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The Circle Works

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History

The origins of The Circle Works are in inner-city
primary education. In 1985, Geoffrey Court, deputy
head of a primary school in east London, was
seconded to the Urban Studies Centre to develop
new forms of support for teachers. This was a time
when teacher stress and staff turnover in schools
were matters of serious concern.

ReachingOut

Beginnings: support for teachers

In the mid nineteen-eighties Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London, was
struggling to staff its schools. Low professional morale and high housing costs had led
to an acute shortage of teachers, and many of those who did come to the area only
stayed for a short time. It was not unknown for young children to have six different
class teachers in a year. Such a high turnover risked damaging children’s learning,
especially when they lacked stability elsewhere in their lives.

Several institutions were trying to address the problem. One of these was The Urban
Studies Centre (USC) based in Bethnal Green and Limehouse. An innovative offshoot
of a College of Education distant from London, the USC had been training student
teachers and youth and community workers since 1973. It offered them challenging
placements in the inner city, while at the same time making sure they had the support
they needed in order not to drown in the experience, but to learn from it and build on
it. The model worked well, and when they qualified many of the USC’s alumni not only
returned to the area but stayed, often for good.

In response to the teacher supply crisis the Urban Studies Centre wanted to extend
its work to the support of serving teachers as well as students, and invited the acting
head of a local primary school, Geoffrey Court, to develop a small teacher support
project. Initial funding was provided by the charity Christian Action (although the
project would never be allied with any religious faith). At the time, Christian Action's
focus was on the problems faced by inner city communities, and its Director, Canon
Eric James, was an instigator of the Church of England’s ‘Faith in the City’ report
which was to cause a considerable stir a few months later.

What kind of support?

The Tower Hamlets Primary Teacher Support Project came into being in September
1985, when Geoffrey Court, now seconded to the Urban Studies Centre, began a
series of recorded conversations with teachers which began with the question, ‘What
new kind of support would be useful to you?’ After the first encounter interviewees
soon asked to come back and talk more, and a coherent picture emerged very quickly.
It seemed that in order to do their jobs well, teachers felt they needed what Geoffrey
was already offering them: reflective conversation about the issues that mattered to
them, in a safe and hospitable space where they could speak honestly without risking
damage to their careers and where, above all, they could learn by reflecting on their
experience. This was the beginning of a strand of core work that continues to this day.
The results of the initial enquiry were recorded in ‘Of Primary Importance’, published
and widely distributed by Christian Action in April 1987.

The whole school and the classroom circle

Soon after this a second worker joined the Project. Jeannette Weaver was not a
teacher but a Play Leader, a Midday Supervisor and a Learning Support Assistant.
These roles had given Jeannette a considerable understanding of the way school life
looked from the child’s point of view, and this often challenging perspective would
transform the Project, which from now on would be co-created in partnership rather
than managed by one person. Jeannette began training as a counsellor, and the
project was soon able to offer therapeutic space to children in school as well as
reflective space to teachers. It changed its name accordingly to ‘Primary School
Support’.

From the earliest days, it had been clear that issues faced by individuals could rarely
be thought about in isolation from their context. It would always be important to pay
serious attention to the individual, especially the individual in distress, but the process
always had to be informed by an attempt to understand the social dynamics of
organisations. Questions of relationship power, responsibility, communication were
central and could not be ignored. This was just as true in the classroom as it was in
the staffroom. An opportunity arose for a deeper exploration when Jeannette and
Geoffrey were invited to visit a particularly troubled class who desperately needed to
learn how to communicate better and discover a sense of themselves as a group. Not
only the class teacher but also other specialist support teachers wanted to find
effective ways to help.

What emerged over the next few years, as a result of collaboration between the
Project and many teachers and children, was a body of principles and activities
designed to enhance the life of the class as a community. This was soon being
referred to as ‘circle work’. A major source of inspiration had been ‘The Playground
Project’ devised and led by the psychodramatist Olivia Lousada and described in
‘Dramatherapy with Children, Young People and Schools’ (Routledge 2012). Several
years before, as a class teacher, Geoffrey Court had himself participated in this
project, and it had shown him how an imaginative and well-contained group process
could bring out the insight, compassion and resourcefulness of a class, and release
more energy for learning.

The Circle Works

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s radical and aggressive educational reforms
were being put into place. In 1991 the Project played its part in supporting a local
school singled out for sustained public attack by government and sections of the
press: overworked and fearful, schools in general turned in on themselves. Shifts in
the educational climate made it necessary to find a new parent body, and in 1992
the Project became the urban outpost of the educational and environmental charity
Commonwork, founded in 1976 by Neil and Jenifer Wates. On its eighth birthday
the Tower Hamlets Primary School Support Project left Bethnal Green for Medway
Buildings, a quiet mews in Bow, and put up a sign declaring its new name:
The Circle Works.

