Community development: fostering dialogue and connections

The Community Leadership Programme for Newham Residents is run by the Access and Engagement Department and the Community Development and Public Policy BSc in the Department of Geography.

Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, the project aims to bring learning to community spaces and is part of the Access and Engagement department’s aim to bring education and learning opportunities to groups underrepresented in higher education.

In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, talks more about the course and the Newham citizens it’s worked with over the last 13 months.

Community is strength on a billboard

Community is strength on a billboard

One extraordinary aspect of this extraordinary year was what has been called the ‘largest peacetime mobilisation in UK history’, the 1 million-plus individuals who volunteered as part of the community response to COVID-19. These included NHS responders, volunteers for local charities, the 4000 mutual aid groups that sprung up in neighbourhoods across the country and those who spent lockdown making PPE equipment for key workers. Not only this, a demonstrable upsurge in community spirit was observed during the first wave of the pandemic, with large increases in the numbers of people agreeing that their neighbourhood was a place where residents looked out for each other and over half of those polled indicating that they had checked in on their neighbours in the past week.

The Birkbeck Community Development programme has now worked with over 100 active citizens in Newham over the last 13 months. We call the course Community Leadership, not because the participants necessarily have any formal leadership role, but because they all, in various ways and through various roles, are making a contribution to their local area, demonstrating how local people can instigate change because they have a passion or will to do so.

David Tross adding ideas to a board

We have worked with a resident who works for a local community organisation providing foodbanks and delivering youth projects. He’s so good at using digital platforms and social media to market and fundraise that he’s now helping us deliver the learning and resources on this aspect of Community Development. Then we have the resident who starts conservations and spreads awareness about mental health by taking a sofa to public places and chatting to local people about their experiences, signposting to agencies who can help. One of our last cohort was working with Muslim groups to alleviate a particular local consequence of the crisis — international students whose part-time jobs, often in the hospitality industries, disappeared overnight and were then unable to access public funds, leaving them destitute and without enough food to eat

The four-week course is structured around particular themes: leadership approaches, project management, community engagement and wellbeing. We bring in ideas and resources from the degree course we run at Birkbeck, while also calling upon the local resources and contacts developed through Senior Access Officer Hester Gartrell’s work in east London with the Access and Engagement Department.

Unlike other London boroughs, Newham has no Council for Voluntary Service, local infrastructure organisations dedicated to help local community groups access funding, resources and training, and there is a need for community projects to access this support. However, the key success of the course is what participants share and learn from each other. In this sense, our job is to facilitate dialogue and connections which will sustain and strengthen the projects people are doing, often in relative isolation, and to get great ideas off the ground.

A key activity of every course is the ‘Resource Exchange’, where we simply let participants meet and share resources and information, ask each other for help and provide advice and support. These mutual connections are a part of developing the social capital- networks of mutual support and trust- that are key to Community Development activity in a locality.

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Widening access to postgraduate courses

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have been working with the local community in the London borough of Newham for many years. In this blog, Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach Officer at Birkbeck discusses what widening access to postgraduate courses looks like in the Birkbeck context.

A post-it with a lightbulb

There is a lot of buzz around ‘Widening Participation (WP)’ or ‘access’ to Higher Education. In fact, the Government, through the Office for Students, requires universities to prove that they are actively engaged in activities that will support students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds into undergraduate study. At most universities Widening Participation activities focus on supporting secondary school pupils into university. Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department challenges this model, supporting BTEC and Further Education College students alongside prospective mature students from a variety of backgrounds including Trade Union members and people who are Forced Migrants.

At Birkbeck, we also want to challenge approaches to access that only focus on undergraduate students. We have a fantastically diverse undergraduate cohort, but this diversity is not reflected to the same extent in our postgraduate student body. As our postgraduate student numbers grow and a Master’s degree becomes increasingly important for gaining a professional job we have pioneered new approaches which reach out to potential postgraduate students.

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have worked in the east London borough of Newham for many years and in 2018, the department received funding from the London Legacy Development Corporation enabling them to expand their work in Newham and began trialling advice and guidance for potential postgraduate applicants. While there has been substantial economic development in the borough since the 2012 Olympics, many local graduates still find themselves underemployed or unemployed.  For graduates looking to move on from zero-hours contracts, take the next step after poor attainment in their first degree or stepping back into a career after taking time to care for family, postgraduate study can be just as life-changing as undergraduate.

Working with potential postgraduate students through the lens of access enabled us to explore the many unanswered questions around ‘what actually is non-traditional’ and what is defined as ‘widening access’ at postgraduate level. Across a sector dominated by 18-year olds, the traditional widening access criteria and interventions for undergraduate can’t simply be transferred wholesale to postgraduate applicants. This is especially relevant for Birkbeck, where our undergraduate access work already looks very different from the rest of the HE sector, leading to the question, if our access work at undergraduate aims to reach those left behind by traditional widening access work, what does postgraduate widening access look like in the Birkbeck context?

Our postgraduate Information, Advice and Guidance pilot enabled us to begin exploring this question alongside a wider strategic project going on across the College to improve access to Masters programmes for a diverse range of students.

