Brilliant Club

Fenland Parent Power

28 Sep 2022

A Case Study in Rural Organising

By Dr Matt Williams

Parent Power creates networks of parent communities across the UK, each one facilitated by The Brilliant Club and an anchor institution. Parent Power is targeted at parents who may not feel comfortable navigating the university admissions system, including those who have not been to university themselves.  

 Parents receive community organising training and attend advice and guidance sessions on accessing higher education so they are empowered to make change in their children’s future and ensure they have a fair chance at success in education and beyond. The model gathers interest from parents, follows up with one-to-one meetings with them, and then facilitates group meetings every six weeks led by a local PhD researcher trained in community organizing by Citizens UK.

 Parent Power was launched by King’s College London in 2017. The Brilliant Club is now expanding Parent Power across the UK with support from Citizens UK and anchor institutions who share the charity’s commitment to listening to parents. Parent Power groups are running or have been agreed in Fenland, Cardiff, Oxford, Oldham, Liverpool and London.  

 Dr Matt Williams, the Community Organiser for Fenland Parent Power, has reflected on his time in the role in a recent paper. This blog is an abridged version of the learnings he has shared on establishing a Parent Power group in a rural setting.

Introducing my role and my story

In October 2021, The Brilliant Club employed me as a Community Organiser. I was a PhD student and had recently relocated to Cambridgeshire. Weaving our own stories into community organising has been part of how we work, so this is where I will begin.

I was born on the west coast of Wales in a town whose geographical remoteness is mitigated by the train line and university. We felt economically, politically and – most of all – culturally far removed from ‘the establishment’. At the same time, we resisted any sense of inferiority. When it emerged that our family would be moving to Oxfordshire, my teacher plied me with extra language exercises. She wasn’t going to let a Welsh-educated boy from Aberystwyth look silly in front of those posh English kids.

This combination of relatively low socio-economic status and high value for education has shaped much of my life. Many doors have indeed opened for me over the years, and I’ve had the chance to pursue what I’m most passionate about. Helping less advantaged people  access education is a core passion of mine. For many young people it’s a closed vicious circle unless help comes through scholarships. What we need is the transformation to make education culturally and structurally central in communities whose scant resources have (often by necessity) been directed elsewhere.

This paper is a series of reflections on how this transformation happens (and doesn’t happen) in practice. It looks at:

The paper ends by drawing out some lessons in rural community Organizing and providing some pointers on possible future directions for this work.

  1. The Brilliant Club and Parent Power

There is a glaring education gap in the UK best illustrated by this statistic: Students from the least advantaged backgrounds have a 3 in 100 chance of going to the most competitive universities, compared with 1 in 3 for the most advantaged. The mission of The Brilliant Club is to close this gap as part of the widening participation agenda. Its chief strategy has been to engage directly with students themselves to bridge the experience between school and university-level learning. But The Brilliant Club can only have so much influence by operating on this basis. We know that the paths taken by young people depend as much if not more on what happens outside the school gates as inside them.

Parent Power is a model that addresses two hugely influential factors in levels of educational opportunity: home life and local community. The Brilliant Club is taking a relational approach by looking at the network of relationships that impact a child’s progression. It has adopted the Parent Power model to empower parents to support their children by providing them with crucial information regarding higher education and the path to get there. This model also empowers parents to join together to address some of the structural barriers to their children’s progression, recognising where the problem goes beyond a lack of knowledge to something more systemic.

What makes Parent Power effective is that it is not only about forming self-contained parent groups, but about building broad-based alliances that can tackle key issues together. This approach comes from the community organising method, which has been brought to public recognition in this country by Citizens UK. It takes the change-making power of civil society seriously and helps develop the civic function of universities, among other bodies. The model aligns with the government’s levelling-up agenda, which identifies certain areas that experience particular deprivation.

What makes the whole thing tick is that people do not put aside their own self-interest for the good of others; the aim is to find common self-interest within the alliance. Parents want their children to succeed in life; higher education institutions want to build reputations for diversity and accessibility; the government wants to be seen to address rampant inequality and appeal to voters across the social spectrum.

  1. A Community Organiser is born

Groups do not appear out of nowhere; they need to be set up. For Parent Power, someone needs to do the initial organising so that the leadership can then pass to the parents themselves once it is well established. The added benefit of having a PhD is that I have been through the whole educational system. I know how the system works and have personal experience of the challenges and choices facing young people embarking on the same journey today. The  Community Organiser has two main roles with the Parent Power group:

  1. Teething Problems in the Fens

We set out to establish Fenland Parent Power using the basic method of community organising: listen, organise, act. It seemed simple enough! However, clearing even just the first hurdle threw up some tricky questions that took some time to get to grips with:

Who do we listen to?

The natural way to reach parents of school children was to go through the schools in Chatteris, Wisbech, Whittlesey and March. Each of the four schools in these towns pledged to give us a list of 10 parents, but the process took time. After a month, we only had one solid list of contacts, most of whom responded to our emails or calls. There were various problems with the other lists; they were delayed and most parents were either not interested or not properly informed about our work (hence some awkward “cold calling”!).

What are we listening for?

The aim was not to tell parents what change they needed but ask them instead. This led to an interesting discussion with our six parents, but it was difficult to keep it from becoming a complaining session about the local school. They were frustrated and had a lot of suggestions about what could be done better, but we struggled to establish any consensus on the most central issues and how to address them.

How about the logistics?

