Both sides now, from up and down

The title of the blog was inspired by the reflective mood in the beautiful song 'Clouds' by Joni Mitchell, in case you are wondering about the significance! Maybe there is a connection, maybe not.

The weekend of 12th August 2017 - a few weeks ago - was significant for The School Bus Project.

Members of the SBP team from Vienna, London, Kent and other areas converged together to run activities and to celebrate life at the wonderful Tonbridge Calling festival on Saturday. It was truly inspiring to see community activists create a haven of welcome and warmth among strangers and friends - simply to share the pleasure of human company and human creativity. We sold hand-made jewellery, gifted by one of our Trustees, made little model buses with children, sang a few songs and enjoyed storytelling on the Bus. We also shared our own story and invited many new-found friends and partners to get involved with us.

In many ways, that is what brought The School Bus Project to life in the first place: a vibrant community in Brighton, where Stephanie and Kate first met with others in response to the refugee crisis in Calais.

Of course, the crisis is and was global - but the visibility and proximity of Calais was new.

The phenomenon of widely-reported human desperation, less than 30 miles from the UK, mixed with evidence of extraordinary human resilience motivated the original group to develop a vision for providing mobile education provision and The School Bus Project was born.

By early 2016, we were moving towards a longer term project as a registered Charity, with the co-operative education movement lending a hand to raise funds and provide transport in the form of the Little Red Bus: a 17 seater which served three months in the Calais camp. Others were providing much needed sustenance, shelter, advice - but we reached out to offer companionship in learning, with volunteer educators and many, many gestures of help and support from individuals and groups alike.

This weekend was really very special, coming almost two years since those first discussions in Brighton. The needs haven't changed or gone away and nor has the School Bus Project. But our approach has developed with the benefit of hindsight.

This particular weekend, we also showed just a little of the resilience we have seen in our refugee friends - coping with a vehicle breakdown, met dozens of wonderful new people, looked back on what we have achieved since re-launching and redefining the project last year. We were reminded of what we are trying to do and why.

A little word about the vehicle breakdown, first.

An amazing icon for the School Bus Project, our Big Yellow Bus was pretty poorly when she came back from service in the Calais Jungle last October. She sat - a little lonely - for a few months in a Brighton bus yard until we were able to move her to our new base in Kent - thanks to the generous offer of free parking in a Dover gymnasium car park.

She needed lots of work, particularly on the electrics - which had been neglected over the years and were in very poor shape. So as luck would have it, having been as good as gold for several weeks of testing after some internal refitting work, on Saturday, she finally broke down with major gearbox trouble on the M20.

Luckily, SBP's little red bus came to the rescue and we all made it to Tonbridge with ten minutes to spare. The very next day, the SBP minibus once again went out - as it does almost every week - working alongside a sister project to support a group of young refugees in Kent.

The bus breakdown was a very expensive experience, but donations from Tonbridge and emergency use of a special bequest mean that our Trustees have once again found the money to keep the bus on the road, without affecting our work to support training and provide resources to projects in the UK and in Europe.

And the experience of both stress and support in a single day reminded us that in the big scheme of things these are minor problems, compared with those faced by many in Italy, Syria, Turkey and - once again - in Northern France, where many refugee and migrant families are living rough and enduring harassment and inhuman treatment as a daily regime.

Last Summer, as Trustees, we held serious discussions with the team about the need for us to be more strategic and more accountable - both as a charity and in fairness to people who provided us with money.

As a result of these discussions, the project team changed personnel with two of the original team

moving on to form a new project with broadly similar aims, while we continued to review the SBP's achievements over the first year realistically and mapped out our future priorities.

Among the positives and pluses were:

  1. A really strong concept: the use of ex-passenger transport as a mobile learning resource base

  2. A well-developed programme of online learning, which has been used by over 100 people

  3. Excellent crowdfunding, social networking and shared empathy for children & young people

  4. Experience in the field of developing a practical mode of learning with volunteer educators

However, there were weaknesses in our organisation, which had naturally been a ad-hoc, highly creative initiative built on a sense of "crisis" management. Leaving Calais in October had felt as sudden for SBP as it seemed for everyone else in the shocking news coverage of the camp's destruction: there was no real game plan for us or for the refugees - and we had no real idea what to do with the Big Yellow Bus now it suddenly seemed to be over.

Many people had worked really hard on the SBP vehicle for many months and she really did us proud when in Calais - but we knew as Trustees that we had to be accountable and to be willing to learn lessons about doing things more effectively if the idea of SBP as a mobile education project was to be a practical one.

So firstly we revisited the inspired core notion of procuring used passenger vehicles. We realised that they should be seen as mobile teaching resource centres - more than mobile schools, providing a base for teachers to support their learning offer. In a similar way, Refugee Infobus and other projects have used their mobility to reach out to those in need of their support, with expertise and experience.

So we have now found new sources of vehicles and better approaches to conversion systems which means we can provide mobile learning centres at around half the cost of our first effort. We are about to look at sourcing our third vehicle to support an education project in Southern France.

Secondly, we completely overhauled the face-to-face training, to replace some of the more emotive content with more practical, personalised preparation for our trainees. We also knew that the direct provision was something to be treated with caution if we want to be sustainable and to develop a model that can be shared by others.

Thirdly, we looked at the efficiency and effectiveness of our work. We realised that we were still spending around £3500 per month after leaving our refugee learners behind. We could not continue to justify half our costs - around £25000 - being used to employ people or maintain an infrastructure with our limited funding, so we needed to move from personal - almost heroic - delivery to a different model.

We now spend well under £500 a month on organisation; however in the last twelve months, we have continued to resource refugee education work in what we believe are cost-effective contributions.

  • We have funded four months of primary maths teaching in Northern Greece camps

  • We have provided 25 refugees with laptops to further their education

  • We have continued to benefit from school support groups in and around London & South East

  • We have provided transport for Kent Refugee Action Network field visits and curriculum enrichment

  • We have supported a UK based refugee catering employment training project

  • We have used online e-training and v-training face to face sessions to support 100 volunteers

  • We have provided bursary funding for research into working with partner projects

  • We have worked in partnership with other groups in Europe to develop their learning provision

Fourth: the iconic and lovely bus. The Big Yellow Bus had cost around £12000 to deliver six weeks work in Calais - so we have decided to make sure that it continues to serve the project as our own training base and resource centre in the UK for the time being, while we explore further fieldwork and other vehicles for new projects. We have plans for our first roadshow in the Autumn, through which we hope to reach several hundred students at universities and schools in the South East.

We have already made a difference to hundreds of people and brought awareness to a wider community in the UK and across Europe. Awareness is a key issue: we see this as even more important in the UK, now that the refugee problem is no longer front page or top of the broadcast media news channels. So we have set up two working hubs in the UK, with a more organised approach to project management and project partnership.

Stephanie Bengtsson - the co-founder of The School Bus Project continues to act as our ambassador in joining international conferences and policy development meetings all around the world, in the course of her professional and academic work.

And of course, we can celebrate the fact that we are not alone: there are now a number of sister projects - including one that spun out of the School Bus Project team - looking at mobile education under canvas, in temporary accommodation and in other forms. So we know we have made a difference with support from many others. What we want to do now is make more of a difference.

SBP has worked up a longer-term plan, based on learning from experience, which is on our website.

The gist of this is that we know we cannot always deliver a heroically personal response to the massive issues of refugee needs, but we believe we can make a difference by empowering and supporting others. If you want to join us, support us, advise us or encourage us - do get in touch.

Jon O’Connor, UK Project lead, on behalf of the School Bus Project Trustees.

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