Haven of hope in a high-rise hell

February 10, 2006

Taking a cue from its location at the heart of one of the UK's most deprived housing estates, Roehampton University is making social justice a core element in its approach to learning. Mandy Garner reports

In past centuries, Roehampton was known as the bankers' borough, a place of affluence and filthy lucre. It still contains a string of million-pound homes, including that of Duran Duran singer Simon le Bon, and borders on London's beautiful Richmond Park. But it is also home to the Alton Estate, Europe's second-largest housing estate, which has an unemployment rate of 49 per cent and a raft of social and economic problems. And nestling in the middle of the estate is Roehampton University. Its location, coupled with its Christian background - several of the university's colleges have a connection with the Church - and its historic focus on education, make it the ideal site for a centre of excellence focusing on social justice and human rights.

In September, the university will begin rolling out a huge experiment - 400-500 first-year students across a range of different subject areas, from social sciences to drama, will have to do a module in citizenship and social justice. Eventually the university aims to cover all subjects, including combined honour subjects, and all year groups. There will be common elements to what is studied by students in different subjects - for instance, asylum and immigration - but each subject area will have a slightly different spin on citizenship and social justice.

Drama students, for instance, will look at how theatre has been used to highlight human rights abuses.

The project is run by the Crucible, a new £4.5 million Centre of Excellence in Human Rights and Social Justice set up by the university with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It builds on the university's partnership work with non-governmental organisations, which will help to devise the course curriculum, work with staff to develop teaching materials and resources and hopefully offer students placements so that they can get hands-on experience.

David Woodman, director of the Crucible, says he sees the course as building on school citizenship classes, with students possibly being involved in supporting the citizenship curriculum in schools. "What is quite novel is that we are trying to stretch a single part of the curriculum across a range of subject programmes," he comments.

Roehampton can do this more easily than most, given its size - it has about 8,000 students. Woodman says that about 30 staff are working on the citizenship and social justice module. Three senior fellows, like him, spend about 50 per cent of their time on the Crucible, which is moving into the university's new Teaching and Learning Resources Centre in August.

The project has also had to hire a few non-academic staff, including a centre manager. Two thirds of the citizenship and social justice module will be taught by staff attached to the Crucible and a third by subject-specific staff.

Its work will complement the university's focus on social justice, particularly its work with the local community, including the Alton Estate.

When the estate was built in the 1950s, there was much optimism about its future. The innovative high-rise flats were based on Le Corbusier's designs in Marseilles - some are now Grade II listed. But gradually, since economic decline set in during the Sixties and with housing legislation changes in the late Eighties, the estate has gone downhill. The population now is fairly transient -in the past decade, a big influx of Filipinos has been replaced by Somalis -and it is regarded as one of the most deprived wards in Wandsworth.

It was not until the 2001 census, though, that the extent of the estate's decline was realised - poor education, high levels of family breakdown, economic inactivity and crime - and some concrete measures taken. Those involved in the regeneration say it is hard to measure success - the problems are so deep-rooted that results will be seen only in the long term.

Jim McKinney, who is on the board of many of the projects associated with regenerating the estate, says, for example, that primary school teachers are concerned that some children from the estate are entering with more behavioural problems and less numeracy and literacy skills than in the past. Unsurprisingly, Roehampton has only 16 per cent higher education participation, one of the lowest figures in the UK.

But the university is helping to address this situation. One dramatic sign was its decision to move one of its four colleges, formerly based in Putney, to the estate. Whitelands College, which houses the university's science faculty, opened last February. The university bought the land and buildings, which include a former Jesuit seminary, from Greenwich University. The aim of relocating the college was to consolidate the university in one area, but by having it slap-bang in the middle of the council estate there is a broader widening participation agenda at work.

Vice-chancellor Paul O'Prey says: "Moving Whitelands is a huge statement about our commitment to the community. The last thing we want to do is build a wall around the college. We have built very good relations with the community over several years and we want to take that forward. We have been very successful with AimHigher, mainly in the southwest London area, but we want to make a difference on our own doorstep."

Many of the university's students are involved in a range of projects focused on the estate, from research into play therapies to helping out with youth clubs. But it is the university's School of Business and Social Sciences - where Woodman is assistant dean - and the School of Arts that are most involved.

Stephen Driver, director of the Social Research Centre, is working on an economy and employment study of the estate. The research, which shows the estate has a high deprivation score, is being used by Wandsworth Borough Council and the London Development Agency. Driver is also involved in Heart, the Hub for Employment and Advice in Roehampton, a partnership with local government, advice agencies, social enterprise, local businesses and adult learning organisations, which aims to reconnect the socially excluded and offer "a one-stop shop" for advice on a whole range of problems. He adds that academics can help to act as "honest brokers" between the community and other agencies, such as the local authority, which may be distrustful of each other. This is because they tend to be viewed as politically neutral and looking to benefit the community, even if this is partly driven by government funding and policy.

The School of Arts runs an MA in performance studies with a module that involves students working closely with the local community. Alan Read, course leader, has some experience in this area. He worked in a theatre in Rotherhithe for eight years and got local people involved by installing washing machines in the theatre - there was no local laundrette - and inviting those who used them to become involved in theatre work.

The Crucible's ambitions are clearly wider than the local community, but Woodman is keen for the citizenship and social justice module to work with local as well as international non-governmental organisations. He emphasises how it fits in with the university's overarching goals. "Human rights and social justice are significant parts of the university's mission," he says. "We are trying to touch the lives of all of our students."

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