Making It Better

Making It Better

Anya Cook sits on University and College Union’s National Executive and Further Education Committee and she is Branch Secretary at Newcastle College where she is employed as Learning Mentor.

Language, Locus and the Law is my alliterative triptych to improve opportunities and reduce barriers to Further Education in an Age of Austerity.

The Equality Act 2010 was the last law passed by Gordon Brown’s Labour government on the cusp of the General Election that year, but as the bill was going through parliament, the Con-Dem coalition government had a chance to make amendments, which they did, reducing the number of protected characteristics by removing legislating socio-economic assessments; thus removing legal protections from some of the most vulnerable in our society.

With no provision to protect individuals against social and economic changes, the ground was prepared for the Conservatives to sow their Austerity agenda without legal challenge.

Congruent to eight years of inimical, pernicious and life-changing cuts to benefits, education, social care and community resources is an increase in presentation of wellbeing concerns linked to living in deprivation: hunger, substance misuse, domestic violence, poor socialisation, mental health issues, which has been evidenced in our student populations.

The impact of poverty in education is to limit attainment of qualifications, limit progression to further and higher education and to limit employment opportunities. Reducing life chances keeps people in poverty and sustains generational cycles of low education, unemployment, poor health and poverty.

To nurture a society in which all people have equality of opportunity the law must be changed. On the burgeoning cusp of an announcement dissolving parliament for a general election, I have written to my constituency MP, Newcastle College’s MP and party leaders, requesting that protections against discrimination on socio-economic grounds are written in to an updated Equality Act as a first priority when the next government comes into power.

Austerity. It sounds clean, a clever word. The use of language is key to what is happening.

In two hundred years’ time students of history will look back and study us. We are the history of the future: The Age of Austerity.

One of my favourite writers, George Orwell, said “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”.

Well here with Austerity we have poverty being sold as respectable.

Let us tell Austerity for what it is. Austerity is to live in deprivation. This is The Age of Hardship. This is the time when successive Con/Dem coalition and Conservative governments chose – chose – to condemn their poorest into poverty; real Dickensian poverty.

Austerity is not our word.

Language. Poverty, hardship, struggle, hunger, food banks. Those are words we use.

Language. When we have our words we understand them, they are familiar, we live them, we know them.

Language. When we know our words we can question their use and we can start to challenge their meaning. And this is where education is so important.

Locus is position, the place where something happens. Further Education is a key locus where much happens to level inequality, unlock potential and encourage opportunity.

Jeremy Corbyn is not wrong when he says we should forget talking about aspiration and talk about equality instead. What is aspiration if you have not first learned to question, to interpret and to make choices?

As educators we make a difference through the work that we do with students as individuals to level inequalities; through nurture, through care and through our pastoral provision. We teach students to ask questions, to interpret answers and to make decisions based on received information. This is to choose.

Without education there is no real equality and without equality, aspiration is empty.

Young people are highly sensitive to their environments and they learn from what is around them and then take that learning out into their own lives. So we must be mindful of what we do, of what we model in our colleges and we must care for what we want our young people to take out into the world. What we want is for them to experience equality and to take that learning forward beyond college and so to live meaningful lives in and with their communities.

Further Education colleges are stuck in a three class system – those on management contracts, those on lecturing contracts and those on business support contracts, which includes learning support.

The work that our lecturers do is important; they work hard and they do a good job. And they care about their students too. As a trade unionist I spend a considerable amount of my time promoting and defending the work that our lecturers do.

Should those on lecturing contracts be regarded as more important in the hierarchy than those on support contracts? Lecturer is an important role.

Is a lecturer more important than Emma in security managing a student with a panic attack? Is a lecturer more important than Helen in the refectory managing an ESOL student with a PTSD flashback who doesn’t speak English? Is a lecturer more important than Richard in the library supporting research and referencing and ensuring assignments are printed and bound in time to meet deadlines?

I am employed on a support contract and I don’t feel of less value to the students I work with but, like my colleagues, I am aware of my place in the organisational pecking order.

I do know that when a student writes to me and says they are no longer suicidal, or that I have helped them to think things through differently, or when I remember the student who said I made her feel like a human being again, or the parent of a student who told me they were able to get on with parenting and not worrying … then I know that I have made a very real difference in their lives and in their lives beyond education.

I think we need to understand that support roles are not lesser roles. They are other roles. They are other roles of equal value.

Counselling and pastoral support is unfunded – and yet critical to student success. So it is a difficult ask to meet when I say I want colleagues on support contracts to be recognised as professionals working in education. As educators. And with commensurate pay, terms and conditions.

But I want so much more than that.

I would like our Further Education colleges to move from hierarchical, top-down organisations to the partnership model of organisation such as the cultural historian Riane Eisler talks of in her idea of a “partnership society” where caring, compassion, empathy, sensitivity and gentleness are prioritised at operational level, where all are valued in equal measure, where we trust and care in each other as individuals and professionals. Wouldn’t that build stronger, resilient college communities? We would open our students up to a world of possibility, of equality, and they would be able to take that and apply it in their own lives.

To close down our cultural bias would be to open up opportunity for growth on so many levels. This would be a transformational shifting of the paradigm.

By shifting our cultural bias in our attitude towards educators on non-lecturing contracts we would be modelling change; we would be modelling a better and more equal society for our students. The results for our students would be to be nurtured in colleges that we know to have compassion, that we know to provide care – but the shift goes beyond knowing it, to living it.

To harvest these ideals is to saturate Further Education with enough funding to make changes; thus enabling educators to reap what they should be trusted to sow.

(Partnership V Dominator model of organisation)




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