Place Matters

Present me with any sort of list and my brain immediately feels overwhelmed: it’s a wiring thing. So I don’t tune into whether it’s National Grandparents Day or The Week of the Hamster. But for 30+ years I’ve worn a red ribbon every December 1st and for the last few years I’ve woken up knowing exactly what I want to say on World Mental Health Day, October 10th.

It’s been three years since I started on a nomadic career path, guided not by any external framework but by a personal ethics of joy*. I’m never surprised these days to stumble across a paradox and if I’ve learned anything in that time it’s that, to a nomad, place matters more than ever. So I’ve woken up reflecting on physical place, and recognising that where I live has had a negative impact on my mental health for some time now. Convinced that returning home after days on the road ought to provide some sort of sanctuary, I didn’t see before now that the opposite was true. And in a classic domino-effect, this triggered thinking about how ‘place’ can sometimes be metaphorical and how community learning – in England at least – remains as neglected and unloved as my kitchen.

First things first. A year ago on World Mental Health Day I had a bit of a meltdown and the CLMH** research was finally published (these things were unconnected). My meltdown proved to be a watershed but CLMH remains a huge elephant in the room: ignored and unacknowledged to the point of paranoia.


CLMH did really happen and it cost the public purse £20million. 62 research sites (community learning providers) and – more importantly – 23,000 actual people trusted initially BIS and then the Department of Education with the stories of their mental health, in the hope that a connection could be made between participation in community learning and improvements in mild to moderate mental ill-health. Research sites were randomly allocated to one of three types of community learning intervention and participants trusted that, even if they did not personally benefit from the experience, others who came after would – which was hugely altruistic and unselfish of them. The research findings, analysed by Ipsos MORI, did in fact show results which were at least as good as the main NHS talking therapy intervention (IAPT) and that community learning engaged and benefited people less likely to access mental health services, notably people of colour and men***. Intersectionality within mental health is something that definitely ought to be talked about more.

So what happened next for CLMH? Precisely nothing. The Department for Education soft-launched it on World Mental Health Day 2018 (with no hard launch to follow, and no funding to implement its findings – or even disseminate them). Few of the research sites were able to continue the work, even if this meant good people lost their jobs (and the generosity of 23,000 research participants came to nothing). In desperation, the project manager Catina Barrett (@mhfenetwork) and I took ourselves off to the European Mental Health Conference in Belfast, where at a personal cost of €510 each (plus travel and accommodation) we presented to a workshop of eight people. Interested people, yes, but no-one who was likely to make anything happen as a result of the research. On my return, I was further disheartened to read an otherwise excellent chapter in a shiny new book about FE, which didn’t mention CLMH at all.

So where’s the problem and what’s it got to do with my new kitchen? It’s all to do with place. Part of my navigational compass are the ten components of a Thinking Environment, which include Place. Place matters. I don’t feel at home in my home any more, because being on my own in that family house full of memories is too painful. I can’t move (yet) so I’m fixing it up in the hope of shifting my relationship with it.

How do we fix up community learning? As FE colleges got bigger and shinier over the last ten years, community learning got more and more neglected. Place matters, and community learning has no place at the table (don’t @ me, with respect if you think you have – it’s not working). Like my tumbledown kitchen, the infrastructure has crumbled, appliances have stopped working and spiders have amassed in the corners**** As we discovered on CLMH (and unlike my kitchen), this is not about money, it’s about being out of mind. Community learning is the forgotten afterthought of FE: unsure of its place anymore, under-theorised and unloved, barely advocated for, trying to box with the big boys and failing. That’s why good people overlook CLMH when they are writing about mental health. And why for twenty years I’ve run along behind policy and opinion makers shouting, ‘What about us?’ And yet we have a story to tell that FE needs to hear, an expensive story, in which 23,000 mental health stories (and £20million) were deeply invested.

If I’m to keep living in my house without feeling like dementors have got me every time I walk through the door, I have to fix it up, so that it becomes a house designed for me and I can make a new life for myself there. Community learning needs to do the same.

My call to arms for World Mental Health Day 2019 is to join me in rebranding English ‘community learning’. Let’s start by calling it community education (like everyone else does). That sounds more powerful and invites new thinking. In a year stuffed full of Commissions, we should then create our own, virtual one, to set some parameters for the future of English Community Education.

There’s still a job to do in putting CLMH under the noses of people interested in mental health, so if that’s you please contact @MHFEnetwork. As for the Commission (because these things are always capitalised), who’s with me? Let’s make a start.

*Honestly not as fancy as it sounds. See my TEDx Talk (not even joking) or this blog.

**The Community Learning and Mental Health Research Project 2015-18.

***See the brilliant @dragonfruitfilm 1 in 8 Men, a product of Knowsley CLMH research site, which we’d like to think inspired the very similar, celebrity-studded and royalty-voiced Richard Curtis film ‘Every Mind Matters’ 🙂

****This bit may not be true of community learning, but it was certainly true of my kitchen.

6 thoughts on “Place Matters

  1. Lou you have hit the nail on the head as usual!! I continue to bang my head against that brick wall about our findings years later!!
    Still got no real support apart from the national lottery. I haven’t seen this other film I need to see it!

    1. It’s so frustrating!! People seem to hear us…but I don’t think we are talking to the right people to make things happen and the selective deafness goes deeper than CLMH into community education in general. I hope if I can get this ‘commission’ going you’ll join it! As for the other film, well it’s lovely but for me 1 in 8 Men was the first and best.

  2. Brilliant Lou. So very true. Ironic that my place of work has altered its title several times but notably now it’s Adult Learning instead of Adult Education. It’s also lost its Place, it’s base, it’s community hub as staff have been moved out of the old, bricks and mortar building steeped in history overlooking the river and dispersed to ‘spare’ desks throughout corporate County Hall. Different floors, varied periodically, until we’re told a permanent floor can be found for us……some time. Divide and rule.

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