Introduction: Let's commit to a life of responsibility and action

Dr Sebastien Chapleau Founding Director, Citizen School | Director, Big Education Conversation

Big Education Logo

Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

‘It’s not hope that leads to action. Rather, it is action that inspires hope.’

Neil Jameson CBE

Albert Camus’s The Plague (La Peste) was first published over sixty years ago. It focuses on how citizens from Oran, in Algeria, react and adapt to a pandemic. It’s about how society shapes their response to the crisis but also how their response shapes society as it evolves and moves forward.

As I write this, there’ll be thousands of people blowing the dust off their copies of Camus’s classic, seeking refuge in his vivid narrative: one punctuated by despair but, ultimately, culminating in hope.

Recently, I came across an article about how citizens in Oran responded and adapted to the pandemic they found themselves involved in.

In the article, the following struck me and made me think about some of the questions many school leaders have been wrestling with for a while:

As Rambert gets increasingly involved with citizens who are trying to salvage life in Oran, he acquires a deeper and more enlightened understanding of obligation and love. Through commitment and self-sacrifice, he attempts to halt the deadly march of the disease and, gradually, his private, romantic love for his partner evolves into a public, civic love for the city and the people of Oran. By the time he is reunited with his lover at the end of the novel, he is worried that when he looks into her eyes, he’ll be looking at a stranger. Rambert, in other words, transcends the narrow […] confines of eros for the love and obligation to the polis. Camus’ point is that like Rambert, we are all exiles—alienated from each other and the world writ large until we commit to a life of responsibility and action.

With the Covid-19 pandemic that has just hit our world – throwing in the air many of our assumptions about life and what society is about – we too have an opportunity to commit to a life of responsibility and action.


Peter Hyman and Liz Robinson often talk about the need to move the educational system from what they call Paradigm A to its almost polar opposite Paradigm B.

As Liz Robinson puts it, ‘[t]he current paradigm does a great job at certain aspects of ‘knowledge transfer’, the passing on of the ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (Matthew Arnold). We believe that this is an important aspect of what an education should involve, but that is it not enough – it is necessary but not sufficient.’ And she continues, saying that she is ‘concerned about the ever-increasing pressure on our young people to achieve exceptionally within our high stakes testing and examination system. The implications of this can be seen from the narrowing of what is taught, both in terms of the actual subjects (with a squeeze on the arts and other less ‘purely academic’ subjects), as well as a greater emphasis on the accumulation of knowledge above all else within subjects. I am concerned about increasing mental health issues, anxiety and stress amongst our young people, as well as a sense that their youth is being seen in one-dimensional terms as one long slog to get to the end point of a transition into university.’

In Robinson’s footsteps, I would argue that there is an increasing need for schools to be defined – and (re)-designed – taking into account the way society has been shaped and the way it could – and, perhaps, should – be shaped. Leora Cruddas, at a roundtable hosted by the Centre for Education and Youth and Ambition Institute in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, talked about the academic sanctity of schools. The primary purpose of a school, she posited, and as most will agree, is to ensure that children receive the academic knowledge and skills that they need in order to succeed as they grow up and as they navigate their way through an ever-changing world.

What we have seen, going through the Covid-19 pandemic, is another role schools play, or can play, as institutions placed at the heart of their communities. This is the other side of the coin Leora Cruddas talks about when, through the work of the Confederation of School Trusts (CST), she encourages educational institutions to see themselves as needing to play a civic role within their communities.

In CST’s School Trusts as New Civic Structures – A Framework Document, key steps are detailed as to what schools and trusts can do to map out the relationships they can establish with parents, carers, the local community, and other local schools, as well as local governmental partners, and wider civic partners in an area.

Whilst this argument isn’t new for many of us in the world of community organising, it is certainly a role that has come to the fore in the Spring of 2020, in response to the extreme needs many of our school communities have been facing.

As many communities seemed to crumble, schools have organised themselves in ways which would have seen foreign to many a few weeks before. We saw an incredible amount of school leaders doing whatever it takes to ensure that children – particularly in many of our most vulnerable families – didn’t go hungry over as schools prepared to close. Food parcels were prepared and delivered. Schools worked collaboratively to ensure that many weren’t left behind.

