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Rax Interview with Isla Brown

In July, New Internationalist will publish the Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them.

The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.

Isla is a mum of 4 young boys and had no campaigning experience until her local school was under threat of closure. Working with the other parents and playing to all their strengths we have campaigned tirelessly with the local council to fix the building or build a new one.

What is your campaign aiming to achieve? 

We are campaigning to keep our small, local, rural primary school open.
The council have decamped us to another school in the neighbouring large town because they said our school was badly in need of repair.

What campaigning methods have you used?

Our campaign was on several angles:
1. Constantly asking the council for all the legal and official documentation and evidence to back up their claims that our school was unsafe to be inhabited, which they have not been able to provide.
2. We queried their costings on everything. Costs to fix the building; costs to keep our kids at another school; what the costs to put up temporary accommodation at the original site would have cost; how much would it be to fix the building; how much a new building would cost. We also did or own costings on many of these points.
3. New legislation had just come into force to ensure that school closures would come under closer scrutiny and a rural schools act had just been given royal assent, which meant that rural schools could not be closed on financial grounds alone, but there had to be educational advantage to be gained from the closure. Our parents know more about these Acts now than the council officers and many of the local councillors and we have proven that their consultation to shut our school is legally flawed.
4. We engaged the help of a pressure / lobby group called The Rural Schools Network and they have helped us with the legal and financial issues. On our behalf they have lobbied the minister of education and gained his support.
5. We have a "Save our School” petition page on Facebook.
6.The council criticized our "lack of community " so we have formalized our social gatherings and we now have an "Outdoor Toddlers Group," a first in our county as far as we know and working with cutting edge concepts with regard to pre school development, outdoor, nature play and parental engagement. We have also started up a community women’s group as we felt there was a "gap in the market" for women to meet up and socialize, learn and be involved in community-based projects.
7. We ran a community survey on all households in the catchment area and asked people what they thought about their local school and their community and what did they want from it in the future.

What impact has your campaigning had? 

Our impact so far has been very positive. We have got backing from central government although we still have to work through the small print at local govt. level. We have had positive national and local press coverage. Our public meetings have changed local opinion on the issue of our school closure and we have gained increasing local support. Most significantly it has been a very character building experience for all of those involved in the campaign.

At a personal level it has been immensely challenging, increasing communication skills, thinking "outside the box," taking self-responsibility, motivating others, learning how to delegate to others, and accepting others and yourself. Working under stress and understanding how that makes yourself and others behave and how to adapt to that and sometimes recover from it.

Overall I think it will have the effect of immensely deepening our connections within the school and within the community. The potential with any campaign that involves so much commitment and effort is that it could sometimes drive people apart as well as together and I think the ultimate goal is to try and stay close to your end vision and everything else will fall into place and have the significance that it deserves.

What would be your key advice for young people seeking to make a change in their world through campaigning?

I couldn’t recommend campaigning for something you believe in strongly enough. It can be an absolutely beautiful process. Creative, inspirational and sometimes deeply spiritual, and it may make more demands of your time and energy than you ever imagined you had the space for. Nevertheless, the means is as rewarding as the end and when you can relax and enjoy the process as much as the end result you will know you have truly made it happen!

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