by Dom Anderson, Vice-President of the University of Derby Students’ Union
Published in Derby Telegraph on Monday 3rd September
I was lucky enough to be invited to sit as an expert witness on the Redfern Commission, set up by the Bishop of Derby, which is looking at problems which face the city.
Even though I am vice-president, governor of the university, trustee of Derby West Indian Community Association and a member of Sinfin and Osmaston neighbourhood board, and used to being involved in change-making processes, it was still very daunting.
Especially knowing that I would be on the witness panel with other Derby educationalists.
When it came to the event, I have to say I was completely blown away by how far-reaching and exciting it was and what an honour it was for me to be involved in something that had a stake in the future of the city I love.
I decided to focus on my own experiences within the witness statement and close with some recommendations.
I talked about how my time in education had been very mixed, with a very enjoyable experience at primary school level, followed by a difficult time throughout secondary education and the present day, where I am a mature student at the University of Derby – an institution that I will always hold in high regard because of the investment it makes in people like me throughout the city.
Much of what I raised was around how I believe that many secondary schools (my own included) do not deliver for young people when it comes to raising aspirations.
If I spoke to any 11-year-old child anywhere in the country about what they wanted to achieve in life, I imagine that their imaginations would run wild and they would see no limit to what they can achieve.
In contrast, if the same is asked of a 15-year-old, the likelihood of the same aspirations being present is slim.
This could obviously in some part be down to the young person maturing in outlook. But, when this is coupled with many other statistics – such as 50% of young black males are unemployed; in higher education, the attainment gap between black and minority ethnic students and their white counterparts is at 18.5%, and children born into poorer socio-economic families are up to 50% more likely to end up unemployed in their 20s – it is clear that something is going wrong.
Another suggestion that I put across to the commission was that schools, colleges and the university within Derby need to start to recognise themselves as citizens of the wider city and, with this, they need to ensure that they are working to try to solve some of the wider issues within the city.
Educational institutions should have a seat at the table when all city issues are discussed. Strategic directions should be built with aspirations in mind, building on these and turning them into goals and reachable targets is the key to inspiring young people.
Communities should also work to ensure learning is at the centre of everything.
When I consider Sinfin, the area I grew up in, the centre of the community is the Asda supermarket. This in itself is not a bad thing – it is a large employer in the area and a convenience for local people.
Sinfin Library is located within 100 yards of the superstore and, sadly, it is a sorry sight. People approaching it are met with the sight of a rundown, boarded-up chip shop and a dark and foreboding covered footpath.
Is this the kind of environment conducive to learning? If this is a young child’s first encounter with a library, is it any wonder it is somewhere they avoid as a teenager?
The library and its surrounding area should be seen as the civic centre of that particular area, it should be a place where young and old alike feel comfortable to go and learn. This is in stark contrast to the library in Derby’s more affluent areas, such as Allestree Library, which is a bright and inviting building.
I am also a firm believer in empowering young people, as part of this I am an advocate of votes at 16. If young people are expected to make decisions about their future at the age of 16, they should be able to vote and have a say in local and national policy.
It is no coincidence that many parties unfairly target the young in their manifestos – if a group has no voice, how can they express themselves and be expected to have self-belief?
Along with this, schools need to put a bigger emphasis on citizenship training, awakening young people’s desire to have a say and build a better Derby. Derby is a manufacturing city and has several large employers that take their workforce from within the area. This, it is said, has meant a lack of entrepreneurial spirit.
With the landscape in higher education being evermore turned into a market place and universities like Derby being measured on students entering graduate employment and not setting up enterprising businesses, it seems to be something that, unless aspirational behaviour is instilled from a young age, is set to continue.
The citizenship argument used around educational institutions is still valid with local business. If there is a desire for a skilled workforce here in Derby then companies need to be involved in the processes that nurture that talent. Young people will not necessarily desire a career as a graduate engineer but, if one of our large businesses is visible in schools, creating opportunities in all areas of the city, then I believe that everyone will benefit.
At the commission, I was asked by Professor John Coyne, vice chancellor at the University of Derby, what I would do if I had a magic wand. The answer took some thought but it is simple from me, I would encourage children to learn, though not just because a school says they should but because they want to.
A child cannot learn unless they understand why they are learning. What can start as a six-year-old with a dream can develop into a 13-year-old with an aspiration and, in turn, it can become a 21-year-old with a goal and a future.
The Redfern Commission is fantastic for Derby and I am confident that its findings can help to build a future for our city that is one of which we can be proud.