Grayson Perry’s recent Channel 4 documentary series, All Man, explores issues of masculinity among residents of Skelmersdale in Lancashire. The episode in question delves into an area where I’ve taught for three years, touching on broken domestic situations and the lives of local teenagers and adults.
Skelmersdale was a 1960s new town, developed to accommodate Liverpool slum clearances around homogeneous examples of town planning: urban estates, a shopping centre, sports fields and industrial spaces.
Today, an old FE college stands derelict overlooking the local school, after a modern one was more recently completed. Without proper public transport links to Manchester and Liverpool, horizon-scanning by the town’s population may arguably be limited – new towns can take time to form identity, based on character, familiarity and safety – but this isolation also fortifies Skelmersdale as a bastion of community.
The documentary follows a police raid, moves into the cells and then enters a subway. If you interview any group of male teenagers who can disguise their faces with hoods in a tunnel, they will become gangster wannabes, posturing for the camera, whether they’re in Wigan or Windsor.
“It takes a man to kill a man,” one of the teens said. I recognised another gang member, lurking at the group’s periphery, as one of my most polite students.
My own research has tapped into the town’s sense of community by situating learning experiences among adult and 16-19 GCSE resit groups around an online social network.
The research shows that strong, offline, classroom-based cohesion feeds into the online world: members negotiate goals and objectives via community peer support, which is translated into positive actions.
The documentary, however, represents a community of aimless people and violent territorial divisions. Paternal family members are depicted as irresponsible, absent, selfish and often criminal.
Consider this point of view against the case of one adult learner I interviewed, who got in trouble at school because he couldn’t understand the lessons. He would ask to go for a toilet break at 11am but go home instead: he left school at 15. He returned to do his exams but didn’t collect the results for nine months.
Parenthood changed Joe’s narrative. He was a plasterer for nine years before working in local factories. He now speaks with spirit and personal pride of returning to FE, where he was finally diagnosed with dyslexia.
This contrasts sharply with the programme’s depiction of a town with few opportunities, or where young people are following the wrong path by dealing drugs. This is despite government statistics showing relatively low crime rates and unemployment in the borough being the 12th lowest in the country.
Local jobs are in sectors supported by vocational training – retail, service, manufacturing and agriculture – with huge construction and infrastructure projects in the vicinity.
Parenthood was a key factor in Joe’s return to college at the age of 29. “Having kids made me want to learn to read, because I don’t want them getting to high school and reading better than me, and I want to be able to help them with their homework and stuff like that,” he said. “I could see straight away that I was struggling when I was reading them their bedtime stories. I was reading books to my daughters and they sounded really robotic, so I started making the stories up to go with the pictures. I want to challenge myself.”
As a result of Joe taking a night class in English at college, his daughter told him: “Your reading’s got better, Daddy.”
Joe’s endeavour has forged strong bonds in the adult GCSE group. Owing to the visibility of online communication, Joe reports self-correcting his own spelling and grammar in posts before publishing.
Support and ambition
Impressively driven and self-regulating, Joe helps his peers by asking questions or sharing resources. He describes how the network supports his ability to go through things at his own pace and reread them, and he cherishes the community involvement.
The online community has helped in other ways, too. One learner was experiencing relationship difficulties; the online resources and community supported her when she missed lessons. Another acutely shy adult’s participation has flourished, as she has been offering tips and acting as a digital mentor.
At a time when FE has to defend and justify itself, the need for counterpoints to negative media stereotypes is paramount. Anecdotal vignettes like the ones I’ve mentioned are commonplace at our nation’s colleges and show how communities come together within their walls. This illustration of how role models like Joe work, when invested with opportunity, defines our purpose as we help to define our communities.
Howard Scott is an FE college lecturer and doctoral research candidate