Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A lesson from Lyme for Michael Gove

FORTY-FIVE years ago a 15-year-old student of mine wrote: “I never volunteer for anything. If you volunteer, you have no margin for error; I need a very large margin in which to err.”

I recall this precisely, right down to the semi-colon (yes, Mr Gove, we did teach those in the 1960s). She’s probably retired now, volunteering like crazy while erring all over her margins.

Her youthful wisdom spotted a truth: volunteering, freely offered, can be as freely withdrawn, yet done well, it’s an obligation as strong as any binding contract. Relying on self-discipline, it’s a mature form of work. 

I’ve been learning about three youth organisations - the majorettes, youth football and B Sharp - through which the young mature. Outwardly different in nature and tradition - the first two with over 30 years each behind them, B Sharp relatively new - they depend not just on adult leaders but also on senior trainees, while every young member is a volunteer, too.  

Over 60 boys (plus three girls) from 7 to 16 years old are members of Lyme Regis Youth Football - self-governing, affiliated to Lyme Regis Football Club, and playing competitively in three age-based leagues. About 60 majorettes, aged between four and 17, perform regularly across the region. B Sharp’s core group is also about 60, in four mixed-age sections, expanding for special projects such as B Sharp Voices in schools, and B Sharp Collective (a mixed ensemble) in the summer holidays.

So what have I learned of the qualities shared by these three organisations?

They’re magnets, attracting young people not just from Lyme but from across West Dorset and East Devon. Why? Because they are known for excellence. Conversely, they expand horizons by performing, playing and mixing with similarly high-quality groups further afield, melting the parochialism that can affect small towns, and representing Lyme’s youthful face positively and proudly.

What creates that excellence? From leaders and participants the sense of purpose leaps out. This is much more than “something for young people to do” - B Sharp, for instance, though it began as a response to teenage disaffection, soon moved far beyond that. It’s quickly clear that all three develop interests and skills in a spirit of enjoyment. 

Equally obvious is energy and commitment, self-discipline, growing confidence and self-esteem. Watch, for example, the physical effort and intense focus of young majorettes training. (“They don’t smile when performing!” carp some critics, but they’re young, concentrating fiercely on complex routines - give them a break!).

Weekly training and practice (what we might call the private and internal) fuse with performance (the public and external). These feed off and reinforce each other - without the weekly graft there could be no public performance, and performing is the challenge that motivates the graft. We outsiders see the public side but it’s what goes on out of sight that truly stretches them.

Strong collective responsibility

Social skills grow, too. The mixed-age musicians and majorettes each make The Hub buzz when they train. Underpinning the relaxed friendliness are mature relationships among the members, and between them and their mentors. A strong collective responsibility develops, for a team match or a display troupe or a Big Mix music festival depends on everyone being committed.

Above all, I’ve observed first-rate education. They learn by doing, by working together, benefiting from each other’s skills, being role models and exemplars, helping and stimulating each other. B Sharp musicians write much of their own material, the majorettes help choreograph their routines and out on the pitch, young footballers must themselves build the team’s effectiveness. 

This self-reliance is spelled out in B Sharp’s core work, “The Young Music Leaders Project”. Training cascades from a professional, through assistant music leaders like Jacques Verhaeren, Chloe Stratt a and Matt Hartnell, and onto 10 or more upcoming trainees - a seamless cycle of learning and teaching. 

Similarly, leaders Olivia Miller, Emma Tappin and Zoe Robbins were all majorettes in their time, while a key ingredient of youth football is coaching by current or recent senior players like Mark Bailey, Julian Simier, Stuart King and John Matthews, with Stuart himself having worked up the youth football ranks as a child.

While growing their future young leaders, these organisations thereby also help their members move confidently into adult roles. Youth footballers, for example, who join the Seasiders already feel at home. There’s a fine record of progress into professional music and higher education based on B Sharp work portfolios.

“This type of progression through recreation is hard to find elsewhere,” says B Sharp “graduate” Dom Kirtley.

The passion of the adult leaders who enable all this is immense. Stuart Fowler, chairman of the youth football, oozes enthusiasm and “pride in their performance.” Olivia says directly: “I just love it.” And for Fran Williams, director of B Sharp: “It’s so rewarding, when you believe in people, to see them finding the best in themselves.”

In turn, they pay tribute to the adults behind the scenes - the trustees and parent committees that manage, fundraise, transport, equip, supervise and support. “Without them, it would simply stop,” as one leader put it.

It mustn’t stop. For the abiding impression is of quality, in ways of learning and in performance - the majorettes invited to 25 events a year, the under 16 footballers winning the Dorset County Cup and topping their league, and B Sharp’s Coastal Voices, busking festivals, and popular Big Mix. Together, organisations like these have, in Dom’s words, “created countless opportunities for young people and changed the social landscape of the town.”

For Lyme has other excellent youth groups; I’ll catch up with them later. Meanwhile, these three examples illustrate the truth about commitment that my former student so wryly noted; they show Lyme Regis achieving way beyond what we have any right to expect of a small town; and they provide true collaborative education with high standards. 
Michael Gove should visit, and learn.

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