Down The Ragged Road: A Story So Far…

An old friend was talking on television the other day about where he is at and what he has been up to.  Will Bentinck, along with two other friends – Jes Haley and Grant Crozier – were sitting in the Rochester Castle pub in Stoke Newington many years ago when the idea of Ragged University crystallised….

Jes Haley, had catalyzed my going to London to help out a small community organisation called Street Performers Community Organisation ( She got volunteers for ecologically oriented projects as, at the time, she worked at British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (
James Tonner, who started this community organisation, regularly organised litter pick ups and other activities in the area of Hackney Marshes.  Jes had said that they needed someone to help organise the office and so I pitched in to help organise 5 years of back accounts and helping file paperwork. I also helped do some environmental clean up along the River Lee…

Street Performer Community Organisation Clean Up On River Lee

James found this useful and invited me to work more with them and suggest ideas for a festival which they were planning for the area. James asked me how I would bring community together and improve the lives of people.  I did not know, but I said I would think about it.  My experience helping out James and Street Performers Community Organisation was very positive; it felt meaningful and I got to meet lots of people who I found interesting.
I asked my friends the same question about how we could bring community together and improve peoples lives.  I knew it required a shared activity, and I knew it needed to be something which everyone enjoyed; however the problem was that everyone enjoys different things. I sat and thought about it for a long time. And then one day it occurred to me when I was in the pub with Grant, Will and Jes.  I looked around and listened.  I realised that what we do all the time is gift information. We enjoy sharing our knowledge, our experience; we enjoy having our experience enriched and learning from those who love what they do.

We spend our whole lives invested in doing things, sometimes in a job, sometimes in study, sometimes in hobbies, and then when we meet with friends we enjoy sharing what we have discovered and discuss it.  Learning could be the adaptive focal point for bringing communities together and improving people’s lives. Once I had realised it, I witnessed it all around me in all friendly situations.  This made utter sense to me as a basic and magnetic feature of human behaviour.  We sat and drank Vouvray and ale exploring the idea together in the hot sunshine of Stokey…

The story evolves from there when I returned to Edinburgh and discussed things with two other friends; Eileen Broughton and Roy Wilsher.  They are passed now but still live on as dear friends.  They were retired teachers who had taken a shine to me, and I often enjoyed their company.  They always told me loads about economics, history, education, systems analysis, organising skills, literature, the arts…they were a special part of my life.
They always dropped me in the deep end with conversations and challenged me to think about what I thought.  It was always fun, and I appreciate thinking when it is done in relaxed circumstances.  Being ‘Schooled’ was always a bit torturous in my past, but they always intrigued me with the details of things.  I remember them saying that I reminded them of Ivan Illich’s book, Deschooling Society, and I also remember the encouragement they gave me to formulate the Ragged University.
They told me a great deal about the history of the Ragged Schools and how the social fabric of the UK was built by communities.  They inspired me with stories about the likes of John Pounds, Thomas Guthrie and Andrew Bell, and explained some of the principles of learning – as they had encountered them.  They suggested that this history was one in which people from every walk of life got involved and that it was so successful that in 1870 the government absorbed the infrastructure which the community built, taking on the remit of the universal provision of free education…
Most of all, they were my friends.  They treated me with dignity and respect; they encouraged my curiosity and shared genuinely in my company. They took time in their lives to impart stories special to them which live with me ever more as the weeks go by.  The story of the Ragged project would have to be summed up not by a vision of institutional education but by friendships which nourished and inspired me.  The number of people I have met along the way which are now good friends from initial encounters around the idea of exchanging, listening and enjoying is great.

It was Will, Grant and Jes who took the plunge with me and helped make the practical reality of the Ragged University concept.  Will and Grant did the first talks, and Jes did the organising of it.  I was involved in surveying the local businesses and engaging more people in building it into a larger pilot…

Thinking now, several years down the line, if I – or anyone – could have predicted the outcomes of our joined, interwoven, entangled trajectories, I believe it would have been a deficient fantasy.  Can we tease apart the interactions into ‘definites’ which commissioners and funders want ? No, I dont think so; a new more humane way of supporting such community activities needs to be identified. Do I think that anyone could look into the future and delineate the learning outcomes, the paths taken, the experiences gained and the friendships forged ?  No, again, this seems like a shallow fiction.
What we can do is analyse retrospectively what has happened since and count the positives constructed, the creative and intellectual endeavours undertaken, and refer to some of the familiar connections made.  I say refer to because the idea of injecting metrics into the personal spaces in people’s lives seems poisonous to the very thing which we are trying to build – community.  Community needs privacy, respect and unconditional encouragement rather than more ways of being put under a microscope for Payment By Results.  Extroverts dont have so much of a problem with these ideas, however for the vast majority it seems that they want their private lives kept discrete and personal.

I leave you with Will talking about what he has been up to with the social enterprise work he has been doing, some of the learning he has done on the way to where he is and where he is going to….

Leave a comment


email* (not published)