Post Brexit Conversations

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) comments on the recent appointment of Labour candidate Andy Burnham:

Andy Burnham, Labour candidate for mayor of Greater Manchester, tells us something significant is happening. Most of the focus will be on the internal conflicts within the Labour Party, and they are important for many reasons. But I think the success of Andy Burnham tells us other things are happening too.

Over the past 40 plus years, city bosses saw their career ladder as going from the local to the national in the UK. And when they made that change, many of them disappeared into the Westminster fog. Andy Burnham is going the other way – from the national to the local (or rather the city region).

Why is this important? One, it suggests that he is doubtful (at best) of Labour winning the next election, and two it suggests that he thinks being mayor of the Manchester City Region is an important political role . This move would not be unusual in other countries – in the United States Obama’s first Chief of Staff went from that role to be mayor of Chicago.

The third possible consequence is that following the May mayoral elections, especially here in the North West with Liverpool and Manchester, those elected together with the mayor of Greater London might seek to shift the centre of gravity away from Westminster to the cities. What kind of new politics might that bring?

I4P are hosting a series of post Brexit conversations and talks starting this October and going through to June – click here for more information.

Would Hillsborough research be supported today?


Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) adds a note of caution following the outcome of the Hillsborough Inquiry:

It is absolutely understandable that people will be celebrating the hard work and commitment of the families who have suffered so much over such a long period of time. And to recognise too, that some public figures who now praise them have for many years continued to doubt their campaign and their account of what transpired and challenged their claims that the Police covered up what happened.

Learning lessons from this will not be straightforward. There are many lessons, but there is one which is common to campaigns of this type. It is about commitment and dedication of those most affected by what has happened. Their resolve is the most significant lesson which is so evident. It is what links other campaigns against injustice. Supportive journalists and dedicated academics play their part but they do not sustain campaigns. Those of us on the fringe can be supportive but our actions are tiny in comparison.

Why is this lesson important? The work of Professor Phil Scraton and his colleagues has been important there is no doubt about that. I am sure that he would not over state his part. And yes journalists and politicians have played their part too. Nevertheless, if we think that academics are essential in campaigns like Hillsborough, we should examine the current context.

One of the worrying aspects of the last 20 years in Higher Education has been the drift towards conformity. A recent report in the Times Higher described how in science research, there was some evidence that so called blue skies thinking proposals were being rejected because they challenged existing paradigms. To his credit Phil and his team consistently challenged a range of state actors from the police to the coroners court to the mass media.

In an age where we are becoming more risk averse would we support this work now? Would we fund such challenging academic research?

As the present government make it harder for charities to question government policy if they have received funding from the state, and the implication is that this might move across into HE, can we be sure that the next Phil Scraton would be supported in work which at the time did not just question a paradigm but the actions of a state agency (the Police) who were supported – especially in South Yorkshire- by the Thatcher Government. Protecting such intellectual freedom is precious for all of us. How secure is it?

Why cutting Parent Governors out of schools matters

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s Institute for Public Policy) comments on the Government’s White Paper on Education:

The significance of the many changes announced by the Government recently will be taken up by a number of groups over the next few months.

Clearly the headlines have focused on the way teachers are educated and assessed as full and potentially excellent teachers. I will return to that in future blogs but I want to pick up on the role of parent governors.

The announcement that the requirement or expectation to have parents as members of governing bodies is to be relaxed so that they may cease to be present, reflects one of the many contradictory features of the current Government.

The idea that service users should be involved in decision making is not the preserve of progressive interest groups. It sits quite easily within the framework of seeing service users as consumers. They are one of a number of so called ‘stakeholders’ who have rights to be consulted and to participate in the governance and oversight of professionals or administrators running public services.

There is a litany of failed public services from hospitals to schools to social work departments, where it is claimed lack of suitable arrangements for the governance of those services excluded users from having a voice.

Indeed in the recent budget, the Northern Powerhouse initiative and the associated agreements with local public authorities in the setting up of city regions, include governance as a non-negotiable element. In this case it’s the election of a city mayor as part of the package.

