On March 22nd, I found myself stranded in Brussels on one of the worst days in the nation’s recent history. I was part of a 25-strong group of women who have been participating in the Fabian Women’s Network Mentoring Programme, an eight month long journey of political education for women who are either already involved in political life or are planning to be involved in some way, big or small. The rationale behind the visit to the EU that day was to help the participants understand the workings of the EU. For me, it felt like a brilliant opportunity – my knowledge of the UK system of government is patchy, but my EU knowledge is almost non-existent and there is only so long one can go on pretending to know what people are talking about in certain circles, especially in light of the forthcoming referendum.
After a fitful night’s sleep (the result of unfamiliar beds and an aching awareness of the early start expected the next morning), we arrived at the Visitors Centre at the European Parliament building at 9.10am, ushered in by worried-looking officials. At this point, I hadn’t heard there had been explosions at Zaventem. But soon enough, I came to learn of the hellish events not far from us. The official meeting us said we were lucky – the first group to arrive – no other groups were being allowed in, as a safety precaution. It was only when we sat in our first conference room that I switched my mobile data back on and read that 500m away, two stops from where I had exited the Metro, an explosion had been heard. I then learned, as the next hour descended into a melee of sending texts home to loved ones to assure them we were safe. All transport had been stopped. Eurostar was suspended. Getting home seemed a distant prospect. We had been due to travel that evening. I was expected back at work the next day. I had double Year 11.
The rest of the day seems hazy now. We tried to continue as per the original schedule; some speakers had not arrived so there were adjustments. But we did hear from from some brilliant speakers and I still learned enormous amounts about the function of the EU, the role of the MEP, the battles and frustrations and indeed, small victories, in working across party lines. “We talk until we reach a consensus,” said one MEP. It felt like a grown-up version of parliament, where the theatrics and posturing of Westminster were very much absent.
On finally being allowed to exit the parliament building, our group was confronted with the sight of armed guards, bomb disposal units scanning cars and that strange quiet that I remember from London after the 7th July bombings. There were very few people as we made a 45 minute journey back to the hotel on foot, to collect our luggage and find a way home.
It was enough time, as we walked, to consider what I was learning outside of what had been planned for us that day. I am a teacher. I had felt guilty being away from my students until that point, but now the guilt was tinged with a growing understanding that to make change happen in society, more teachers needed to engage with political systems.
And it occurred to me that very first thing that needs to change is the idea that teachers shouldn’t talk about politics. I absolutely understand the reasons why teachers are in a precarious position if they do. I am not particularly fond of the idea that Far Right views could creep into the classroom. But by avoiding political conversations, or never providing a platform to discuss politics (within reason), we risk a far more problematic scenario. We end up with children who grow up never hearing educated people talking openly about political standpoints, in a safe and balanced space.
Even in saying this I aware of the current government’s stance on politics in education. Whether knowingly or otherwise, citizenship education is being squeezed into the dark corners of the classroom, wedged among the textbooks for courses that don’t run anymore because money is tight. I asked a question during a panel session while were locked in the Parliament building. “In light of the events today, it has never been more clear that there is a need for citizenship education in EU countries. It is not just about knowledge – or defining Fundamental British Values, but promoting an understanding of engagement with political systems. With the narrowing of curricula in the UK, how do we ensure that citizenship education ands political engagement stays on the agenda?”
No one had a definitive answer. Underneath the answers about where resources could be found within the EU, I heard a resounding ‘it’s not on the agenda and it won’t be until the government say it is a priority’.
The unfortunate effect of the focus on EBacc subjects is a short-sighted narrowing of the curriculum which has seen – as one of my fellow Fabian women pointed out – the removal of A-Level subjects like World Development, Citizenship Studies, Humanities, Communication and Culture, Anthropology and Critical Thinking. To compound this worrying movement towards a narrow curriculum that does not include dedicated time and space to discuss what it means to be a citizen in this nation is the slashing of school budgets. Ask a leader of an inner-city comprehensive or academy how they will deal with cuts to funding, the raising of pension and national insurance contributions, the changes to money for students with additional needs and the impact of the funding formula – and I imagine the answers will be fairly similar. Cut subjects where take up is low, reduce staff numbers, provide an austerity education. Where does citizenship and political engagement sit in this? It is the crust of the bread, dear readers, and it will be cut off.
