by Gary Walsh
Chris, Croissants & Oysters
I attended the rather excellent SELMAS 2015 conference in November. You can read a summary of the event as it happened here. In this post I would like to offer some reflections I have had since it took place, and to provide some context for a concept that came from the event: a Curriculum for Equity.
[Having just read that the OECD Review of Scottish Education is calling for a rename of CfE and has in fact proposed “Curriculum for Excellence and Equity”, this has suddenly become a lot more relevant!]
The SELMAS conference took place in The Caves, Edinburgh, one of the homes of the famous 18th century Oyster Club that entertained the literati of the time including Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton and Benjamin Franklin (men only, of course). Oyster Club meetings took place weekly and discussions ranged from the arts, sciences and economics.
I found myself being struck, unusually for me, by a rather cynical thought: that it must have been easy for such people to gather, eat oysters and drink wine, and occasionally express powerful sentiments concerned with the blight of inequity and injustice – I imagined this as indulging in a kind of ‘underground hypocrisy’. I wondered whether I was about to indulge in such hypocrisy myself in the Caves, expressing roughly the same concerns as these moral philosophers from the past (though perhaps not so eloquently), the only difference being that instead of oysters, we were gorging on the frankly enormous croissants* provided by the venue when we arrived.
This is probably quite unfair and overly guilt-ridden of me. However, there is some truth in it. It is too easy to console our own consciences by articulating well-meaning concerns for those in need, while not admitting to ourselves that we are, all of us, complicit in the very inequity we claim to want to tackle.
Chris Kilkenny (@KilkennyChris), one of the most engaging speakers I have heard in a long time, laid bare that hypocrisy for us all to hear and feel. If you haven’t heard his presentation before, in which he describes his experiences of living in poverty and articulates the deficiencies of our system for supporting people in circumstances such as his, you can see a previous version of it here introduced by the inimitable David Cameron. Please find a quiet corner sometime and watch it:
(Thanks to @dgilmour for sharing this clip)
All of the speakers at the SELMAS conference were excellent and I don’t want to attempt to summarise their various inputs here.
I wish to focus instead on something that was mentioned during the event, as I think it neatly summarised one of the main challenges with relation to equity in Scottish education.
“In our school, we don’t talk about deprivation”
This was a well-meaning comment made by a headteacher during the event. The reasons given for this approach were positive and laudable: the school focusses on achievement and standards in an effort to secure a positive and sustainable destination for all its pupils. It is part of a genuine effort to ensure that deprivation does not define the pupils’ potential.
Despite that, the comment troubled me to the extent that it remained an uncomfortable source of opacity for the remainder of the day and since. It left me with many questions. If teachers in schools don’t talk about deprivation, how do they make a professional commitment to social justice? Aren’t they simply denying themselves and their pupils the opportunity to talk about the sources of injustice? How could they be certain that they are not seeing and responding to the pupils “hiding in plain sight” as Chris Kilkenny described? If pupils can’t talk about deprivation in school, where CAN they talk about it? If we focus relentlessly on achievement and standards, are we not succumbing to the terrors (or indeed the charms) of performativity at the expense of more socially pertinent values?
It should also be said of course that some schools not only talk about deprivation but do inspiring things do tackle its effects. See this as an example from St Eunan’s Primary School in Clydebank.
If we are to make any headway in terms of equity in our system, we cannot afford to ignore the root causes of inequity, which largely come down to our collective failure to curb the existence of poverty. If we cannot demonstrate equity at the outset of the learning journey for children, it will be almost impossible to demonstrate it at the end of their school journey (a wise comment I read recently from @GilchristGeorge), perhaps apart from hailing the occasional outlier who rises above it against all the odds in the style of the classic neoliberal success story.
Aspiring to a tale of ‘Rags-to-Riches’ is not a way to achieve equity. Not only is it a fool’s errand, it levels the responsibility of ending poverty on the shoulders of its victims. The message here is “you live in poverty and you need to work your way free of it”.
Basil Bernstein is often mis-quoted as having said that “education cannot compensate for society“. These words are clearly not true: education can change the world, of course it can. While it is not up to schools alone to rid Scotland of poverty, I would argue that it is a responsibility of schools and indeed all of us to identify what we can do in aid of that goal, and to get very, very energetic about it. Focusing on standards of achievement is an important part of what schools can do, but it isn’t the only contribution schools can make.
Talking openly about poverty, its effects, and how it could be undone would be a fine start.
In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore a half-baked idea that has been in my mind for a while now that might just help to get this dialogue going. The SELMAS conference speakers and delegates enabled me to articulate the idea in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise.
It is an idea for a people’s movement called A Curriculum for Equity: a vehicle for sharing and facilitating interdisciplinary practice, projects and dialogue aimed at achieving equity in Scotland, such as the project mentioned above at St Eunan’s Primary.
The curriculumforequity site will be a community-based Open Educational Resource. This means that is freely accessible, openly licensed and the content on the site comes from its own community. I would love it to generate its own momentum and really take off as a grass-roots movement involving pupils, teachers, parents, supportive organisations and whole communities.
Please look out for information about how to get involved in Part 2.
*By the way – just as I was about to leave the Caves, a staff member there encouraged me to take some of the left-over croissants away. There were about 30 or so sitting on a tray. I asked her if it is possible to bring the leftovers to a shelter in Edinburgh’s city centre or to a foodbank (a quick search indicates that there are five Trussell Trust foodbanks operating within 4 miles of the Caves). She said that they are not allowed to do that themselves because of food hygiene policies. She was clearly upset about that. I asked her to put them all in a bag and I said I would do my best.
I left the Caves and spoke to a homeless man on the Royal Mile. I explained the situation and I asked him where the nearest shelter was. I had never done anything like that before and I felt like a desperate fool speaking to him. He was very kind and pointed me in the direction of the Salvation Army Hostel on Cowgate. I walked down St Mary’s Street and dropped the bag off at the centre. While the staff there seemed really pleased that their guests for the evening would have a nice treat for breakfast, I still haven’t shaken off that feeling of being a hypocrite.
Good deeds won’t end poverty. This will only be achieved by critiquing and actively challenging its very existence.