As well as these relational and conceptual challenges around listening, Fenland posed its own logistical challenges to organising. Although we talk about it as one district, it covers a third of the area of London. Most of the population centres are very small, separated by vast tracts of mainly agricultural land and connected by a sparse public transport network. Even before Covid, and even if we paid for transport, most parents would not want to travel to meetings in places that they felt little connection to. It was especially unlikely if they were single carers, did shift work, or were generally busy with life.

  1. Healthy Growth

All was not lost. Engaging with even a small number of parents revealed a real appetite for change. There was a common sense that there was a world of opportunities that children had limited access to because they lived in the Fens.

We kept arranging 1–1 meetings, getting to know parents individually, speaking to supportive local institutions, and generally building trust in the community. Listening and organising worked together so that over time, some parents emerged as leaders and began to voice their own and others’ concerns more and more clearly. During this process the issue of public transport came out as the most pressing structural concern. Because of the poor bus networks and overpriced or inaccessible trains, many felt stuck in their immediate localities. More tangibly, children were often unable to attend after-school activities due to inadequate transport provision. In fact, there was a general lack of such activities anyway because schools and community organisations knew that attendance was likely to be limited.

Our biggest event was a trip to the University of East Anglia. The coach that we booked to Norwich could have been filled at least twice over with the number of people wanting to join. That so many people were willing to give up their Saturdays to come to an institution of higher education reconfirmed what we had seen already: aspirations were higher than the university participation levels in the Fens suggested. For many parents (and children), this was their first ever experience of a British university.

One thing we did in Norwich was to ask parents if they wanted to sign a letter to local power holders about the public transport problem. The aim was to secure a meeting so that their concerns could be heard and so that Fenland Parent Power members could have a place at the negotiating table for issues that affected them. On the back of this, the leader of the district council replied to us straight away, offering to meet.

Plenty of challenges await us, not least getting the problem of public transport down to a winnable issue. But after some initial teething problems, we have moved into action: the group is up and running.

  1. Life Lessons in Rural Organising

Parent Power is a pioneering project for The Brilliant Club on a number of fronts. It’s the organisation’s first experience of community organising and Fenland Parent Power is one of the first rural projects of its kind in the UK. It is too early to come up with definitive guidelines, but we have already learned some lessons about rural organising.

Prepare the ground

In fast-moving, more transient urban contexts, new connections come frequently and easily. But in rural areas, there are fewer people coming in and out of the community. Relational ground needs to be prepared carefully, building links through trusted individuals and organisations before contacting people directly.

Embrace the tortoise (or, develop a rural vision)

Projects originating in urban areas often have ambitious targets and funding deadlines. But it is impossible to rush the development of the relationships that are the fabric of powerful alliances. Being willing to take time with people and accept the frustration of repeated no-shows is all part of a community organiser’s work. We have to be less hare and more tortoise. What a flourishing community in Fenland looks like is very different to what one looks like in Southwark. We need to get our heads around what is valuable (and valued) in rural areas so that we do not try and replicate a vision suited to a city. The increasingly important role played by agriculture in the Fens for our food security makes it urgent to appreciate farming, not to mention natural beauty, as a valuable public good.

It’s good to talk, it’s better to laugh

If relationships make up the social fabric, then they must be healthy. Communication is the key to healthy relationships – it’s good to talk. The only better way than talking to build relational connections is through going a step further and having a laugh. Communities that are suspicious of institutional power are not likely to engage with institutional ways of speaking. If we can drop our need to appear professional and get alongside people as people, we already remove some of the social barriers to educational participation. Communicating (appropriately!) via WhatsApp and social media is part of this. Cultivating the habit of sharing jokes and communicating informally whilst keeping within appropriate bounds is absolutely key for rural organising to progress well.

Build institutional legacy

With a longer timescale, several different individuals will occupy the same role within organisations over time. But there is such a thing as institutional memory and culture that can be passed down, meaning that relationships with local community members are not dependent on the first person who does a role.

Securing a long-term commitment from universities is the first priority for financial sustainability, enabling the steady network building with schools and other interested bodies in the local community as well as the parents themselves.

  1. A Brilliant Future?

What drives The Brilliant Club is the conviction that education is key to people’s flourishing. But it’s increasingly obvious that we need an approach that looks beyond schools. Children’s educational opportunities are shaped by their home life as well as the social and institutional makeup of their local area. No one charity can do everything, so the aim is to partner with other organisations to strengthen the fabric of the local community, knowing that this will improve opportunities for participation in university.

But there’s a problem. When more school-leavers progress to higher education, more young adults leave the area. Without local jobs and opportunities suitable for graduates, they are unlikely to come back. Education has effectively functioned to weaken links with their families and communities, damaging the very fabric that shape individuals in the first place. Areas that people feel they need to get out of in order to ‘get on’ will naturally have a less well educated population as a whole. As a result, the ‘widening participation’ agenda can serve to strengthen the UK’s traditional centres of power and increase inequality, with less advantaged areas suffering. We need humility to recognise the human reality that solving one problem causes another one! At the same time, we should not resign ourselves to ever-growing geographical inequality through improving access to higher education.

The community organising model shows us a way forward: it teaches us to recognise the power in relationships forged within local civil society. It encourages people to take pride in their place, fighting to make it better by attracting the kind of investment that will convince young people to stay.

We can promote love for place with progression in the world of work. Some people will always leave, of course, and freedom of movement is a good thing. But it should not be promoted as the norm for “successful people” to “get out to get on”.