So if we cannot find ways to to teach it, we have to be it. Teachers are in an ideal position to be role models for political discussion, to present and curate ideas, to challenge misconceptions and to develop enquiring political minds. We are in an ideal place to open doors for students to engage students in the political process – or even just to shine a light on the door handle. The fact is, we may not define as being political but we are, with our consent or otherwise. And we do need to be specific in our work. If guidance is given that schools need to promote ‘fundamental British values’ – I want definitive time to do that. Although, I am more than aware that British values are vague, a working awareness of how to effect change is not.
A step further might also be required. What if our students saw us, the teachers, stepping into positions of political responsibility? What if they saw us trying, at the very least? Whatever your political persuasion, maybe consider this. Political leadership is not that far removed from running a school. And of course, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, we can’t complain about government changes to the education system when there aren’t enough teachers stepping into positions of responsibility at a local, national and EU level. What if out students saw us as beings who don’t just know, but as people who do?
I’ve learned in all of this that politics is not a dirty word. By engaging with the Fabian women, I have been empowered and elevated by knowledge about the internal workings of Westminster and the EU. I have felt less of a victim and more aware of how I can step up to change things. At the very least, I have been learning how to read Education Law – to know why mass academisation might affect the most vulnerable in our society. I haven’t decided yet whether political office is for me, but I have learned about how change can only happen if you are there making yourself heard.
What we cannot ignore is the increasing marginalisation of young people, from all walks of life, who do not feel empowered to change their circumstances and their daily experiences through democratic means. While we educate for knowledge, we must show that there are other ways of changing the society we live in and that means demystifying for ourselves first.
I left Brussels that afternoon, one of the lucky ones who had felt an uncomfortable proximity, but had not experienced the trauma of being involved in the actual atrocities. I came home and I knew I had to write this. Talk about politics with your students. Engage in political activity where you can to show that it is for everyone. Be the democracy you want to live in.
In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”
Why did you come into teaching? I’m guessing this is a question that teachers across the country will be asking themselves whilst clutching at the last of the Christmas chocolates and knocking back the last of the Christmas wine. Indeed, I’m sitting here, eyeing the half-completed pile of marking, making optimistic plans to eat less and exercise more, regretting that last tub of Heroes and wondering where the hell my school shoes are – and I know this week, I will ask myself that question at 5.45 every morning…and possibly for the next three months at least. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will be less and less grateful to be employed as the week wears on.
But it is an important question. When we rock up to the university/training training programme, new folder and notepaper in hand, ready to learn about Vygotsky and Freire, we have all chosen to do so in the knowledge that the old adage about teaching is just not true. At least I hope we realise that ‘if you can’t, teach’ is an insidious misrepresentation of the worst kind. Some of us absolutely love our subjects and want to be employed using the knowledge we have gained in our education. Some of us do it because teaching is a craft to be mastered. Some of us because it is the least altruistic profession, in the same way giving a birthday gift might not really about the joy of giving to another person; it is simply the desire to feel that warm glow that says ‘I’m a good person’. To borrow a phrase I am rapidly coming to dislike, teaching might be for some folk a Jedi-level ‘virtue signal’.
So why do I do it?
I was once fresh-faced and enthusiastic, I thought I wanted to teach because I loved my subject and I wanted others to love it too. But it turns out that wasn’t entirely it. So here it is, on a blustery Sunday evening. The reason why I do it.
When I started teaching, I was given a Year 7 English class. They were also my tutor group. In that entirely mixed ability class, I met Vikesh* and I realised that I had absolutely no understanding as to how to teach him anything. Vikesh had been born with microcephaly; alongside having a distinctively small cranial cavity, he had the cognitive ability of a six year old boy. On top of that, he didn’t speak English. It was a lucky coincidence that we spoke the same home language and Vikesh didn’t judge me for having a six year old’s linguistic ability in Gujerati. I panicked. I became frustrated. What was I supposed to do with this boy? I had thirty other students and I wanted to teach. I couldn’t because he couldn’t learn like the others.