The simple building into which The Circle Works moved, with its bare brickwork and
open fire, proved an inspiration, and Jeannette and Geoffrey set about creating the
calm, inviting ‘hosted space’ that has been the organisation’s hallmark ever since.

Jeannette had by now qualified as a counsellor and also trained in art therapy. Locally
The Circle Works was engaged in circle work, work consultations, and group work and
counselling for adults and children. It had its place in the wider scene too, contributing
significantly to the Manchester-based ‘Values and Visions’ project which encouraged
spiritual development and global awareness in schools, hosting the Education Group of
PCSR (Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility) and working closely
with Antidote, a national organisation promoting emotional literacy. These very
productive years culminated in an unforgettable celebration when The Circle Works,
with the help of a team of adults and about 250 children, marked the Millennium by
creating a colourfully decorated twelve-foot-high dancing mask. This was the
Wishcatcher, to which people of all ages could attach their wishes for themselves
and for the world.

Becoming a Charity

Nevertheless, difficult times were soon to follow. By mid-2000 a property developer
had summarily evicted The Circle Works from its home. Commonwork suffered a
series of blows from sources beyond its control, and in 2002 was obliged to make
Geoffrey, Jeannette and others redundant. A further eviction immediately followed,
but The Circle Works’ many friends responded magnificently to an appeal for help, and
the seeds were sown of a new future. Jeannette sought out new premises in Temple
Yard, Bethnal Green, strongly reminiscent of Medway Buildings. A company was
formed, and in August 2003 The Circle Works was granted charitable status. The
objects of the charity were defined by the Charity Commission as ‘the advancement
of education, and the preservation and protection of mental health in Tower Hamlets
and the surrounding area, in particular, but not exclusively, by the practice and study
of the arts and reflective dialogue as methods of learning.'


There was a wealth of experience to bring to the new charity. At the Urban Studies
Centre, the two workers had come into close contact with disciplines outside the world
of schools, such as youth and community work and religious ministry. Commonwork
had introduced them to key ecological concepts such as sustainability and
interdependence, as important in thinking about the organisation of work as they are
in thinking about the environment. Under the influence of mentors and supervisors
they had had close contact with Group Analysis and the Person-centred Approach, and
from their own practice, they had developed an understanding of hosted space and of
circle work. All this had been added to their core professional experience in lifelong
education, both formal and informal, and in counselling and mental health.

Jeannette

2005 was the occasion of The Circle Works’ twentieth birthday, and a series of
celebrations was planned. The main event was a small conference entitled ‘The
Space Between’, at which The Circle Works shared some of what had been learned
in two decades. Jeannette and Geoffrey saw this, The Circle Works’ most successful
event yet, as a milestone; but within a few weeks Jeannette was found to be
seriously ill, and early in 2007, at the age of 53, she died of cancer.

Although the terrible blow of Jeannette's illness and death left The Circle Works in
disarray, its core work had continued and its many friends had remained as steadfast
as ever. One friend whose practical help was invaluable throughout this difficult time
was Heather Goodman, an experienced counsellor and former teacher and teacher
trainer. Heather eventually moved her practice to The Circle Works (something
Jeannette and Geoffrey had long hoped for) and began to play a full part in the life of
the charity. Heather's arrival, like Jeannette's twenty years before, had a transforming effect, not least because of the fresh thinking and new friends she brought with her.

It is the charity's wide circle of friends who are the inspiration for its future. As well
as continuing its own practice, which has expanded dramatically in the past year or
two, The Circle Works is now building on its strong network of professional
relationships and offering a widening range of collaborative workshops and other
events. This new stage leads us towards a new definition of The Circle Works as an
active community of practitioners who share a desire, in Auden's phrase, 'to discover
how to be human now'.
 

Geoffrey

Geoffrey Court

OfPrimaryImportance

Of Primary Importance,
published by Christian
Action, April 1987

Contact

From Contact, the
Inner London Education
Authority's newspaper,
15 November 1985

FrankColesHouse

Frank Coles House
in Morpeth Street,
Bethnal Green: home
to the Tower Hamlets
School Support Project
from 1986 to 1993

Jeannette Weaver
1953 – 2007

Jeannetteinthepink

A child's view
of the circle

Childscircle
LeavingMedwayBuildings
MedwayBuildings
MedwayBuildings1

Medway Buildings,
with its open fire

Logoblueyellow

The Circle Works' logo,
designed by Penny Jones
in 1992

WishcatcheronOpenDay

The Wishcatcher
draws a crowd

MedwayBuildingsdrawing
    

About The Circle Works

    What is The Circle Works?
    History
    Structure
 

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