“As a lecturer at the University of Vic (a small city 40 miles north of Barcelona), I have been accompanying groups of Social Education students on visits to community-based projects in Balsall Heath for the last 9 or 10 years. Our interest is in showing students the kind of bottom-up community self-organisation that has been such a feature of Balsall Heath’s recent past. Obviously, St Paul’s Community Development Trust is one of the organisations we visit because of the key role it has played over the last 40 years.
For the past two years, we have also been fortunate enough to be able to place students at St Paul’s School, where they have completed 3-month in-service training placements as part of their degree course. In both cases, the students have returned to Vic enormously enthused by the experience, and convinced that the work being done in St Paul’s School, though incredibly challenging, has given them a model for how they would like to work in the future.
One of the most frequent criticisms among our students, during their degree course, is that the core values that we at the university try to instil in them, of developing working relationships with the ‘clients’/’users’ based on mutual respect and trust, are not always in evidence in the contacts they have with placement centres. This is where St Paul’s School has stood out: the concepts of respect, trust, mutual support, and belief in the capacities and potential of the young people the school works with are not just empty slogans or articles of blind faith, they are at the very heart of all the work the school does, and of the relationships built between staff and pupils.
This attitude has also marked the relationships our students have been able to develop during their time at St Paul’s: the conviction among the staff that they still need to learn, that they are not ‘the experts’ who have ‘mastered’ the work they do but are instead conscious of the need to improve, to change, to move forward, has meant that our students have felt valued for the ideas, experiences and energy they have contributed during their time in the school. The fact that the school has been so open to them, and has supported them at every moment of their placement, means that relationships have developed of an intensity that is exceptional.
Our students have returned to Vic changed by their experiences, and with a renewed conviction that working in an open, honest and respectful way is not just possible, but absolutely necessary. For that reason, we are currently talking here at the university about ways of strengthening the relationship we have with St Paul’s, including planning a visit by one or more members of the St Paul’s staff to Vic to talk to our students and also, to people working in equivalent settings here in Catalunya.
I firmly believe we have much to learn from their experience, and their way of working.”