So what do the new developments in education tell us? There is a plausible argument which says it’s difficult to recruit, train and retain parent governors; the role and expectations are complex and require significant commitment; and the growing needs of schools especially financial ones require more professional expertise than is always available. These are familiar arguments but not necessarily new ones.

There are a secondary set of arguments which are not explicitly stated and they include the restructuring of school based education takes it away from local oversight  – the creation of academies or trusts detached schools from a sense of the ‘local’ or the ‘neighbourhood’ and as such parents are actually only have temporary interest in the school.

What is needed are individuals who are there for the long term and who see the needs differently from local parents or local interests. It is the logical perspective if you do not see schools are rooted in specific geographies and communities.

There is an additional pragmatic argument too. Parent governors are likely to be resistant to changes and maybe become oppositional to the current funding decisions. I think we can anticipate changes in governance elsewhere across the public services as the space to be critical is closed down.

Changes in the voluntary sector are good examples of where this is already happening. I think this is the issue. It’s not parent governors in principle, but local voices being excluded and critical or different perspectives being excluded too. That seems to me to be the big story behind the White Paper.

The Budget and the Northern Powerhouse: Why what happens next is important

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s Institute for Public Policy) reflects on what the story behind the budget means for devolution:

One of the big claims by the Conservative Government has been their willingness to devolve services and decision making to local decision makers.

The full story of the underlying motivations over the Northern Powerhouse – the shift to city regions and the bringing together of both services and major infrastructure initiatives into local oversight through an elected mayor – has yet fully to be told. Partly because it is a work in progress but also because some of the key decision makers are too close to their public positions and are unlikely or unwilling to discuss why they are in favour of what is (potentially) a radical restructuring of decision making in England.

At the moment the off stage critiques are familiar. The Tories don’t really mean it and anyway, we have a good working system. Or they are using it to mask further spending cuts or this is a chance to change how business is done or regional decentralisation had never worked. In one sense all of the above are possibly true.

It seems to me that the both the budget and the EU referendum remind us that the Government and the political party behind it are far from united. We should not underestimate the internal conflict within the ruling party. And I suspect that we are a long way from seeing or even grasping how their internal conflicts are likely to be resolved.

My own guess is that post referendum result (whatever the result) the conflict will continue for a long time to come. In the short term it will begin to render the Government unable to function properly. Remember the 1990s and John Major? Why does all of this matter? Because there were and are some really significant things happening on the devolution front.

The big picture are the cuts in social and education services and the impact of further cuts in health. Two immediate consequences: worsening services for the most vulnerable and increasing pressure on those who manage and work in these services. And a third consequence for local politicians: much less room to manoeuvre if you want to invest. A further medium term impact: growing opposition amongst community or professional groups and pressure on elected politicians to resist making further cuts.

At the same time infrastructure spend over the medium term is planned to grow. And the ‘idea’ of the Northern Powerhouse as a counter weight to London and the South East grows. Already members of the Labour Party are considering who might be the elected mayor of Greater Manchester. It is clearly seen by some as a role to go for.

Whilst these are all important developments, they are essentially the public story. What’s the scope for responding to the present context and looking to innovate or at least to stop merely responding?

It’s here, I think, that there remains lots to explore. Almost by going ‘under the radar’ we should be looking to see how to develop what we gave and to see the spaces for change or innovation. It’s these spaces of change that I think we need to look for. What they might be and how we might use them will be the subject of future discussions here.

Why universities need to turn on their listening ears

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) suggests a pattern of responses is not just a coincidence.

Judge Judy has many memorable phrases and “you need to put on your listening ears”, is perhaps my favourite.

It’s been very noticeable over the past month or so that as I have sat and listened to policy makers, local residents, community activists and a wide range of professionals talk about the links with their local universities, a common theme has emerged: we don’t feel listened to.

This sense of distance from their neighbourhood institutions has to be something more than coincidence. The discussions have included references to at least ten universities in the UK, so it’s not something which is special to one particular place or type of university. The particular circumstances and the specific details of why people don’t feel listened to will , of course, vary but the sense that there is a gap between universities and the communities in which they are located is not in question.

