Informing Informal Education and Dancing Like Nobody Is Watching

When we hear the word ‘education’, most of us (consciously or unconsciously) reach for the ideas of formal education, classrooms, teachers, certificates and authority. These are the easy and obvious stereotypes because they are most prominent in our cultural context. These are the measurable forms, and the ones which gain most funding opportunities because of their familiarity.

Ritual Structure


What I am interested in, however, is developing the informal educational landscape and opening out new possibilities of in learning. I shall be telling you about what the Ragged University is trying to embody.


The Ragged University project takes forward the grand history of the Ragged Schools, and has been running for over five years, exploring and evolving understandings of knowledge building and exchange in informal settings.


The reason the project has emerged this way is simple; I wanted to avoid a ‘more of the same’ attitude, and develop something which represented the diversity of human experience that we encounter on a day to day basis.


Life endlessly presents us with new and fascinating combinations and curiosities; the messy unexpected and the unique – we only need to spend a day with a child to have this acutely highlighted to us.


So much of life happens outside of the structured and ritualised spaces we painstakingly build. We have boardroom meetings and show meticulous PowerPoint slideshows but discover that we go to the pub afterwards where the deep connections happen.


We go to densely nutritious lectures where we are exposed to a lifetime’s thinking, and discover that it is only over coffee later where we get to rehearse the ideas encountered that light bulbs click on. The structured and institutionalised spaces rely on these informal links to bring together, bind and make sense of the regimented spaces – they are symbiotically required of each other.


For the purposes of Ragged University, it was essential to make use of the informal spaces that traditionally people made use of to meet with other people; part of the core the aim of the project being to embody community through engendering the act of communing. When looking at institutional and formal spaces, I realised that they had been formed for specialised purposes.


They have their own cultures which suggest a clear purpose and way of being in those spaces. Being aware of this was important as people can find formal spaces imposing and forbidding; they impose on our behaviour by way of their purpose. Even trained people can suffer from ‘impostor syndrome‘.


Informal spaces hold the qualities of being more flexible and welcoming; they are more malleable to the people who are in the space, and therefore – in a sense – more democratic. Ways of being and rules of conduct, as well as purpose and means of achieving that purpose, are negotiated and re-negotiated constantly by the people collecting in the social space. Professor Ray Oldenburg talks about ‘third places’ – places other than the home and work – in which we gather. He refers to them as ‘great good places’, and describes them as having complex social function which we need to recognize and support.


It was in these types of spaces that I saw great untapped possibilities in terms of education. An educational context which we could negotiate and re-negotiate; one where we could meet old friends and discover new friends. One which was flexible to the needs of those inhabiting the space rather than a space which shapes the people who move inside it. This is the setting of the Ragged University as an idea.


ragged leaf logo

The Ragged University emerged as a place of learning where place denotes belonging for everyone. Organisationally it is critical to avoid there being decided and set views of knowledge; instead the project works on the exercise to discover the author in each person…


Everyone is a Ragged University, accredited with their life experience, and with a membership of one. People talk and share what they are passionate about, doing all the things it takes for a human to muster and tell the story of what they have learned; we learn through teaching and develop our character in doing so.


There is no formal certificate. There are no formal exams. It is not about CVs and creating an unnatural gravity around finance or ’employability’. It is not about being the world authority on a subject – it is arguable that no-one can be this as knowledge is a joint venture; a public endeavour.


Much more than all of this, it is about valuing knowledgeable people and creating a setting where anyone can flourish. The project is about education as a public good, a commons which belongs to us all, and to which we all belong. We welcome contributions to the Ragged University project such as writing an article or doing a talk: to consciously share what you know in an informal space or with your local community education project.


The above is an article which I wrote for FE News:


Joel Petrie
Joel Petrie

When I was asked to write the above article for Joel Petrie, I was very happy to meet another educator who was interested in getting perspectives from the broader community to contribute to the conversations which are happening around education.  I had met him at a conference I attended at Blackburn College set up by Peter Shukie – creator of Community Open Online Courses….


Joel gave a great talk on the book which he helped bring together called ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses‘.  It is a book which combines contributions from a dozen different educational practitioners to flesh out a new metaphor for education to replace the tired old ‘Cinderella’ one which is regularly wheeled out.  The Cinderella rhetoric is a dominant myth which paints the picture of people going from rags to riches because education was that fairy godmother that granted everyone’s wishes.


The talk he gave, and the book (which I got a copy of), deconstructs the many problems with this view of education.  This was very refreshing, particularly as my experiences with widening participation policies is that they are often too conservative and ironically help to entrench privilege within the education system.  Simultaneously, working within the formal structures, I regularly find individuals who are deeply committed to education and ensuring that everyone shares in their attentions and becomes valued for their abilities.  This said, the stratification of the education system, and many institutional societal structures is intensifying, driven on by the pressures of marketisation, internationalisation and weaponised world rankings.


The Russell Group universities routinely fail to meet any of their widening participation benchmarks which, for the resources they get, are already set unreasonably low for them. There are terrible assumptions about what counts as ‘talent’ and ‘ability’ engrained throughout the admissions processes, Higher Education researchers and policy makers.


Routes into Higher Education are narrow and few people outside of the usual suspects (in terms of demographic participation) get to take part.  Often the few who do get in from rarified backgrounds are put on display as exemplars for how egalitarian the system is, underpinning the notion of a meritocracy which ultimately can only be engaged in by those already in a privileged position.


Twelve Dancing Princesses


Thus the book ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses‘ explores ambitions and commitment to social justice in the current ideological context of Further Education.The alternative metaphor of the Twelve Dancing Princesses is proposed to more accurately illustrate how educators within the system must operate if they are to realise their goals of being an educator under egalitarian principles.


In this German folk tale, twelve princesses sleep in twelve beds in the same room of a palace. Every night the doors are securely bolted shut, however, every morning, the king awakes to find that their dancing shoes are worn out as if they had been dancing all night. The king is baffled and promises his kingdom and each daughter to any man who can discover what the princesses’ get up to at night, but those who fail will be put to death…


In the various chapters, the authors look to critical pedagogy for inspiration so that Further Education can continue to offer transformative spaces to those wanting to learn.  The application of technology is explored and how it affects the physical spaces in which teaching and learning are rooted.  There are healthy challenges to the managerialist practices of lesson observation and resistance to the idea of collusion of Further Education managers with the values of the market at the expense of public value.


Tapping into so many people who see being involved in education as having an intrinsic reward has been a deeply valuable journey which creating informal education events and settings has allowed me to go on.  Organising Ragged University events has given me the opportunity to meet with intrinsically motivated people who really love their subject and what they do.


My perception of all sorts has shifted, matured, and changed by doing this – from my understanding of what happens in the civil service to why people free run to just how much soul goes into the passion of teaching.


I am now regularly drawn to think about what ‘widening participation’ actually means in practical terms when I am operating as an indvidual.  What really is inclusive ?  Who am I giving time to listening to ?  What are the problems with keeping an open forum open ?  What can I do to get a better understanding and picture of what constitutes a successful learning environment and community ?  What would I ideally like to see in terms of ‘widening participation’ ?….


Dancing feet

I hope this article has been stimulating for you.  I will leave you with some further reading and the thought that Joel Petrie left me with:

Keep on dancing…..



Literature Review of Research into Widening Participation



An overview of inclusion and education By Prof Penny Jane Burke


YouTube player


What More Can Be done to Widen Access to Highly Selective Universities? By Sir Martin Harris