To find out more about our learnings from the east London widening access at postgraduate programme, watch our webinar. We also have a range of open-access videos for potential postgraduate students that can be used in student communications.

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“Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys.”

Last month, we bought three current part-time Birkbeck students who are also parents together to talk about how they made the step into studying and how they’re managing studying while looking after their children under lockdown.

In this blog, We’ll hear what Liliana (Accounting and Management FDA), Fentezia (Film and Media BA) and Mohamed (Applied Psychology CertHE) have to say about how they’re managing juggling studying and childcare in this challenging time.

If you’re a parent thinking about studying, email us at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk for information and advice about starting a university course. Now, over to Liliana, Fentezia and Mohamed!

Mother and daughter home schooling

Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with us about studying while parenting. We know it must be a busy time! So, tell us a little bit about why you decided to come to Birkbeck and what you enjoy about your course?

Fentezia: I decided to come to Birkbeck due to the great reputation it had, and flexibility of learning in the evenings. I enjoy my course because a lot of the lecturers are already established in the film and media industry and you get a lot of insight in it through them. The students are also mature and most are returning to education and some have families so you have a lot in common with them.

Liliana: I first heard about Birkbeck at a family event in a university, I thought it was what I was looking for and the part-time option made it easier to make the decision to study for a degree as I thought to myself ‘How can I juggle having two children a part-time job and studying!’

Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys. Learning together and being able to find the answers to topics have made me more confident as a parent when helping my children with homework.

Mohamed: Studying Applied Psychology has really given me an insight into why people do the things they do. I enjoy the course because I get to learn more about people. This was really important to me coming from Sierra Leone, it helped me understand the conflict in my own country and why people act the way they do. I’ve also enjoyed the child development parts of my course where I’ve learnt more about how children grow and learn.

How do you normally juggle childcare and studying when you’re attending on campus lectures?

Fentezia: Luckily, I have family that can help and being part-time, I only study two nights a week. While my children are in school, I also take the time to do assignments.

Mohamed: Usually it’s no problem at all. As the classes are in the evening, I can look after the baby during the day (my son is only 19 months old) and swap with his mum in the evening. Sometimes it’s a challenge to do the academic work before class, but I manage to fit it around my other commitments.

Lilliana: I am very lucky because I have supportive parents that help look after my children in the evenings when I have classes. My dad is at home when my children get home from school and stays with them until I get home, he even cooks meals for us! When I study at home, I try to do it when they are at school or I will dedicate a Sunday morning to studying, I think it’s important for them to see my studying.

How are you finding parenting and studying during lockdown?

Liliana: In lockdown my time management skills have been put to the test, I’m working from home and have a collaborate session (a live workshop with other students and the lecturer) on a Tuesday evening, but I make sure I have a long break before I sit down to study. I try to study while they are getting on with schoolwork as I find this is the time when we are all studying which helps us focus. I don’t try to do a full school day with them, rather we are task-orientated and decide how long each task should take and allocate times – however, we also allow room for flexibility.

I give them at least three tasks on most days and it could be anything from getting a piece of homework done to vacuuming their room, this gives them a sense of accomplishment for the day. I have focused on teaching them essential skills like cooking and looking after themselves, I like to think I am preparing them for university life in the future. I also find time to go out for walks – this could be on my own or with my boys, it gives you clarity and a break from staying at home.

Fentezia: It has been challenging as I have taken on the role as governess without the patience of Mary Poppins! However, it has been nice to spend time with my children and see their progress. Sometimes I study while they do their learning, but it’s usually at night when they have gone to bed.

Parenting is harder because we have to do the domestic chores as well as home school and answer a million questions from our children, whilst also being followed around the house.

Mohamed: Staying at home has been good because it means I’ve got to spend more time with my son, but it has been hard because I can only really work when he is sleeping. Even when his mum is there, it’s difficult because there are lots of distractions.

Do you have any tips for other students who are also trying to juggle studying and parenting at the moment?

Fentezia: I would recommend PE with Joe Wicks he is now like a TV family member; the sports sessions help the kids burn excess energy. Home learning should be done in the morning when their minds are fresh and get them to read in the afternoon to give you a bit of (quiet) time to do some work.

Don’t forget to rest and eat well so that you have the energy to do your own work at night. Try not to get too stressed, stick to a good routine and set a bedtime for the kids.

I’m also Birkbeck’s Student Parents & Carers Officer, so if you are a student who is also a parent, email studentsunion@bbk.ac.uk to find out more.

Liliana: Take breaks and do activities together such as cooking and playing board games, it’s also important to do sports with your children; this could be a bike ride around London or just around the park.

Take time for yourself and do something you enjoy like reading a book or watching your favourite series. It’s okay to ask for help – email your teachers.

Mohamed: It’s important to find space to be alone and to have some quiet. Make arrangements with your partner to have that space.

Make sure that you reach out to get support, for example, charities or services at the university. Try your best, look for support, go to school but it can be a challenge sometimes!

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