Many schools and trusts are now asking themselves ‘What next? What should our communities look like now, in a post-Covid-19 era?’.

We have, crudely and for the purpose of agitation, two options:

  1. Business as usual. We forget and move on. We wake up from a bad dream and we dust off the bad memories.
  2. We embark on the slow and arduous process of reshaping society for what it ought to be: a society based on the many glimmers of hope we saw as we got closer to our neighbours and where the State and the Market were seen to engage with – and on many occasions respond to – our needs in unprecedented ways.

Day to day, I fight so that the latter option prevails. In terms of how schools have organised themselves in response the crisis, it is the many actions we have seen across the nation that give me hope. Not only have schools worked together to quickly establish system to support many of our communities but they’ve also realised that the State and the Market have a part to play, thus bringing meaning to the notion of democracy, whereby elected officials and business leaders are there to ‘serve’ the wellbeing of their citizens.

Moving forward, we have a unique chance to design and/or redesign what our core purpose(s) is/are, as an educational system. We’re a system that is viscerally connected to the communities we are rooted in and serve. This means that, one of our core purposes should be to deliver our schools’ sanctimonious goal in ways that help build relationships of trust with other parts of civil society, in ways that enable us to reweave the often-damaged fabric of society.

Emerging from such a worldwide crisis will take time to truly digest. Over the coming months – perhaps years – we will be reacting to the situations we now find ourselves in: a world in debt like never before, with levels of fear like we’ve never experienced, a world where most countries’ resilience has been put to the test. Amongst all the noise, the tears, the pains, and the sleepless night, I urge us all to dig deep into our shared grief to resurrect the drive that the majority of us still have within our hearts. Let’s not suppress our pains: rather, let’s make them public and let’s talk about our shared hopes. Let’s reconnect to the very reason the majority of us became educators in the first place: a holistic view of what education and schools can do to make society a much better place than it is, one where, in the end, we don’t play eternal catch up and where we constantly firefight. Rather, a society where relationships are strong and where collaboration is such that the demands of our communities are heard and taken seriously. This view of the world – Paradigm B – is one which is possible even more so now than ever before.

Saul Alinsky, often described as the founder of modern Community Organising, once wrote, in his Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals that ‘[a]s an organiser, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world us if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.’

Clearly understanding what kind of society we live in will be crucial for us to deconstruct it and reshape it in ways which better meet the needs of our communities. For too long, people have been switching off from democratic participation, believing that it weren’t within their gift to be in charge of what goes on in their daily lives. As our world prepares for a new dawn, things must change.

It is an organised civil society – with schools playing a crucial role in bringing a broad base of people and institutions together – that will lead the changes we want to see. When Matthew Taylor, Director of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), argues that many will see ‘the tragedy of COVID-19 […] as an obligation to try to create a better world when the pandemic is under control’, I completely agree.

As Taylor suggests, to be taken seriously, we will need to:

  • Develop new and broader alliances
  • Co-design practical solutions and realistic models of implementation
  • Aim to go with – not against or too far beyond – the tide of public sentiment.

Let’s be clear, change will only happen if an organised civil society is prepared to lead. Otherwise, the millions of voices calling out for change will remain whispers of hope – hopeful whispers which will be barely audible as the brouhaha of society kicks back into action in the coming months.

As Taylor concludes his blog: ‘let’s not let the crisis go to waste.’

To ensure that our schools – as ‘civic institutions’ – play a key role in educating young people to play a real part in what is their futures, we will need to be much more intentional about building power in our communities. For it is powerful communities which can control what ought to happen next.

We are currently at a crossroads between heading back to what has bothered us for generations or what could come to define what a brave new world could be.

The essays that follow, written by a range of school leaders and community organisers, demonstrate what can happen when school communities take themselves seriously. They all focus on the need to understand that change can only occur when power is built – through relationships and partnerships – and clear tactics are developed. This is what organised communities do: they build relationships to develop their power and they devise tactics which are rooted in what Alinsky called ‘the system’ and which can lead them to victory.

All the case studies you will find in Schools in their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life are focused on the need to take action. As Neil Jameson (who brought modern-day community organising to the UK) once said, ‘[i]t is not hope that leads to action. Rather, it is action that inspires hope.’

