I was moved by the BBC’s telling of the story of Britain’s efforts to commemorate the dead of the First World War in the We Will Remember Them programme.
One image stood out for me: the long, snaking line of “ordinary” women bound for Ypres for the unveiling of the Menin Gate memorial in 1927. The “poorest of the poor” made the pilgrimage to the Belgian city, walking in the footsteps of their lost sons, husbands, fathers and brothers.
For very many of these women, it would have been the first time they had left their home country. Some may never have left their hometown.
The British government’s policy of non-repatriation of the dead meant that they had been obliged to grieve without a body or a grave.
'Skills to cope with difficult-to-talk-about part of life'
Some directed their anguish into years of an ultimately unsuccessful protest against the government’s policy, which led to the creation of Commonwealth war cemeteries, the familiar serried ranks of slim, white tombstones; others bore it silently, stoically, as mothers do.
Watching this put me in mind of two things. First, it reminded me of how our lives and loves foreshadow loss and grief, and how intricately they connect. There are fields of suffering all around us but also vast reservoirs of hope and joy.
Somehow, one is not possible without the other. Second, it made me think about how important it is to foster and cultivate the skills and capacities we need to survive and cope with this difficult-to-talk-about part of life, and how important community and fellowship are to this process.
The end of the Great War coincided with the passing of the Representation of the People Act, which extended the franchise to women over the age of 30, who met a minimum property qualification (full electoral equality for women would take another 10 years).
FE honours 'the ordinary'
Over the next 100 years, women made their mark in science, literature, politics, the arts and higher education. Less celebrated is the role of further education in creating a space that “ordinary” women could enter to find new pathways and to emerge into different worlds.
This is what FE has always done. We honour the ordinary, allowing people who at one time would have been denied an opportunity to learn a place not only to acquire a skill or trade but also to develop wider skills of resilience, recovery and community.
This is an important part of our history as a sector and must be a crucial part of our future too. The value of FE, as with education more generally, should never be reduced to pounds and pence.
From our roots in the mechanics’ institutes of the 19th century, we have always been about much more. We prepare our students not just for a job but also for a life that is, by turns, full, empty, happy, sad, joyful and painful.
'Remember where we came from'
We provide glimpses of other worlds and create pathways to them. We foster people’s creativity, compassion and thoughtfulness while giving them the skills and resources they need to effect meaningful change in their lives and communities.
Of course, we are about skills, but skills are about so much more than preparation for a job.
It is important to remember where we came from. We need to talk to our ghosts. They have something to tell us.
'A wonderful story'
Perhaps I am being sentimental, but I was powerfully struck by the story of these women, their toughness and their courage in the face of soul-crushing grief, as well as by the compelling symmetry with the extension of female suffrage and the emergence of FE as an important force in shaping women’s lives – shaped also, in turn, by them.
There is a wonderful story to tell about how FE has created communities of hope and fellowship for women and men, and how important it is that this sometimes-neglected value of our work, its all-important human factor, is cherished and fostered.
It is our duty to tell it.
Dame Ruth Silver is the president of the Further Education Trust for Leadership