COMPASS-NUT Education Inquiry (18 01 2014) Conference follow-up. Extract


  • Preamble
  • My educated self
  • Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process
  • 2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities
  • Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.

It is, as several people observed later, a great pity that Tristram Hunt did not arrive in time to attend the introductory session, ‘My educated self’. He would have found out a lot that is relevant to his responsibilities as Shadow Minister for Education, and it would have better prepared him for his subsequent interview, and perhaps helped him respond more convincingly to participants’ questions, comments and concerns. As others noted afterwards: where was the evidence of his passion for education and what it can do for children and adults, and in particular for those disadvantaged by life circumstances not of their own making? He sat in the midst of several hundred attendees (practitioners all?), who all know so much, have so much experience of education in the UK (as ‘products’ and practitioners), and who care so passionately about education and its fate at this time, faced with the wrecking ball of the Tory-led government and its dire Education minister, Michael Gove. We have so much to offer a Labour government that wishes to take the side of the people and salvage something positive from the wreckage the Tories and the Lib Dems will leave in their wake. This day-long Saturday event was part of this process.

Everyone in the room on the day was in considerable part evidence of their education (because education is that powerful and enduring in its influence); and each could provide testimony on reflection, as to its value and its failures; the obstacles and the achievements; the joys and sorrows. Critical self-reflexivity is a well established process / methodology for researchers and practitioners of all kinds now, and it is in this spirit I have made my own contribution to the Inquiry, of which this is an extract, expanding on my brief contribution from the floor in the opening session on the day:

My educated self.
I have been fortunate. My education narrative is a generally happy and fruitful one. I loved school from the off and at all levels: I achieved joy in learning, sharing and helping others at infant and junior school, which further developed into a sense of adventure and intellectual challenge at my grammar school. Here there were opportunities outside the official curriculum, for example for drama, formal debating, music and art. And within the timetabled curriculum, in the later years, there were several non-subject-specific slots allotted for ‘discussion’. So communication, research and creative skills (oral, listening, writing, performing, making, doing, critical thinking and reflection, investigating) were variously fostered, and by teachers who were overwhelmingly stimulating, well organised, good humoured, supportive, and generous with their time and attention.

Learning and memorising were also important across a range of subjects, but always contextualized and relevant, rather than as rote learning as preparation for a test. Education was not just about learning stuff, but about expanding horizons as well as skills; of doors opening on the world of knowledge and culture, and the self.

Pedagogy as a collaborative, creative and political process.
The importance of role models is often over stated, but looking back I see that my years at school provided a number of these, and I benefitted throughout from a culture of encouragement and challenge. My favourite teachers were not just intellectually stimulating, but people with personality and a sense of humour, those I could identify as human beings as well as teachers. As my son would say in 2001, just after his 17th birthday and a month at Liverpool Community College studying music, when I asked him what he thought made a good teacher (he had had brilliant teachers in infants and junior school, as well as at his comprehensive + several duds): “It’s not just that they make their subject interesting. They are interesting.”

Looking back in my twenties, I came to understand my educational experience as a creative process (aided by early American research and writing on creativity that enabled me to recognize myself within its narratives and theory, and get over the binary western split between thinking and feeling that I had been so aware of during my years at grammar school). And there were inspirational writers / theorists / activists (mainly American + Paulo Freire) who helped me forge my own philosophy of education, experiential learning and creativity, and to understand the importance of the social and political contexts of education for all ages, including what we now refer to as the social determinants of education, health and wellbeing.

As a child and young person I had witnessed and benefitted from good practice; I had noted poor or bad practice; I had subsequently reflected on both; and as a creative and politically conscious person, I sought to go further in making a difference as an educationist.