All the essays herewith focus on what could be described as ‘micro-organising’, that is the work that can be developed on our doorstep, by involving parents/carers, students, and teachers in our schools. That’s because people care about what directly affects them, on their doorstep. But, sadly, and because of the way people have forgotten about civic participation, politics, in many ways, has become something remote from our everyday lives. Brexit is something most of us have felt powerless about – however angry it certainly made us. Poverty is something we’re all angry about but feel unable to really challenge. Most of what is discussed on the news concerns us, but seems increasingly out of our reach, when it comes to influencing debates.

Lots is going on in an increasing number of schools which can give us hope. From students taking action on issues of street safety, to classes organising campaigns to hold local councillors to account on issues of recycling, to schools negotiating with large institutions like Transport for London on the regularity of buses on certain routes, at certain times, lots of neighbourhood-level work is shaping up. And students/schools, by being focused on winnable issues, are bringing about real change.

Our challenge is to make this the norm and ensure that, as part of their learning – and, therefore, as part of our teachers’ training – students learn more about how power is organised in society, how to manipulate it and, eventually, how to claim it back. This can only start on our doorstep; we should stop focusing on Westminster or other nebulous institutions.

I was reminded, recently, that politics should be about making a mountain out of a molehill. The only way to give rise to truly participative communities of active citizens is to focus on molehills and make them mountains.

Finally, you will notice that the stories shared here are quite raw: they may come across as messy, sometimes rather organic in the way their narratives and arguments are developed. This is because politics is messy. We are often told that politics is for experts and that it belongs to politicians. What this collection of essays demonstrates is that politics is not – and should not be – a domain for experts. Rather, politics is something which belongs to us all. it is an essential part of us all. And it is by getting stuck in what many describe as our birth right that we can shape – or reshape – our lives for what we’ve always dreamt them to be.

Who wrote this article?

Dr Sebastien Chapleau Founding Director, Citizen School | Director, Big Education Conversation

Sebastien is the Founding Director of Citizen School and is the Director of the Big Education Conversation. He has been a Community Organiser and School Leader for over 15 years. He was the Founding Headteacher of La Fontaine Academy, a state-funded primary school in Bromley, south east London, which he led for over 6 years. Before setting up La Fontaine Academy, Sebastien was a Community Organiser with Citizens UK, where he worked with Headteachers and community leaders across London, supporting them on issues of social justice and institutional development. His community organising work in London was recognised in 2012, when he received a Community Champion Award from the Mayor of London. He also received an Inspirational Educator Award from the Worshipful Company of Educators for his work across the UK. Sebastien holds a Ph.D. in English from Cardiff University.


More posts in this series

Introduction: Let's commit to a life of responsibility and action

Dr Sebastien Chapleau
‘It’s not hope that leads to action. Rather, it is action that inspires hope.’ – Neil Jameson CBE. Albert Camus’s The Plague (La Peste) was first published over sixty years ago. It focuses on how citizens from…

Provocation: Why academy trusts should employ community organisers

Neil Jameson CBE
‘We should not, must not, dare not be complacent about the health and future of British democracy. Unless we become a nation of engaged citizens our democracy is not secure!’ – Lord Irvine of Laird, Lord Chancellor …

Surrey Square: Why Community is Key

Matt Morden
& Fiona Carrick-Davies
Surrey Square is a school at the heart of the community it serves, meeting not just the educational needs of its pupils but also responding to the plethora of social issues facing local families….

Reach Academy & Reach Academy Children's Hub

Luke Billingham
A school and charity partnership working together to provide community support and to enable community action. The story of Reach Academy and Reach Children’s Hub demonstrates the significant role that schools and…

The Story of School 21's Community Choir

Emily Crowhurst
Setting up our School21 community choir has been a life-affirming endeavour. Friday afternoons in our school hall are an embodiment of our school value of community and model the power of music to promote…

Ruth (and) the Giant

Emmanuel Gotora
The end of the school year is always a hectic time, especially for primary schools. In Forest Gate, east London, the excitement reaches fever pitch as a group of energetic 10 and 11-year-olds at St. Antony’s Primary…