The range of issues raised in these different conversations (spread over three different events and including being involved in planning an event where university/community relationships is the theme), highlights the fact that those of us who work in higher education and seek to promote and encourage strong links between our institutions and the localities within which they are sited, cannot take much for granted. So even in those places where you might expect there to be a positive story to tell, the experience is very uneven.

What might a positive story look like? It could include real and explicit partnerships between community based organisations and individuals, individual departments or courses. These could include community partners acting as ‘hosts’ for student internships or placements, being involved on programme advisory groups, jointly running workshops or professional development sessions with tutors for staff or students, and jointly bidding for research funds.

All of these (indeed any part of them) would be a sign of a healthy relationship. But whilst they are necessary they are not sufficient. It is clear that we need to do more and we need to be better at some of the following: not taking the relationships for granted, not assuming our needs and their needs are the same or even close, respecting that as benefit from community based organisations acting as ‘home’ to our prospective teachers, social workers and health workers what are the benefits for them?

We need to remember too that our timelines and reference points are not theirs, and that sustaining relationships and helping them to develop requires a lot of listening, reflecting and then suggesting.

Maybe those that work in the higher education sector need to think more carefully about what we can offer and how we might support that, before we go looking for ‘partners’ when we are not clear ourselves about how to construct such a relationship.

Why is it difficult to work with universities?

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) on why higher education needs not to assume that their world view is shared:

Looking to develop good university, community or locality relationships is a recurrent theme and plea from practitioners and policy makers.

On March 21st we are co-hosting an event in Manchester (click here for details), which brings together three different approaches to this issue, from Brighton, Durham and Liverpool, to an audience of voluntary sector organisations and activists across Greater Manchester.

Why? Partly because the demand from universities on the voluntary sector has been growing. Students want to enhance their CVs, and universities have a multiple set of arrangements with community networks, from formal placement for vocational or practice based programmes (teaching, social work, planning and architecture), to a general recognition that voluntary organisations need volunteers.

Whose needs are being met? In a virtuous circle everyone’s. In an unequal world, probably the student and the university. Universities also need the outside world for their research led impact case studies.

Are everyone’s needs met here? Possibly not. Perhaps sometimes.

Are we good at spreading what works and sustaining relationships and networks? Oftentimes no. Despite a major investment in public engagement, universities capacity to resort to short term memory is fascinating but frustrating.

How to change it? First step accept the problem exists. Second step adapt more proactive strategies of engagement. Third step seek to consolidate sustainable relationships. Fourth step remember what step one was!

The possibilities for shared learning are huge. But for that to happen we have to accept the potential exists. It’s that shift which is critical. But it also has the potential of radically altering the perspective through which universities view their communities. Now that would be fascinating to realise.

Why we need to look for the creative spaces to be innovative

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) welcomes Professor Carolyn Kagan’s lecture on ‘Disruptive Change’:

The core message for me last night listening to Carolyn Kagan’s very informative reflection on the ways in which key policy initiatives in the areas of anti-racism, gender and disability have been constrained and limited, was how those advocating change were constantly looking for the creative spaces to lead change. Or as others have put it to look for the room to manoeuvre.

Either expression conveys a sense of space which is potentially limiting but its size and ‘availability’ are limited too, by the balance of forces engaged in the struggle to effect change.

As Carolyn put it in her lecture, this is about conflicts over power. For those who are wishing to challenge racism or sexism, or other forms of oppressive practice, their ideas reflect a different set of values from those which are defending the status quo.

Such progressive values challenge existing ways of working and are likely to be resisted. And over time if the shift in the balance of forces remains with the status quo what appear (in the short term) to be gains, can be lost. This leads to the gaps in income and power and, as Kate Pickett argued in the I4P Annual Lecture, to an increase in inequality in society.

Carolyn’s lecture will be available on the web site both in video and text format.

