‘No – they haven’t changed. These are exactly the same kids; we’ve just created an environment in which they can be their own amazing self’

Whilst in New Zealand a good friend of mine sent me a link to a radio interview with one of the country’s leading people in the field of alternative education. In the interview, Sarah Longbottom, Founder and Creative Director of the Nga Rangatahi Toa Creative Arts Initiative, outlined the work she leads that seeks to use creativity as a way of reengaging young people for which she had won a prominent award.

A few weeks later I met with Sarah near her office in Ponsonby, an exciting and affluent area in Auckland filled with bars and cafes, and a long way from South Auckland where many of the students she works with are based.

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Sarah was clear that basing her project in Ponsonby was a conscious choice because it was a stark reality of the contrasts that can exist in New Zealand.

‘This feels like a foreign place for our kids, just like going to Mangere (in South Auckland) would be foreign for many of the residents who live here.’

This recognition of context and geographical awareness is one that features throughout educational projects I have observed and leads to a central question: how do you broaden young people’s awareness of the world around them whilst also seeking to avoid the entrenchment that may already exist?

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Sarah was adamant that the young people she works with often have very bold ambitions, but what they don’t have, necessarily, is the awareness within their wider families to enable these to be developed. Many families, she indicated, are just not sure what might be needed to support their children.

Why though do students reach her organisation in the first place? Hear Sarah’s thoughts on why some students don’t get as much from the main schooling system as others do.

From my own experience, discussing such topics with people working in alternative education can sometimes be very stark in comparison to speaking with teachers or professionals in mainstream and traditional school settings. As an illustration of this, Sarah outlined the two main levers that her work seeks to develop which sometimes (for some groups) schools are simply not able to fully provide: (1) logistical issues – they enable students to attend and engage fully with the curriculum; (2) emotional issues – they give them love..

This latter term was one I was keen to explore further with her and it was one Sarah was keen to stress the importance of,

‘Teachers are not comfortable talking about it [love]’. But that’s because it’s a word we rarely define. Here, we refer to it as the pedagogy of love – we explain it to our students, we tell them what it means; it underpins all of our actions and our community.’

We also discussed why creativity is a topic that is continually focused on by individuals trying to re-engage young people.

‘Creativity is everywhere – not just the creative arts. It’s because it comes from within. It’s personal – an act of faith in yourself as well as you get to see something from start to finish.’

Sarah has developed a very impressive body of work in this area and spoke later about what it provides for young people that come to her project.

 

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