FE can lead us out of the permacrisis if we work together

The sector’s pandemic response revealed that it can do so much more that sustain a not-so-new normal, writes Katie Shaw

The sector’s pandemic response revealed that it can do so much more that sustain a not-so-new normal, writes Katie Shaw

29 May 2023, 5:00

We often think of self-defence as skills we learn individually to protect ourselves from immediate danger, providing us with agency in difficult situations. Outside of actions like collective bargaining, it’s much rarer to think of self-defence as a collective skill we learn, practice and deploy in times of crises.

Whether it’s allowing groups to use college kitchens to cook and distribute community meals during Covid-19 or opening up a warm bank as energy prices soar, the need for spontaneous and localised responses as self-defence against economic and social disasters that punctuate this enduring crisis we’re living through feels like a skill we need to master, together.

Community self-defence isn’t new. The building of solidarity across communities as a means of survival through reciprocal exchange of services, support, supplies and skills has always been practised. Whether it’s coastal communities coordinating the first volunteer lifeboat services, or a network disseminating supplies in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, community-led localised disaster responses are often far more effective than waiting for the bureaucracy of government or top-down actions of charities. During the Covid-19 pandemic, you probably heard of this self-defence referred to as “mutual aid”, where the community takes the lead in protecting itself.

During 2020 as part of a research project, I spoke with workers across further education about their experiences of mutual aid in their day-to-day work. Participants talked about how competition between providers led to some of them feeling isolated in their roles and how it was easier to connect to other FE workers further afield. They added that communities like #UKFEChat (a weekly online discussion group – set up by the indomitable Sarah Simons) provided a space both to develop themselves and to share with others across the profession, building a horizontal community out of necessity and creating a space for survival against the ‘hostile attempts to paint the profession in a poor light’.

Mutual aid isn’t about limping on from disaster to disaster

The research discussions also explored mutual aid taking place within communities during the pandemic, and the parallels and possibilities it held for the further education community. One participant noted that they hoped the similar horizontal community building they had experienced out of necessity during the pandemic would help to ‘demonstrate the agency that people have in their communities’. Others discussed how we could develop adult community learning in ways that drew on what was happening within the local mutual aid groups, where people were learning a range of different skills and knowledge from each other, from gardening to navigating the welfare system.

As lockdown hit, some colleges and training providers were quick to respond to community need and embedded themselves within their local mutual aid networks, offering use of their catering teaching facilities, making PPE and providing free short courses. This pivot provided a space for FE to facilitate learning that met people’s much broader needs as opposed to the narrower focus on skills and employability. 

But practising mutual aid isn’t about establishing a new normal as quickly as possible and limping on from disaster to disaster. Instead, it’s a way of wedging open those cracks within our current system and building practical solidarity across our communities to re-make our world. It’s the way communities have always defended themselves, but it’s often so buried under bureaucracy that it seems radical.

So often we see the most straightforward route of change-making is to make immediate demands of the people who are often responsible for the mess we’re in. With another general election on the horizon, understandably the sector is starting to strategise and lobby. 

But whatever shade of politician and policy change comes our way every few years, we will still need to protect ourselves from those big social, economic and environmental disasters that have become the benchmarks of our current settlement. We’re not going to do this with a blueprint or a strategic plan, but instead by finding ways to strengthen our interdependence locally and develop emergent ways of responding to community needs. 

There’s no better place than in further education to learn the skills and tools to build the world we want to see – from the bottom up, without permission from anyone but each other. 

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