A Citizens’ Curriculum – learning on a cliff edge

17th December 2014

Helen Chicot, Skills & Employment Manager at Rochdale Borough Council, shares the Council’s early experience of testing out NIACE’s new Citizens’ Curriculum.

We’re really excited in Rochdale, about how we can test an approach to a Citizens’ Curriculum. We’re testing it in one small neighbourhood and have the benefit of integrating our pilot into a wider piece of work in this area, which will help us understand how public services can work together to get better outcomes for people before they end up in crisis. We’re targeting the people who are most likely to end up in crisis, using an interesting new approach to information sharing, and it’s great to work with people from across the public sector: housing, health, police, early years, families, skills and worklessness, to name a few. Importantly, we’ve got our Community Champions front and centre, trying to break new ground in ways of integrating volunteers as part of a public sector offer. Finding out where they fit best, how they can best do the things they do and how the public sector can best support them to carry out this positive activity.

This pilot comes at a good time for us. We’re really feeling the impact of skills policy changes. In Rochdale, our skill levels have been improving, but it’s been a struggle and trying to make a difference at each level is tricky for all of us. Where do you prioritise? Who is going to benefit most? What’s the most important thing – economic or social capital?

I attended a skills policy briefing last week, organised by New Economy, Manchester. The messages were stark. Opinions suggested that austerity, from a skills policy perspective, may last for another ten years – giving the impression that funding for skills is about to fall off a cliff, especially for post-19. Some of the evidence presented suggested that the assumed employer willingness to contribute is patchy. Our productivity is low, the incidence of workforce training, having peaked in 2000, is now back to 1993/4 levels and the volume of in-work training days have reduced by 50%. Where does that leave us? Thinking about those who are, at best, stuck in a low skill, low pay, no pay cycle, where are the opportunities for engaging people? Where is the space for learning to help? And where can that help be best placed? It felt pretty grim, for sure. Coming out of that session with my head reeling, I thought: we need a plan or we’re going off that cliff.

Ask our Community Champions what they think and they’ll make it very clear. People who are getting to the point where their lives are a struggle – who are coping with low incomes and families and health issues, need something else. Our Champions very eloquently describe how that should feel from the point of view of a person or family. It’s something integrated, something that’s not a series of services with specific offers that sometimes don’t quite address the issues. It’s got to make sense otherwise it can actually make things worse.

So a curriculum which is integrated with a wider offer is really exciting for us. This is an opportunity to really give it a go –to come together to try things in a way that will make sense, perhaps to us all. Maybe we can turn the adrenalin of panic into momentum for change… maybe we’ll come back from the cliff edge after all, but with a different plan.

So we’re going for it! We’re working in one neighbourhood, we’ve got a team of different people coming together and we’re putting a Citizens’ Curriculum in the middle of all that. More opportunities, more conversations about learning, and different ways to get help. Integrating literacy with citizenship; digital capabilities with health and wellbeing; financial capabilities with mental health approaches; specialist programmes for the young people who are at the highest levels of disadvantage; targeted approaches for those who are on the very edge of the cliff themselves.
Our colleagues at Edge Hill University are supporting our Community Champions to test this from the perspective of the community, to research this from within by participating in the change and to help us to understand what works well and what makes a difference.

So that’s why we’re excited. We’re not going off a cliff; we’ve got some hope.