You’ll be reading this thinking that he should have been in a special school. I agree. But he wasn’t. He was there, with me in that classroom and I had to do something. My LSA – one of the best people I have ever met – embarked on a programme that meant that he would have some meaningful education. We learned letters. We learned sounds. We learned verbal communication. We played cricket in the aisle of the classroom when he achieved something small. The other students didn’t get any less of my time. It’s just that Vikesh got me in the blank spaces in my lesson when the others were scribbling away furiously. It as the most tired I had ever been in my life but I was finding something. In the midst of the madness of learning how to teach, I learned why I teach.
Because Vikesh – like so many students with additional needs – didn’t choose to be there. Society put him there. There was no provision for a child of his needs within a reasonable distance from his home and his parents knew he had to learn to be around people. I’m pretty certain that as much as he learned the basics, the children around him learned just as much about humanity and acceptance. He wasn’t to be pitied. He was a member of our community. And just like society is legally obliged to make reasonable adjustments to be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act, I was obliged to make reasonable adjustments to my teaching. The discussion about what constitutes ‘reasonable adjustment’ is a valid one and it needs to be had. But exclusion on the grounds of special education need is much more problematic.
When we separate the act of teaching from its intended or unintended effects, we ignore that fact that whether we like it or not – for whatever reason we came into teaching in the first place – we change someone’s world. And we can either show the love and acceptance that comes with that, or we can move people into boxes. To teach is to change someone’s world, in a million ways, in a million moments.
If I believed that Vikesh should have been in a special school, or that Jenn* (blind, autistic, impaired mobility) or Henry* (a descendant of Dickens with Aspergers) should have a school for themselves, I would worry about the line. Where is the line in separating out students with additional needs? Who stays in a mainstream school? Vikesh is an extreme case, but if we start to categorise who we can and can’t teach, that way trouble lies.
This brings me to the other reason. The fundamental belief that teachers, not politicians, are the engineers of society they want to live in. I don’t want to live in a society that places people in neat little boxes so that I can get on with it. By believing that teaching is more that a knowledge-delivery system, we subscribe to William Temple‘s school of thought:
‘Are you going to treat a man as he is or as he might be? Morality requires that you should treat him as he might be, as he has it in him to become…Raising what he is to what he might be is the work of education.’
As I put in the years at inner-city schools, I came to know that exclusion in any form is wrong – either in segregation according to educational need or as a method of managing behaviour. And the statistics on exclusion and SEN make for horrible reading. The brilliant and well-informed blog, Ed Yourself, points out:
The single biggest reason for permanent exclusion from school is “persistent disruptive behaviour” and two thirds of pupils who are permanently excluded have some degree of special educational needs, with 1 in 10 having a statement.
Let’s throw race into the mix just to see what happens when we start to see children as categories and not people…
Combine some of the greatest risk-factors for exclusion and you have this: a black boy, with SEN and claiming free school meals is 168 times more likely to be permanently excluded than a white girl with no additional needs, who does not claim free school meals (Institute of Race Relations).
Add to that the fact that exclusions are on the rise in academies and free schools due to a lack of legislative clarity on the mandate to use alternative provision in educational establishments that are guided by their funding agreement and not the Education Act – we have a bigger problem than we think in how we deal with students who do not fit the ideal.
Add that to the study that outlines the correlation between permanent exclusion and crime and you have a problem that exists not in the classroom, disrupting your teaching of a poetry anthology, but in your streets, in your prisons, in your morgues.
I don’t have the answers to the challenges of teaching students with all sorts of different needs because I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers. What I do know is that these children – the dyslexic, the dyspraxic, the rich, the poor, the able and not so able – are in our care. And we have a duty to make sure that we make reasonable adjustments to ensure that they achieve their potential. Because that is what changes worlds.
When I get up tomorrow, as hard as it might be to prop my eyelids open with the burnt-oust matchsticks of a great Christmas, I will remember that my job is to teach. And that ‘teaching’ means more that being in the room, delivering content.
Speak to me in a week and you may find less fighting spirit in me, but for now, before I go and find those shoes, this is it.
Channel 4’s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?
Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?
Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.
So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.
Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.
Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.
My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.
It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?
The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?
In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.