Looking for New Ways of Creating Community and Celebrating Diversity in the New Year?

11/01/2022

Penny Whelan,  Linking facilitator in Luton,  shared this article with us, that she wrote for RISE magazine

Creating a sense of community cohesion and celebrating the rich culture of our school is something that I, like most teachers, have always been passionate about. I’ve always felt that our pupils and school can learn so much from the diverse community that it serves, and we have worked hard to make this happen by interacting with as many outside influences as possible. We invite speakers in from all walks of life, my personal favourites being two Paralympians that came in to talk to the children about overcoming challenges and a local businessman who had climbed Everest and spoke to our Year 5 about determination and having ambition. We work with the local care homes, invite parents and families in, engage and work with Bedfordshire Police and the Carnival Arts Centre, and have built strong links with The Culture Trust, local libraries, and the University of Bedfordshire.

However, when we tried to link with other schools in the local area and further afield, we never seemed to be able to get it right. We tried joint trips and penpal schemes amongst other things, but the links never seemed to be very strong or share a sense of purpose. It was something that we knew was important for the pupils in our town and community, but we needed help to make our links with other schools valuable and meaningful.

Luton is a town with a wonderfully rich and diverse population which, unfortunately, often receives bad press. It has some very affluent areas, but also a high rate of poverty. There are some areas where crime rates are higher, some inner-city areas and also quieter suburbs where you’re only 2 minutes from the countryside. But above all, it’s a town that works hard to create a feeling of community, that strives to improve its image, is constantly evolving and is good at innovation and reinvention.

So, when The Linking Network began recruiting Local Authorities (LA) to take part in a community cohesion project, Schools Linking Luton was again at the forefront and signed up immediately. Now, more than 10 years on, we have a well-established project that has created links across the town between different schools with different cultural makeups and is firmly rooted in the LA’s plans for the future.

If you work in education and are interested in developing the ideas of community cohesion and identity, then The Linking Network is what you’ve been looking for. It is based around 4 key questions: Who am I? Who are we? Where do we live? How do we all live together? It starts by encouraging the children to look at themselves and learn about their own identity, before thinking about the wider community, your local area, and moving on to think about where we fit in a global community.

The children learn to think about their own identity; where do they come from? What is the cultural background and heritage? Can they speak multiple languages? Etc. They discuss philosophical questions, use picture books as stimulus and explore themselves, learning to appreciate and value others. They look at their local area and discuss the idea of ‘community’ and what it means to them, before going on to think about shared values across their school, community and country. They start to explore Human Rights, the idea that we all fit into and belong to a global community and learn how to be responsible citizens who care about the world around them and the people and creatures in it.

It’s a simple project that incorporates what you already do in PSHE and Literacy and other subjects, and you make it fit around your curriculum wherever necessary and relevant. The children send poems, pictures, items of uniform and questions to their partner class and school and are delighted when they receive items back.

Usually, the two classes that are linked will then meet up throughout the year at an outside venue (a museum, art gallery, sports centre etc) and then visit each other’s schools. Everything is guided by The Linking Network, all resources provided, and the days are simply but carefully timetabled. And it works! The children return to school from their meet days excited about who they met, what they were like, what they did and what they talked about. Their opinions are challenged and discussed in a safe environment, and they are encouraged to ask questions to each other.

Of course, due to COVID, this (academic) year has been different, but no less successful. The Linking Network worked hard to ensure that the project could go ahead as planned, but instead of physical meetups, we use digital technology and skype each other, record questions, greetings, songs and dance, email letters and hold virtual visits and tours of each other’s schools. The children are no less enthused, and the outcomes have been overwhelmingly positive.

Now we are working with even more local businesses and groups, including the Next Generation Youth Theatre, who have produced some digital shared learning experiences for us through drama, and we are always on the lookout for more partnerships and ways to improve and expand. We want to be able to give the young people in our town access to as many difference experiences as possible, to meet as many new people as they can, and the Linking Network is the perfect tool to foster good relationships, whilst also teaching about diversity, identity and sharing a common goal, whether that be linked to global citizenship or something more local and smaller scale.

The Linking Network themselves are a charity supported by the DfE, The Pears Foundation, The Department for Levelling Up and The Dulverton Trust. They work incredibly hard for the benefit of the young people that take part and are a huge and fantastic support to the Local Authorities that carry out each project. If you are interested in finding out more about The Linking Network, you can visit their website on https://thelinkingnetwork.org.uk/. Here you can see which Local Authorities already take part and find the contact for each one. You can see stories of successful projects and there is also a wealth of resources that are incredibly well planned and structured. They are also on twitter @Linking_Network,  and I would highly recommend getting in touch with them.