2014 and beyond: gaps, omissions, rights and necessities.
Sitting within the embrace of the COMPASS-NUT conference opening session, ‘My educated self’, listening to the stories / evidence of others, and responding to the question posed to us: ‘What would I tell myself then about what I have learnt about education now?’, I found myself reflecting on what was missing from my own very good education, which is even more relevant in 2014 and beyond. Here is my list of priorities (unranked):

  • First and most obviously, I was taught nothing about my own history as girl and woman, in my own country / society and within the larger world. I had to start to piece this together in my twenties through reading and postgraduate study. I would now identify this as an absolute right and necessity as part of the education of all children and young people.
  • Second, I identify the importance of the history of the Labour movement and the trade unions as a right and necessity within the school curriculum for all children and young people. This too I began to piece together in my twenties, although with a Labour and trade unionist father, I was more knowledgeable about class struggle than I was about women’s historical feminist struggles.
  • Both the above open up for consideration a range of social, cultural and political issues pertinent to individual pupils and students, and societies today, contributing to the development of research skills, critical thinking, social and personal awareness, and a basis for understanding the crucial relation between the ‘personal’ and the structural, including concepts such as internalisation, mediation, subjugation, oppression, dominance, empowerment, power. These are essential for personal survival in C21, as well as a healthy, functioning democracy.
  • Third, only in retrospect can I name my worst experience at school in my teens: bullying at the hands of white working-class girls in my own year. This language was not available at the time, and though not religious, I had already internalised the moral imperative of ‘turning the other cheek’ to attack or injury, and this is what I did. I would not fight back. I endured the repeated experiences (bullying always involves repetition) silently and on my own, discussing them with no-one, including my parents. I attempted to maintain dignity and carry on, hoping it would pass. It was only years later that I could identify the name-calling and shoving as bullying. Similarly, today, girls and boys benefit from the availability of the discourses of sexual harassment and (sexual) abuse (of power), which can help them seek help, set boundaries and keep safe. Without the language we remain unable to describe or understand our lives and experience, in particular the negative or traumatic.[i]
  • Today, I hope that the culture in schools, colleges and universities is moving beyond ‘bystander’ culture (itself an important concept), and includes teachers and other staff sufficiently versed in the needs of those who are bullied, to both prevent bullying happening, to notice when it is, and to provide effective support when it does. It must be a whole school / institution commitment and ethos. These are not ‘technical’ skills, and require CPD (Continuing Professional Development) for staff, facilitated not by bureaucrats, but by activists / artists / practitioners in the equalities and child protection fields.
  • Fourth, the social and political movements of the C20 and C21 that have challenged racism, homophobia, misogyny, social class disadvantage and prejudice, for example, have changed UK society for the better in ways that are significant for how we might now identify the function and philosophy of education. To prevent the unravelling of these achievements (which seems to be the aim of the current government) requires understanding, commitment and everyday action on the part of the populace, as individuals and as constituencies. This cannot be achieved and sustained within education without staff who are fully aware of these issues, and confident in their ability to act appropriately in their roles within school, college and university. For everyone, children and adults, this process of understanding (consciousness-raising) is unavoidably a process of politicization that goes beyond subject specialism.
  • Fifth: probably the most significant and far-reaching change over the last 50+ years is that UK society has become overtly hyper-sexualised and an increasingly coercive and violent environment for women and children: gender power relations now loom as a serious pervasive problem; an obstacle to the health and wellbeing of children and young people (the most vulnerable) in particular, producing a high-risk social environment beyond school and FHE. Scantily dressed or naked girls and women, pouting or twerking to camera, are used to sell almost everything, not least sex and heterosexual norms themselves. Girls and women are routinely objectified and commodified for profit. While adverts, the media, films and videos encourage boys and men to be predatory, dominant, even violent. And now their bodies too are up for commodification. These changes distort and undermine mental health, as well as relationships, as the boundary between ‘reality’ and fantasy, private and public becomes crushed by fear-inducing ideologies glossing ‘glamour’, ‘success’ and ‘celebrity’ as the goals. Many girls bypass education for self determination, career goals and life skills, and instead aspire to be WAGS or simply ‘famous’. And it’s all about sex (appeal) and the body. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently noted: “the sexual landscape has changed and under no circumstances can it be called freedom”.[ii]
  • At the moment, young people leave school and even higher education variously unprepared, ill-equiped and disadvantaged in the face of a powerful political economy that positions them in (mainly) binary opposition to each other (as female and male, masculine and feminine), and without the knowledge, skills and confidence to cope with the consumerist, heterosexist onslaught that works to shape and determine them as avid, dependent and sexual consumers: the market the neoliberal capitalist economy requires to make its profits.
  • Sixth: In particular, the perceived problem of sex and sexual relationships, now further complicated by the digital economy and social media and expanding opportunities for the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and young people, requires an educational response that goes beyond ‘sex education’. In these charged and disturbing circumstances, ‘sex education’ is not the answer (as Cosslett and others have suggested); whereas Media Studies, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies begin to look like basic educational rights and necessities, rather than subject options. But how do we staff such programmes, when these subjects have been systematically plundered, derided and closed down over the last 20+ years in our universities?[iii]

