Extended projects for further education students in/around Cambridge on social & civic issues – and local history

Cambridgeshire County Council set a precedent in 1998 with their classroom materials for schools and colleges on the future of Cambridge. I found the materials in the Cambridgeshire Collection. They were woeful.

By today’s standards.

“Cambridge has an international reputation for quality, for style, and for civilised values.” Cambridge Local Plan 1996.

I think most of the people I was at school & then college with at the time would have laughed at that strap line.

The context of the materials is important to remember – this was a time when the public sector was slowly emerging from 18 years of bone-grinding austerity under successive Conservative governments. However, the large increases in public spending under Tony Blair’s Labour Government were yet to materialise following their promise in early 1997. The significant rise in spending did not take place until after the 2001 general election. So in the grand scheme of things there was little available for councils use for such purposes.

The late 1990s were also the last days of ‘analogue learning’ – as the investment in schools plus the take up of the internet domestically meant that children and families gained access to information and online tools that few could have dreamt of only a few years before.

The learning materials – in particular the worksheets are very narrowly framed, almost as if someone had already decided what the right and wrong answers were, and composing the almost leading questions in that light. There wasn’t anything that struck me as being at the level that would either stretch the most academically able students or even unleash the potential of the most artistic and creative of students.

“A lost has changed in nearly a quarter of a century, has it not?”

Part of my strong reaction to this is the knowledge that these materials were produced for my generation of teenagers. Dammit we deserved better than that!

In one sense, the fact that these materials exist in principle is the only useful thing I can take from them. Or perhaps to state we have examples of how not to do things. Perhaps we should not even be referring to what was essentially a paper-based set of activities.

“What options are there for further education students (16-19) looking for extended projects to work on?”

With the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan [housing], and the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Local Transport & Connectivity Plan soon to go out to their first consultations, I think there’s an opportunity for students to contribute towards those consultations. That also means providing a means for helping set parameters so they don’t take on too much. For example restricting their geographical area of study to their neighbourhoods or to a community group/cohort they are familiar with.

“I want to do an online survey!”

This was one request I had recently – exploring options about which were the best social media groups to post links to surveys. With so many students potentially asking similar things, would it not be better for the councils and consultancies that had already done these surveys for real to make some of the data available to the students and their teachers to interrogate?

Again it’s a generational change – the studies in the official planning reports in the 20th Century were done by teams of surveyors recording every single cyclist and motor vehicle travelling past a given point between two different times of a day. Or in the case below, picking a 1 hour period on a single day to record car parking – this by Messrs Holford & Wright in their 1950 Report on Cambridge.

Above – From Holford & Wright (Vol2) 1950, p52.

Today, the surveying is automated – I cycled over one on the way to the supermarket earlier this week. Why get the students to stand outside recording each vehicle when there is a dataset for them to interrogate instead?

Appraising past reports from local history

If anyone you know is interested in a local history extended project in/around Cambridge, the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History can help with queries and information. Note that a number of local villages around Cambridge have very strong local history traditions with a wealth of records stored in local libraries and local archives.

In terms of official reports produced by and for local councils…

“Here’s some I found earlier!”

One of the things some may want to do is to have a look at past reports and ask what got built and what did not, and why. Students can search the online catalogue with the search terms “Cambridge” and “Plan” – and then take their pick. Unfortunately most of the reports have not yet been digitised so they will have to make their way to the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library (contact details here) to view the reports they’ve selected.

What these materials have are the reports and the archived newspaper reports by subject theme that accompany them. Two undergraduate students and two postgraduate students are in the process of interrogating the files on the Redevelopment of The Kite.

The other option they have is reading the different proposals that came up and making the case for one of the alternative plans that are there – perhaps based on criteria suitable for today’s political and environmental climate. What would the councillors have selected if one of the criteria was reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

“Who could lead or convene something like this?”

Good question.

It’s something Mayor Nik Johnson could put a shout out for. I’d like to think there are enough organisations and associations that could run a standalone project, encourage contributions from those directly involved, and then commission an existing producer of educational materials (we have a few of those in Cambridge) to do exactly this. I suggested a partnership led by Cambridge Ahead and Cambridge Past, Present, and Future initially, but would anticipate involvement from a wide range of groups and alliances to enable the students to learn that what is being proposed is being contested from a host of different viewpoints, and that through the local planning processes the politicians ultimately have to make some very difficult decisions.

One of the most important learning points in all of this is enabling students to make the case for whatever choice they have made or conclusion they have come to, based on the evidence that they have assessed against the criteria they have selected. Which also explains why for me when exploring the future of the city and district there has to be both someone from the business/growth side making their case, and someone from the conservation/anti-growth side putting the alternative. Because this is what is happening for real – and something that will have a long lasting impact where they currently live.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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