It takes a lot of cupcakes

‘What is Social Purpose then?’ I asked. ‘Well, we’re not going to be able to answer that  question here and now. And I don’t want to. I want you to ask the question, taste it, try out new things and then talk to me. I am your contact in the region for Social Purpose. I’m not an expert but I have been exploring these questions for a number of years now and am really interested in hearing how you are getting on with this stuff. There may not be a lot new here for you.’

But things don’t always go the way you intend…have you noticed that? I was working with a group of tutors at our annual tutor conference in Manchester. After watching a short film on Social Purpose in the Classroom – , we started asking. ‘Well, what is it?’ ‘Well, what do you think it is?’ One tutor said, ‘For me, it’s about enabling students to grow and function better in life and work.’ ‘Function..? Yes, that’s the vocational imperative of fulfilling the needs of the economy. And we all have to work to earn a living, don’t we, to pay for the roof above our heads. And if we go to bed tonight with a roof over us and food in our bellies, then we are living like royalty; better than most people on the planet’, I offered.

There’s more. I picked up on the word ‘enable’. I like that…’ ‘I don’t’, said another tutor. ‘Enabling is all about control.’ ‘Enabling, really?’ And I thought of my computer, my smart phone with its switches – Enable ON/OFF. ‘Well, yes, it can be. That’s an interpretation I hadn’t thought of. But ‘enabling’ generally tends to be positive. It infers a transfer of learning to the student, who develops the confidence and communications skills to take it further. But there’s a shadow side, you’re right. It can be about having ‘power over’ another, if you have control. I think the more positive meaning is the one I take. It means having ‘power with’ but both are possible. We got to power here very quickly.

And I told the story of teaching a literacy class. We sat together in a circle, no desks between us. To say what I was going to say went completely against everything I’d learned on the job about being a teacher. Having my Scheme of Work and session plans (ideally!) and leading the way, even if it was from the middle, as the teacher, was ingrained. I leaned forward, paused and said, ‘I can’t teach you anything.’ There was a moment’s lull, then, ‘What!? So, what are we doing here?’ ‘I can’t teach you anything…but I can share with you all my experience and learning and we can decide how we work together and what on…You up for that?’

It was the scariest moment of my teaching life…and also the most enriching. They were. It’s all Carl Rogers. The course was one of the most rewarding I’ve ever taught. I worked so hard to make sure everything we needed was there each time.

If your students are behaving more confidently, more assertively and communicating better both with each other and outside the group, you are building Social Purpose into your classroom activities. If you are encouraging, enabling your students to think critically about their lives and the lives of others and how we connect (or don’t), you’re building Social Purpose.

‘What matters is that you listen to your students,’ I said. ‘I mean, really listen. What are the underlying issues they’re talking about, thinking about? Could it be climate change, the health service, food, the high street or relationships..? By listening, you get a sense of content emerging which you can later work into your courses or lessons. And it’s not always the first thing you hear. Be patient and discuss your ideas with the group. Open up discussion. Take a risk.’

‘There’s a big, confused, ongoing debate inside the WEA at the moment. Different people have different views about what it is. They’re in need of a definition. And that’s ok but it’s not necessary, in my view. If you want a definition, it’s all there in the social purpose unit – – but I don’t want particularly to define it…because it can come from anyone, from anywhere, and go somewhere least expected, which is why listening is so important.’ It is exciting.

And I told them about the creative cupcakes tutor. ‘This social purpose, do I have to do it?’ she asked me during our annual review, some years ago now. ‘I just don’t see how relevant it is to my course. They just want to come and make cupcakes for two hours.’ This group of women live in an area where there are many problems, stemming from drink and substance misuse, domestic violence, long-term unemployment, dogs roaming freely and there was much apathy. The centre found it very hard to get the people from the surrounding area into the building and stay to do anything.

‘Do you talk together, while you’re making the cakes?’ I asked her. ‘Oh, do they talk? Can’t shut them up!’ ‘Then, listen…listen to what’s going on in their lives? What do they care about? Maybe, you don’t have to do anything..? Giving them this space and time to talk may be all that’s required. And see what happens…’

And so, she listened… Later, one student applied for a job. Unthinkable! Another is now volunteering at the community centre…and they went on to raise nearly £70 to pay for new equipment for the centre by having a stall at the summer carnival. That’s an example of social purpose.

wpid-20140822_183623.jpgThen, there’s the drama course. The tutor visited the local library and noticed a book on ‘Pre-fabs’, small bungalow-type buildings, built ready-made in the factory and assembled quickly on site. They were needed to meet the shortage of housing after the second world war. This estate he was reading about was the largest of its type in Europe. As he read and looked at the photographs, he was knocked over by the sense of life, shown by the text and photographs and decided to write a script for the group to perform, Greetings from Netherley ( And I thought it was ‘just a play about prefabs’ and had recoded it under Health and Wellbeing. As I watched, I witnessed the impact of war on housing, people’s health, their relationships, my childhood games (Split the Kipper), the support of friends and neighbours with dealing with all that life throws at us, including town planners and regeneration (or not). Afterwards, the manager of the Valley Community theatre wrote,

“Greetings from Netherley, is a collaborative drama approach between Valley Community Theatre and WEA NW. It’s a piece of social history about living in pre-fabs during 1960s Liverpool. The two evening performances raised significant funds for the theatre, promoted the work of the local actors and the WEA, increased networking with other community groups, especially the Belle Vale Project and attracted support from two major housing associations!”

‘So, it’s about community, then?’ asked a tutor. ‘I think so. Listening is so important. It starts with a person shifting inside, asking questions, seeking answers and then this spirit of enquiry somehow moves into the group. Have you been part of a team, a group and felt its energy – in sport, in performance, at a football match or concert, a demonstration – feeling the energy of being you and together with all these other marvellous people more than you? Have you ever felt that? Social Purpose is about moving there. For me, it’s all about community, though it may be something else for others. What is it you care about?’

Within the WEA, there is this need felt by many to define SP. The definition is already there. Yet do we need one? I’m not so sure. Defining something can ‘entomb’ it. It starts to wither already. Better for you to find your own way but you’re not on your own. Talk with others and see what comes up. And it can take time. My cupcake class took two years to build up their confidence to the level needed to organise and run a carnival stall. It was a big deal for them and a richly rewarding one. Imagine where they might be in two more years.

The confusions arise, in my judgement, with the definitions below Social Purpose. I see Social Purpose as an umbrella term for learning, something which spurs the individual and the group too in thought and action. At the same time, we are also trying to make sense of other concepts, such as Critical Action Learning, Community Engagement and Creative Facilitation. These are capable of definition, which in fact exist. They sit as part of Social Purpose as distinctive elements. We need some clarity and it’s coming. Meanwhile, I would say, join in, take a risk and be the tutor you can be!

There is an imaginative discussion of our education system by Sir Ken Robinson on youtube – . He likens the way we educate our children to a nineteenth century sausage machine, still, when it could be, should be inspiring us all to learn and give back.

That was all we had time for. ‘I’ll leave you with this video about the WEA today. It divides opinion. I can see why but, for me, it rocks and is why I believe…



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