(Speech to UCU National Executive)
I was shopping for a leaving gift for a colleague on my way home from work. It was late, I was tired and not paying attention to the lad on the checkout who was trying to convince me to complete one of those online questionnaires about my ‘experience’ so that I can be bombarded with marketing emails. “If it helps you to remember my name” he said, “just think, Byron Burgers”. Well, that did catch my attention and, off-guard I responded Lady Bracknell-esque with “A burger? You are named after one of the greatest poets this country has produced and you liken your name to a fast food chain?”
Byron hadn’t heard of his namesake and, he told me, he isn’t that keen on poetry.
Liking poetry is not the point and this is about more than a gap in knowledge. This is about a loss of cultural inheritance. We cannot know where we want to go if we do not know where we are starting from. Starting points are important.
Byron’s experience is very different to mine. I too am named after a writer, an historical novelist, Anya Seton. Words and stories have informed who I am. Language and history have been my education, they are my identity, they are how I ask questions, how I engage in the community, how I challenge inequality, how I advocate and negotiate, how I share my emotions and how I pay the rent.
The Nigerian writer Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story – how limited knowledge and narrow viewpoints lead to prejudice, to limiting options and ideas. She says how important it is for people to have multiple stories, to deepen understanding, to make better choices, to have richer lives – and as educators we can ensure this. Adichie says “to have multiple stories is to enter a kind of paradise”.
I am not asking for paradise. I would be happy with a level playing field and for fully-funded and free-to-access Nursery, School, Further, Community and Higher Education to be our starting point.
I think, education as a homogenous provision, has lost some of its way. When mass free education took off it was to fuel the fires of the Industrial Revolution with skilled workers and to prepare young men for the army – which is why classing by age was so important.
The Satanic Mills have gone. Industry has changed. Knowledge moves on so quickly. For science, computing, engineering graduates of today, in 10 years’ time 70% of what they have learned at university will be obsolete, irrelevant.
So is the value in education in accruing knowledge or in gaining skills or in learning values to apply those skills?
My friend, Sarah Robertshaw, founded Wyre Forest School outside Birmingham. I think she was one of the first people in this country to link non-formal education with challenging behaviour. I have seen the incredible work she has done with young people, excluded, marginalised, violent, involved in gangs or arson or knife crime.
Whilst these angry young people are learning to use knives as tools, how to build fires safely, to manage them and put them out – not only are they learning how to keep themselves and others safe, they are learning how to manage their behaviours, to control their emotions, to trust adults and build friendships.
I have seen the very real difference Forest School makes – and I have seen these young people as adults, as full contributing members of society, with jobs and fulfilling relationships, and often mentoring other young people in their wake. This is non-formal education and it works.
In his 2012 paper Valuing The Impact of Adult Learning, Daniel Fujiwara asserts that elements in pedagogy outside of the formal learning itself, group work, opportunities for collaboration and socialising beyond the classroom give rise to the greatest benefits in students learning from each other and developing social relationships. This is informal education and it works.
This is divergent thinking as opposed to conformity in structures of assessment that we are so used to. In an increasingly divergent world with many new problems and issues, divergent thinking is what we need to ensure creativity and new answers.
From my years of experience of working in education, I believe education is the best way for people to improve their lives. Access to education for all ages enables people to start again, to build skills and confidence, to retrain for different careers, to have options and find answers. Fujiwara’s research proves that wellbeing is greatly increased by access to lifelong education which benefits individuals and is marked through improvements in health, better social relationships and increased chances of finding and retaining paid or voluntary employment; all of which benefit society in reducing costs to the state in terms of medical and social welfare whilst providing a skilled and trained workforce.
Research by The Sutton Trust (2010) has shown that improving levels of social mobility for future generations in the UK would boost the economy by £140 billion a year and yet the Adult Skills Budget has fallen by £1 billion over the last 5 years. This incongruence is damaging to individuals who are facing greater, compounding obstacles to engagement and, in the long-term, harmful to society if we do not have a healthy, skilled, productive, socially-confident and cohesive workforce.
I have been working with young people and in the community since I was still doing my own A’ levels. In that time the presentation of social needs has worsened with cuts to funding and the congruence of cuts to services in the community. In 25 years, of all the situations I have been given to deal with – self-harm, suicidal ideation, living in poverty, severe mental illness, domestic violence, rape, substance misuse, the girl put in front of me miscarrying and bleeding and not speaking English, unaware of her own biology, who could just say “I’m frightened, I’m frightened”, the boy who was hit by a train – in all that time, the student who reduced me to tears was the woman, my age, suddenly widowed who lost her children’s father, her home and her life – and through her grief she’s trying to rebuild her life by getting herself qualified to get a job, to put food on the table, to provide for her beautiful, beautiful children. She is trying so hard, and as she is telling me she is acting out how she cannot make the coins in her purse add up to her bus fare to get in to college. She knows what she needs and she knows what she wants, but there is this massive, financial barrier blocking her participation.
As Jimmy Somerville says, “Enough is enough, is enough, is enough”.
It is time for educators to stop dancing to the beat of distant and disparate drums. And it is time for education leaders to regroup, radically overhaul the education agenda, ensure education is fully-funded and free from cradle to grave, and to rethink starting points.
It is time to stop responding, stop reacting to changes in policy and cuts to funding. As educators we should be driving for change, we should be leading the charge, and together we should say “Enough! We cannot deliver sustainable education on traduced and diminished budgets. ”
Henry V had the longbow and we have democratic agency. Together, rank and file, we should be lining up our guns, cannons to left of them, cannons to right of them ….
We are the Vanguard. We are Education Professionals. Let this be our Agincourt.