Education for safety/survival, agency and democracy.
The neoliberal, consumerist attack on children and young people (and the rest of us) prioritises sex and sexual identity as all-consuming, overriding concerns, and is part of a process of depoliticisation and distraction from the real issues and enemies; part of the “there is no such thing as society” rhetoric. It is a politics, not just an economic position, and therefore requires a politically conscious response by both the body politic and our education system. To be fair and just and meaningful, education cannot be ‘neutral’ in the face of these forces and the ensuing damage to individuals and to society.[iv] We have for too long had an educational system (and a society) that has left social inequalities in place. In 2014, those inequalities, and the damage and despair that ensue, are being flaunted and re-enforced as ‘natural’, ‘right’ and ‘necessary’, by a government  bloated by privilege, indifference and a venomous sense of superiority. As one academic, who has done more than most to expose the extent, function and consequences of inequalities in societies, has observed:

“We have an educational system that is designed to polarise people, one that creates an élite who can easily come to have little respect for the   majority of the population, who think that they should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else, and defines the jobs of others as so low-skilled that it apparently justifies many living in relative poverty.”[v]

In his inaugural lecture this week, as Halford Mackinder professor of human geography at Oxford University, Dorling boldly hit the spot:

“The 1% are disproportionately made up not of people who are most able, but of those who are most greedy and least       concerned about the rights, feelings and welfare of other people.”[vi]

From my experience as a mature postgraduate Sociology student in my twenties (while working as an art teacher in two London comprehensives); later as a Women’s Studies student, and as a feminist academic with years of experience teaching Art, Communication Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and creative writing for women, I know that these are among the educational opportunities that afford development of the whole person (women, men, transgender),[vii] empowering them to better understand how, for example, they got from A to B as girls / boys and arrived at specific sexual and gender identities, as well as the pressures exerted by society, culture and power, including for example, racism, heterosexism, homophobia, misogyny and social class.[viii] These academic programmes are among the ‘Studies’ that Thatcher loathed, because she knew they changed lives, put real power into the hands of ‘ordinary people’ disadvantaged and disempowered by society’s arrangements and structures.

In addition, in a democratic society that has signed up to the values and practices of human rights and social justice, children and young people need an education that provides an understanding of democracy itself, its value and distinctiveness, and what it needs for it to be sustained and maintained: i.e. an educated population, willing and able to participate.[ix]

And in a fair and just society that purports to promote an equalities culture, within which disablism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, social class prejudice and other ‘hate’ agendas are both illegal and culturally unacceptable, the education of children and young people needs to openly confront and engage with these issues, in preparation for life beyond school and FHE.

The question of ‘difference’ cannot be left to the media and other vested interests to define, control and foment.

Being a citizen in 2014 and beyond, as opposed to being defined simply as a consumer or subject, means something more complex than before. More political. Education must rise to that challenge. And this too has implications for the CPD of teachers, academics and other staff in education.

