For years, I’ve defended the authenticity of British politicians and the importance of a democratic political system to my students. Even more so when teaching adults referred by the Jobcentre. Lots of them feel like politics is a thing that is done to them. That their visibility to the powers that be is so insignificant that whether they vote or not, they will never be heard. I’ve pushed hard on my belief that those in Westminster actually do give a shit. It’s not just people in suits doing posh panto shouting.
“Of course there are some dodgy politicians only there for status, power and wealth,” I say, “but most of them are in the job because they truly want to help. They’re committed to making things better for all of us.”
I’ve kept on flogging that dead horse for years, despite the usual murmured responses of “bollocks”, “she’s talking shite” and my all-time favourite, hollered by a particularly fervent opposer: “They're a load of robdogs!”
Background: Can we possibly believe Boris Johnson on FE?
I should have investigated that argument but the linguistic surprise of "robdogs" gave me such a thrill that I backed off.
There were lots of reasons why those students found themselves unemployed – childcare commitments, redundancy, changes in the area’s workforce requirements. For some it was an elongated but temporary situation, particularly for those with small kids or with health issues. But others were stuck, resigned to the spiral of poverty, lack of education, lack of cultural and social capital. A chronic sense of hopelessness framed living on benefits as the accepted norm. I’m not saying any of that with a judgey face on – though I might have made misplaced assumptions prior to teaching this type of group. There are so many reasons why people find themselves in this position and the rarest of all is laziness.
Even the least able student, the longest term unemployed, knows that earning money, being part of the working world, gives you power. It allows you to be part of the conversation, a louder voice in the community; it gives you choices. Not just because you have money to splash on outrageous extravagances such as rent, electric and food, but because you are no longer perceived as either a victim or a burden. You are perceived as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
One of the biggest irritants I've ever taught was a power-mad bloke who (wrongly) believed he was effortlessly charismatic. He would use every opportunity to (I assume he thought charmingly) exert what power he could. If there was any form to sign, however trivial – a standard college learning contract, the end page of a speaking and listening test, a library card application, whatever it was – he insisted that I photocopy that page and provide him with the copy.
He would never do homework I set, which I was really keen on with those groups – for some students, part of the literacy issue was linked to lack of opportunities to actually read and write outside of the class. When I challenged him on it, he would always say, "Show me the contract that says I have to do it."
He would attempt to gain power in other ways too, by subtly ridiculing other members of the class. He was a bully, an enthusiastic racist, sexist, homophobe…Anything at all that he could clamp onto to make himself feel more important, more powerful, he would. And while he was an enormous pain in the arse, I could see why he behaved like this.
He was a proud man, who had no power and no real grasp of how to gain it. The only method he had was to try to undermine others and the stability of the group itself.
Other students in similar positions had quickly made the connection between gaining knowledge, being part of our classroom community and the growing sense of power. Many came back for course after course, months after their state-mandated time was up. They became addicted to achieving and this ever-building success was reversing how they viewed themselves. It was a beautiful thing to witness.
I'm dead keen on people grasping their own power, navigating their way through the system to improve their life. The system is hard though. It’s weighted towards those who have the ability, the confidence and in some cases the sense of entitlement to bust through it. But we agree that the system exists, that there are rules. We have to, or chaos reigns.
When I look at the unapologetic lies, the trampled rules, the chaos that seems to be reigning right at the top of the UK’s supposed "system", I realise it’s going to be really hard to uphold my stance that a trusted political system exists. It’s going to be even harder promoting so-called "British" values, the first being – don't laugh – democracy. I mean, "British Values"? I can't even say it without sounding sarcastic.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons