• May 142018

The Working Class : Poverty, Education and Alternative Voices

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It is not often that you pick up a book and — within two pages — you’re reading why the Business Director of the organisation responsible for it doesn’t want to contribute to the book and why.

But then, that’s par for the course with Independent Thinking Ltd. There’s always another way, as they say.

The Working Class (Independent Thinking Press, 2018) begins with a Foreword “On Why I Am Not Contributing To This Book”. In it, Dave Harris (Business Director, Independent Thinking Ltd) explains why he doesn’t much like the title and why he is not chipping in his two penny’s worth. Whether he’s being entirely serious is unclear, but for what it’s worth, we agree with his point. In a diverse world where our students define themselves by social media participation, gang membership, football team affiliation, music genres etc. the term “working class” seems a little black and white. Harris suggests that the book is about “disadvantage pure and simple: economic disadvantage, social disadvantage, emotional disadvantage, aspirational disadvantage.” And so, one sentence written by someone who doesn’t even want to contribute to the book sums up what it’s about. Like we say, there’s always another way.

24 years ago, a man decided he wanted to do something to provoke and inspire schools, teachers, students and, if they wanted to listen, those in government. And so, inspired by Delboy Trotter’s taste in business names, Independent Thinking was born.*

*As The Beatles once nearly sang, “It was 24 years ago today / Ian Gilbert taught the band to play.”

Since then, Gilbert has built Independent Thinking into a collective of imaginative, motivational, sometimes angry, often provocative, always independent voices. These people run courses, write books, inspire and get us to see the good in those we teach. And the theme that runs continuous throughout Independent Thinking’s work? A care for the disadvantaged and a belief that there is always another way. Gilbert is a tailor of ideas and this theme is his constant thread.

The Working Class looks like it might be a dry, policy-filled text book (NB. there is something about policy-filled things that we associate with being dry. Each to their own, though). But, teachers? Everyday teachers? Who’d want to pay money to buy a 500-odd page book on Class unless you’re a lecturer in Education, Sociology, it’s on your reading list or you need a new door-stop?

Don’t be fooled.

This is an excellent, eclectic read — it really is. And if it were ever to be used as a text book (which it should), it would be the most interesting text book on your reading list, guaranteed. ‘The Working Class’ features 46 sometimes-punchy (as in short) and sometimes-punchy (as in hard-hitting) chapters (essays, articles, poems, reminiscences, anecdotes, lists) with each one touching on a theme that links to the concepts of poverty, education and our disadvantaged students:

[A side note: hat tip to the design team at Independent Thinking Press who have used the same fonts on the front cover to match the author who wrote that particular chapter on the back cover. We appreciate little touches like that!]

So, why would you want to read a 517-page book on the Working Class? What if neither you or your students could be described as disadvantaged? Wherever you teach and whatever your background, we are all in this education business together and it is vitally important that, where we can, we make changes that build communities, smash wrong perceptions and lift students to the level they deserve, no matter what circumstances may be holding them back. Quite often the problem is with ourselves and The Working Class forces us to take a good, hard look at what our expectations are as teachers… “The kids round here won’t ever [FILL IN THE BLANK WITH SOME POSITIVE ACHIEVEMENT]. It’s not that sort of area…” doesn’t cut it.

This is a book to dip into (we decided to read Nina Jackson’s vivid memories of her grandfather first — not least because many of the places she discusses are just down the road!). It’s interesting to read other reviews that tell the same sort of “dipping into” story. As such, each reader will take different things from it. For some, it will be the sections containing the angry, sometimes controversial, poetry and prose that will hit home the hardest. Others will look for suggestions as to how we can change a system that seems to place value on exam results and not recognise that progress can sometimes simply be a student having a week without absences.

Presumably the danger with a book like this is that it could become a rambling scrapbook of an affair. And so, to ensure a degree of cohesiveness, each chapter begins with an introduction written by Ian Gilbert. And so he drives the narrative, keeps it going and explains how the next theme relates to what has gone before. The tailor keeps his thread running throughout.

For us, this book is about voices (its subtitle is ‘Poverty, Education and Alternative Voices’), five voices in particular. That’s what we got from it and it is these five voices that will keep us returning to it.

Firstly, and most importantly, it’s a book about our students’ voices. It’s a book about empathising with them, regarding them with unconditional positivity and seeing them as so much more than a test score. It’s about what we can do to break some of the cycles of disadvantage, whether this be a result of lack of teacher belief, expectations, resources, hope, support etc. If you want to read a book that leaves you fired up to help your students be the best they can be, this is for you. It’ll make you question your own attitudes. This book gives your students a voice through those who have stories to tell. Listen to it.

Secondly, it’s a book about their families… It’s about understanding what our what our students go home to each night and how this shapes who they are. It’s about recognising the communities we serve, the disillusionment that is so often there and the mistrust of the education system because it has failed them in the past. It’s about not giving detention to the girl who didn’t do her homework because there was a car burning outside her house all night and it kept her awake (true story). It’s about recognising that our students may come from families where they are now the third or fourth generation without a job — so, what hope do they place in school?

The third group of people ‘The Working Class’ is about is Government / Authority / Ofsted — what they should have done (but haven’t), and what they can now (but probably won’t) do to change things. It doesn’t provide concrete conclusions, but it does offer answers. It’s about trying to lead those in power to recognise that how outstanding a school is is not based on the number of children it can get to jump through test hoops. Instead, it’s about how valued, respected and loved our children feel when they step onto school soil. For some, this is the nearest to a feeling of “home” they will get. Someone has to be the voice to Power for these children and this book is that. If Independent Thinking Press have a spare copy or two, they should send them to some of our more open-minded policy-makers. How else are they going to hear these voices?

Fourthly, it’s about the teachers, coaches, leaders, educationalists, poets, speakers and authors whose voices make up the book. Each chapter is written by a different person. For us, those chapters that spoke most powerfully were those that were the most personal:

- Will Ryan’s description of a walk around Rotherham, showing us how primary schools in his area are supporting and encouraging their communities in some of the most difficult circumstances. There is hope.

- Gill Kelly’s description of life at a PRU.

- Jaz Ampaw-Farr’s three things she wanted to say to her middle class teachers. And, if you haven’t read Jaz’s story, you really need to.

- Mark Creasy’s “magnificent seven” set of tips to work with children and their families in challenging circumstances… Special mention to this chapter — we found ourselves nodding away all the way through it. “Really, really, get to know them” is his first tip. Have you ever sat and eaten lunch with your class? Just chat to them — not about work or school — just about life… You’ll find that you see them (and they see you) in a new light. What a chapter!

Finally (and this we found particularly fascinating) this is a book about the voices who influenced the voices who wrote the book. The “voice” of a cassette of French reggae. The “voice” of a group of teenage girls who decided to do something about poverty themselves. The “voice” of a newspaper photo of a boy with a fish. The “voice” of an old, yellowed piece of paper with an inspirational story neatly typed on it. The “voice” of a child dragging their heels — not wanting to be taken home in an emergency situation as home is not somewhere they want to be. The “voice” of a protective teacher standing outside a library making sure the abused little girl on the inside is safe until a social worker arrived.

Each of these “voices” influenced the writers of this book. Somewhere along the line someone demonstrated to these authors that there is another way.

May their words do the same for you. For the sake of your students.

USEFUL LINKS:
THE WORKING CLASS on AMAZON.

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