  • We must design and implement a state education clear about its core values; an education that supports democracy via human rights and social justice, mutual respect, the encouragement of creative agency, environmental awareness and understanding, and the (mental) health and wellbeing of both individuals and populations.
  • Essential to the process outlined here is the value placed on education itself within and by society and its members, including its governments, and not just a narrow definition of education for employability and the economy.
  • Education should not feel like a joyless imposition, but a creative opportunity, a springboard. For this to prevail, people must feel a sense of belonging and self worth. This is a collective achievement.[x]
  • For many working-class children and young people this is still not the case, and in some of their families and communities, education is perceived as ‘Other’, as inimical and irrelevant to their own class culture and communities.

Governments have a social responsibility towards the education of the people, rather than simply promoting the interests of the rich and powerful, attacking teachers in state schools, and deriding, determining and controlling the work of artists, researchers, academics and other professionals, such as lawyers and journalists (perceived as dangerous intellectuals). The responsibility of the latter must be to be sufficiently dangerous to the prevailing enemies of the people and our society at this time.

val walsh / 07 02 2014

[i] When, on my first visit to France at 19, staying en famille with my pen pal’s family for a life-changing 6 weeks, after writing to each other since the age of 13, towards the end of my stay her father chased me round the dining table when no-else was around, trying to grab and kiss me, again I told no-one, including my parents, until many years later I shared the memory with my adult daughter and women friends, by which time it could be told as an amusing anecdote. He was, after all, in loco parentis for those 6 weeks. How could I tell my friend (his daughter) or her mother (his wife) at the time? How could I tell my mother or father on my return? Or ever. Imagine their horror. I saw the consequences of disclosure/exposure as worse than the incident itself. I was shaken, and perhaps also knew that I might not be believed, and could even be blamed, his word against mine. It felt sordid, but is nothing compared to the experiences we now know children and young people have been subjected to by predatory older heterosexual men in what was (still is?) a climate of sexual laissez-faire.
[ii] Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett (28 01 2014) Porn’s influence is real. Sex education is the answer. The Guardian.
[iii] Jake Beckett (01 02 2014) responding to Cosslett’s article (28 01 2014) in a letter to The Guardian shares his concern (as a recently retired science teacher required to teach reproduction but not sex education): “It was obvious that boys had been watching porn by the questions they asked”, and he suggests that what is needed is “an outside agency that employs teachers, actors or other suitable persons . . . to deliver theatre and talks that engage pupils and encourage discussion about a topic that is damaging their ability to judge what are normal relationships”. He notes the difficulty that many older teachers have addressing these issues.
[iv] A similar argument can be made for eco-awareness and environmental values to be embedded within the culture of schools, colleges and universities.
[v] Professor Danny Dorling (04 02 2014) Our education system is designed to polarize people, to create an élite. Guardian Education.
[vi] Ibid..
[vii] And I would add Drama, Literature and making music to this list for schools.
[viii] See Mary Kennedy, Cathy Lubelska & Val Walsh (1993) Making Connections: Women’s Studies, Women’s Movements, Women’s Lives. London, Taylor & Francis; Walsh (1995) ‘Eye witnesses, not spectators / activists, not academics: feminist pedagogy and women’s creativity’ in Katy Deepwell (ed.) New Feminist Art Criticism: Critical Strategies: 51-60. Manchester, Manchester University Press; Walsh (1995) ‘Transgression and the Academy: feminists and institutionalisation’ in Louise Morley & Val Walsh (eds.) Feminist Academics: Creative Agents for Change. London, Taylor & Francis: 86-101.
[ix] Attending a Co op Education conference in Cardiff last year, I saw inspiring examples of how cooperative schools practise democracy, as well as talk about it.
[x] See Walsh (1996) ‘Terms of engagement: pedagogy as a healing politic’ in Morley & Walsh (eds.) Breaking Boundaries: Women in Higher Education. London, Taylor & Francis:187-207. See also ’What is education for?’ and ‘Differential educational achievement’ in articles & statements section of Also, in the photos section of are several photos of an NUT installation at Labour Party conference in Brighton (09 2013): an ‘apple tree’, where each apple contains a statement from a conference attendee, in response to the question: “What is education for?” Tristram Hunt should take a look at this as part of his research and preparation for his future job.