The importance of linking ideas, policy and practice when working with children


Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) argues for making explicit the links between ideas, policy and practice:

Listening to Professor Tom Cockburn – who is Head of the University’s Social Science Department and has extensive experience of thinking about and researching childhood studies – give his professorial lecture, I was struck (again) by the need to make explicit the links between ideas, policy and practice.

As Tom observed, we are working in a University with both a rich tradition of working with and preparing a key set of professionals (teachers) to work with children, and for over 20 years we have worked with and prepared another key professional group  – nurses and medical staff. And yet two quite separate things were set out in Tom’s talk (and they are recurring themes across a number of the talks and workshops in the Festival of Ideas and they are also part of the remit for I4P).

Firstly, the need for professionals to listen and speak to each other. The case for collaboration is well known. And we know – as Professor Sally Spencer from the Faculty of Health illustrated this week in her workshop – talking has to be facilitated and enabled. The power of the silo (even here) is such that separate developments detached from like-minded ways of seeing and thinking about the world can happen quite easily. And that’s before we address professional notions of territory and space.

Secondly, having conversations is only a first step. It needs to be accompanied by thinking about how we effect change. And so making the links between ideas, policy and action requires us to bring into the conversation another set of voices: those who we are talking about – children and young people and, if necessary, their advocates / supporters.

We should not assume that we can broker these conversations and develop ways of working which will generate trust and engagement. The challenge, I think, is how we make those connections and what we learn from them. And that’s the final part of this process: what do we take back and learn? And are we up for that part of the process?

Emy Onuora discusses Racism and Football with Peter Hooton

Emy-event-1024x576Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) describes how powerful conversations can be for exploring serious social and political questions:

As part of the University’s Festival of Ideas Emy Onuora talked about his new book and explored the ideas in the book through a dialogue with Peter Hooton.

The Q and A facilitated by Peter was a really powerful experience, as Emy talked about his childhood experiences of going to matches in the 1960s, his love of the game and his wish to reclaim the lives of those black footballers who have been hidden from history, and the power of representing their stories to a different audience.

The power of the ‘conversation’ is that it has the potential to connect a number of themes and ideas, from politics to racism, to economics and to social change. At the same time because it is a particularly personal form of presenting ideas, it breaks down the invisible barrier between the speaker and the audience. It makes the person more real and powerful in a way.  And through the lens of the experiences of black British footballers, it is possible to see the ways in which British society has or has not changed.

By then connecting the story of football in the UK to another set of stories from the murder of Stephen Lawrence to the increase in attacks on asylum seekers and refugees it is evident how far we still have to go to.

Author of The Spirit Level encourages people to think globally but act locally

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) reflects on the 3rd I4P Annual Lecture given by Professor Kate Pickett last night:

Kate Pickett (co-author of The Spirit Level) set out a powerful and insightful case that demonstrated the link between inequality and poverty, and the inter-connections with poor health, depression and social inequality.

During the Q and A, she also made the case for strong and vibrant unions as an indicator, not just of the potential protection they offered their members, but of a healthier political and civic set of relationships too.

She covered the key points discussed and analysed in her book (written with Professor Richard Wilkinson) but she also set out the case for action.

As she said in her introduction, she wanted to explore the roles and responsibilities of researchers working in this field of study, so an important part of the talk was on what could be done.

She re-iterated a slogan used by sustainability advocates after the Rio Summit in the 1990s: Think Globally but Act Locally. And in doing so she set out the case for employers and organisations (as well as public institutions) to take up and adopt the Living Wage and sign up for accreditation to the Living Wage Foundation.

She referenced the work of Fairness Commissions and their recommendations (taken from more than 20 across the UK) for public bodies to adopt measures that would mitigate some of the impact of the policies adopted by the Government which impact on poverty.

The work of food banks and many small, as well as large charities might help in some ways, but whilst their work might be necessary it is hardly sufficient.

Two additional things : I4P has carried out a review of Fairness Commissions for the Webb Memorial Trust and we are involved in a continuing piece of work for them details on the web site and May 4 we are screening The Divide a film inspired by The Spirit Level – hope you can join us.