The Connected Lab is a peer learning programme for those leading or managing the activity of Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs) in London, hosted by A New Direction. The Connected Lab provides a space for participants to collaborate, share practice and learn from each other about the dynamics of partnership working and making systemic change. The process or designing and delivering the programme has provided us with new insights on how peer learning works in the context of partnership-working.
Local Cultural Education Partnerships come in all shapes and sizes: large and small, established and emerging. Some have a purely strategic focus, whilst others commission and deliver creative activities. The longest-running partnerships have been in operation for several years, while others have not yet had their first meeting. All have one thing in common: they are cross-sector, strategic partnerships that work together to unite and improve cultural education for children and young people in their local area.
Whilst LCEPs share a common purpose, their local focus means that the context in which they are convened can vary greatly. Some partnership managers may be based in a large arts organisation, whilst others will sit within a Local Authority. Some partnerships have become constituted charities or belong to a trust with a specific vision, whilst others exist only as a ‘coming together’ of other organisations – and in those cases, a local purpose must be found. As there is often no dedicated pot of funding for partnership development, particularly as the partnership is establishing a shared vision, the capacity needed to drive and deliver the partnership is often ‘loaned’ from elsewhere in an organisation or programme.
The daily working life of each partnership manager will therefore also vary greatly. Some may have a team or a board; others find themselves working relatively autonomously. In all cases, conveners tend to have a busy workload to manage, alongside the partnership. This is where peer learning comes in: the Connected Lab aims to provide a forum for mutual support and sharing experiences. As we set out on the journey of launching the programme, we hoped this would give the managers an added boost in their partnership-building endeavours.
Following plenty of consultation and year-round evaluation, we now have a wealth of learning about the process of peer learning itself. Here are the big lessons we’ve learned so far:
1. Design collaboratively
Co-design has been threaded throughout the programme – from initial consultation to regular feedback opportunities. This enabled us to select the most relevant themes for the group, which included ownership and representation, impact, change and sustainability. The format of Connected Lab was also co-designed by a pilot group the year before launching. Working with the facilitators, the group created and refined their own problem-solving approach. Loosely based on the principles of Action Learning, this sees the group pitching their challenges to the room, electing which to take forward, and then supporting each other to ‘solve’ the issues by posing questions and offering insights and advice. Each conversation concludes with a summary from the pitcher and often leads to further connections being struck up outside the session.
2. Harness insight
A key ingredient has been the involvement of guest speakers who kick off the sessions by presenting on the themes previously elected by the group. Participants consistently tell us that hearing from other partnerships, consortia, or indeed from other sectors, is particularly helpful. This reflects the fact that so much learning is going on out in the field every day already. Inviting outside guests allows us to bring new perspectives from another corner of the world into the awareness of the group, so that the most fruitful insights and ideas can be shared more widely.
3. Find the right balance
Perhaps the clearest message we received from participants is that facilitated group sessions were the most useful and appropriate aspect of the programme for them. Meeting in a structured way in a neutral location means that other worries can be left at the door, and facilitation from the team allows the participants to focus on each other and their learning. On the other hand, self-directed learning – in this case, face-to-face buddying meetings and informal learning pods – faced challenges in terms of timings and capacity. Despite this, promising first steps were made and, in general, most participants were keen to explore these types of interactions further. Consequently, we have redesigned this element ahead of the second year of the programme – we will form larger buddying groups of three or four, giving leeway for those who cannot attend every time. We hope this will provide additional space for participants to connect and share learning.
4. Create the conditions for learning
On a practical level, it has been important to find the right spaces and environments to run the sessions. Typically, these are spacious, light rooms located within arts and community organisations. We tend to meet in the morning, after the London rush hour, and finish by lunchtime. We provide some refreshments and light bites, and break in the middle to avoid long stretches of sitting. At the request of the group, we vary the activities between speakers, group-work and networking time. Considerations such as these are best navigated in consultation with the group itself. It’s never possible to produce a schedule that works for everyone, every time – but with a bit of tweaking and flexibility, it’s possible to arrive at a set of suitable conditions and timings, all of which serve to improve the group’s learning experience.
5. It’s about people
Most importantly of all, the process has reinforced that this programme is about supporting individuals in their work with others. Partnership conveners play an instrumental role in the success of a partnership. Their expertise, ideas, interpersonal skills and dedication can transform a partnership from an amorphous group into a well-oiled machine. If this programme can help oil the individual cog, it can help to turn the larger wheel of a partnership and bring its work to life. A majority of participants focused on two major outcomes: they told us that the Connected Lab helped to make connections with people in the same boat as them and supported them to exchange knowledge and share practice. Several reported feeling more confident or inspired as a result of their attendance. By providing a forum for connections to unfold, the programme thereby aims to complement and enhance the experience of partnership-building.
Conclusions and next steps
We have learned a lot from our first year of running the Connected Lab: about what works well and what might need to change. As we prepare for the second year, we are looking forward to welcoming an expanded cohort and a diverse range of new faces. Over the course of the year, we hope to find out what impact this process can have on the partnerships and local areas themselves. Early signs are positive, as participants have begun to report changes made as a result of insights gained in the lab. As the programme and group develop, we hope to see many more positive changes to come.
Applications for year two of Connected Lab are now open to partnership managers from across London Local Cultural Education Partnerships.
Applications close 23 September.
If you would like to find out more about A New Direction’s work with Local Cultural Education Partnerships, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to know more about how we designed the programme, please contact email@example.com.