthood. We must continue to ask each other to demand the impossible.

Reference List

Bloom, A. 2015. Police tell teachers to beware of green activists in counter-terrorism talk [online]. [Accessed 8 April 2016]. Available from: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/police-tell-teachers-beware-green-activists-counter-terrorism-talk.

Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books

Holloway, J. 2010. Crack capitalism. London: Pluto Press

Trapese Popular Education Collective. 2007. Do it Yourself: a handbook for changing our world. London: Pluto Press