Working with communities is tricky – isn’t it?

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My two colleagues and I in Higher Opportunities spend quite a bit of time bidding for funding to carry out widening opportunity research and support. We are always looking for a new angle, so we made a bid to the Lottery Heritage Fund to work with young people who live in the Fens of south Lincolnshire – a cold spot where comparatively few people have traditionally progressed on to HE.

We had previously carried out research with young people aged 17/18 in this area and many of them felt that they did not have the academic skills and abilities to go onto university level study, despite the fact that they were well qualified to do so. We were successful in the bid which was to work with groups of people – young and old – and develop their abilities to research the industrial heritage of the Lincolnshire Fens and scope out its future.

AWe focussed on the area around Spalding, contacted all the schools explaining that we would provide free support and advice, and distributed leaflets to libraries and businesses, as well as advertised with the local newspaper and worked with all the local historical societies to explain what we wanted to do. Only one school in the area said they would work with us and then changed their minds, and after three adults said they were interested, only one stayed with us.

Fortunately, the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society ([SGS] which has the second oldest museum in the country) were happy to work with us in providing talks and materials, including historical maps of the Lincolnshire Fens. Eventually, a primary school on the edge of the Fens also agreed to work with us. The year 5/6 pupils would normally be studying the Romans but agreed that they would use our idea instead. We hired a coach and went for a tour of the Fens and visited the Spalding Gentleman’s Society (SGS), where they heard talks about the history of the local area, and how, in particular, the drainage system worked. The funding we had received enabled us to digitise a number of ancient maps which the children were then able to see. They were asked to produce an individual drawing of their impression of the Fens,  and in small groups create a poster illustrating the past, present and future of the area.  The members of the SGS were very impressed with the results, and certificates and prizes were presented to the children who had produced the best pictures and posters. 

Following the children’s positive engagement with the project, the theme of the Fens was adopted across the school. The project work also revealed that whilst the pupils lived in or adjacent to the Fens, they knew very little about them.  Many of the younger children were particularly interested in how food grown locally makes its way from the field to their plate. We hope that the research and analysis skills the children have acquired will help them, and in the future give them the confidence to apply to HE.

The one adult who worked with us carried out an enormous amount of research. This included working with members of the SGS and producing a website full of information about the history of the Fens, with links to other local history websites.

We ended up working with a much younger group of pupils than we had intended. However, the overall impact has probably been greater- and more enduring –  than we had originally envisaged. We have also done a fair amount of learning in the process, including the lesson that we should ensure that we have an interested and willing community cohort before we submit a bid!

Blog By: John Baldwin

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