We need to call out privilege. Although I found it difficult, I’ve found myself calling out privilege at least three times in the last few weeks: twice on Twitter and once to a close family member. We need to call out privilege because if we don’t, ‘we’, the privileged, will continue to dominate and own the spaces that should be for all; we will continue to make assumptions and to make decisions on behalf of ‘everyone’; we will continue to miss the point and fail our communities and societies.
I’m saying this as someone who really struggles to be impolite to others, especially (ironically) on the Internet. I was born and raised on inclusive communities, which is what I seek to be a part of on Twitter. I find it extremely difficult to challenge anyone whose face I can’t see, although I have no problem challenging in real life, yet I’m conscious that most folk work the other way around.
Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m privileged. I struggle with that and the decisions it means I take on behalf of my learners (read my previous thoughts here). But at least I’m aware of it. Part of the problem is we usually, without taking a very careful and reflective look, can’t see our own privilege.
We are living through difficult times within our country, where public services are being cut under the excuse of ‘austerity’. The services of great value: our precious NHS, our libraries, our education system, the things that make us all more equal, the things that make life fairer and give folk similar or better life chances, are being stripped away from us.
There is a backlash against this, where ordinary and extraordinary people are rallying against these injustices that are damaging everyday lives. One of these excellent projects is the Centenary Commission into adult education.
However, we just need to be very careful, in my opinion, that we remain very aware of our own privilege whilst making decisions for others, who aren’t able (for whatever reason) to make those decisions for themselves.
There is no doubt, as research has shown, that there is a collation between parents’ academic ability and their children’s. The Literacy Trust has found that children who enjoy reading and writing have a better sense of wellbeing than those that don’t. It is reported that 16-18 funding hasn’t been increased for seven years and that adult education is down by 45% since 2010 (IFS). 500 children’s centres have closed between 2010 and 2018, and 340 libraries between 2010 and 2016 (Philip Aston, via Paul Stanistreet).
The difficulty is what we do with this information. The reason I am suggesting it is an issue of privilege is because if you have never lived it, then you have no idea how it impacts lives. If you have your education, then you don’t notice how it impacts those that can’t access it. If you can afford to pay for your own health care, even if in part, then you don’t notice how the lack of it impacts those who can’t. If you can afford to buy all your own books, your own computer, and your own space, then you don’t notice the impact of library closures on others. If you can afford expensive childcare, then you don’t notice the lack of children’s centres. If you have no idea and have never lived these experiences, then please, please, for goodness sake, do not think you have the right to make judgements on others’ lives.
An example: I often talk about the value and pride of teaching adult literacy (and numeracy) in a women’s centre in Birmingham. The women’s centre is Anawim, which does amazing, holistic, healing work for marginalised women. Our educational remit is to teach functional skills, enabling adult learners to gain a “Functional Skills” qualification, which in turn demonstrates they are functional for life, study and work. That’s it. That’s all I have to offer. So, if any women join the group who aren’t able, for whatever reason, to engage immediately in a qualification, does that mean I should turn them away? I’m talking probably the most in-need learners I currently work with. Before ten years ago, I could have enrolled them anyway, receiving funding for ‘personal goals’, bite-size steps that allowed learners to learn in their own time and in their own way. Now, those in far removed positions of privilege deem only ‘functionality’ and ‘employability’ as fundable aims.
I talk and tweet about this a lot (1). Those who are in most need of improving their literacy skills are the least likely to try to access our current, qualification-driven, functional skills courses. Those who would benefit most from a strong library in the heart of their community are the most likely to say ‘it’s not for people like me’. Those in most need of women’s centres and children’s centres are finding that these services just don’t exist anymore.
So next time I see or hear a person of privilege making a sweeping judgement about adult education, (or our health service, or our libraries, or children’s centres), yeah, I’m going to call it out. And whilst the Centenary Commission (2) is awesome, does it need to put power back into the hands of ordinary people, into communities, into the voluntary sector, and devolve power and control from government? Hell, yeah, it does.
1) Writing and tweeting (see tweet pic) about this has led to exciting things. With my wonderful friend and colleague, Isla Flood, I am convening a working group, ‘Celebrating 100 years of Adult Learning: what’s next?’, at this year’s #ReimagineFE19. Please do join us!
2) I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the 1919 report until a few weeks ago when the Centenary Commission was launched. An excellent blog, by Paul Stansistreet, explaining the 1919 report is more detail can be found here. Needless to say, I’ve updated my timeline of adult literacy education, found here.