We must speak frankly, Mr Shankly

As an impassioned Liverpudlian (by this I mean ‘Kopite’/follower of Liverpool FC, rather than simply a native of my home city), it will perhaps not surprise many to hear that Bill Shankly is one of my absolute heroes.  However, the esteem that I hold ‘Shanks’ in goes far beyond his status as the man who led an unfashionable Second Division club out of the mire,  in the process helping to turn Anfield from “the biggest toilet in Liverpool” into an area which provoked fear in opponents.  Shankly wanted to build a “bastion of invincibility”; something Jurgen Klopp has done quite a good job of restoring recently.  Simply put, Shankly was a man of the people, whose upbringing as a proudly working class man from a pit village in Ayrshire not only shaped him, but also fostered his beliefs, principles and values.

Statue of Bill Shankly, Anfield, Liverpool - from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bill_Shankly_statue,_Anfield_2018.jpg
The Man Himself

As a leader and motivator, Shankly was unrivalled.  Many of his former players speak with an almost reverential glee when describing the man.  Fans of a certain vintage (me auld fella’s age) talk of Shankly in an awed manner befitting his status as ‘The Messiah’.  Following his retirement as Liverpool’s manager in 1974 (and subsequent uneasy relations with Liverpool’s Board of Directors), Shankly often visited Everton’s training ground and was seen at Goodison Park as much he was at Anfield.  He was a man whose impact transcended traditional rivalries and whose “natural enthusiasm” turned good players into great ones, who was at one with the (largely working class) supporters of Liverpool and the city as a whole.  As a studied enthusiast of Shankly, I believe his greatest asset was his command of language.  As a proud socialist of staunchly working class stock, he understood a working class city like Liverpool and its inhabitants implicitly.  At the heart of this was his desire to speak plainly from the heart, using “the language of the people”

In one of his many famed interviews – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQYSOWEd8_w, Shankly touched on language.  He began by outlining how he preferred to “speak with simplicity”, before describing how “In our language, there are words that are similar(ity), they are spelt differently, but they mean the same thing”.  He then goes onto attack ‘the big men’ (most likely politicians and a political ‘chattering’ class,) who use elongated words that “only 10 per cent of the viewers understand”, before ending with the following statement:

“Well we don’t, we use the language that everybody understands, instead of me saying somebody was avaricious, I would say he was bloody greedy”

When listening back to this, I am struck by the parallels between what Shankly is highlighting here and much of the language, discourse (to use a more academic term) and rhetoric around Widening Participation (WP).

The Language of WP

One of the key themes emerging from the first PURSUE event held in December was the importance of language in the context of WP.  We began to explore how the language used in relation to the agenda can be guilty of reinforcing ill-informed stereotypes, negative or outdated discourses and can reinforce a deficit model of WP. 

A careers advisor working at The University of Liverpool once told me that ALL local WP students lacked confidence.  D’yer reckon?!

Within previous blogs and in the video from the launch event, a number of practitioners have spoken about their disdain for aspects of the language commonly involved in WP.  Terms such as disadvantaged, aspiration raising, social mobility and underachieving are seemingly engrained within our day-to-day work, even though they offend our sensibilities and are often meaningless.  Therefore, why are they commonplace?  I think a large part of explaining this stems from the fact that whilst working class people are the desired beneficiaries of the WP agenda and many WP practitioners are from working class backgrounds themselves, the language associated with the agenda is not “the language that everybody understands”, instead it is the type of political language decried by Shanks.  Therefore, is it any wonder that it has not connected with either its intended beneficiaries or practitioners, nor has it achieved its desired outcomes?

An illustrative example of this was a 2020 article on the BBC’s website entitled ‘The ‘taboo’ about who doesn’t go to university’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-54278727.  This article notionally focused on the ‘taboo’ of why white-working class boys access HE in such small numbers.  Even in this short article, the ‘cohort’ was described in numerous ways as listed below:

  • white working-class boys
  • white males from low-income families
  • male, white British, free school meals pupils
  • young white males from poorer backgrounds
  • young white males from post-industrial towns
  • white boys from low-income families
  • disadvantaged white males

Alongside these descriptors, the article also interchangeably uses various WP buzzwords such as those mentioned earlier.  If the so-called experts who contributed to this article cannot clearly articulate who they are talking about is it surprising that the issue “gets left in the “too difficult to handle box” (is ignored) and we are left with “perfect storm of inaction” (nothing gets done)?

Our colleagues at Reclaim

One of the most impressive contributions to our launch event came from the representatives of the charity, Reclaim.  Reclaim work with working class young people providing them with a sense of agency and empowering them to believe that “class background is no barrier to what you can achieve”.   At the event, both Chris Clarke, Reclaim’s Director of Business Development and two alumni of projects led by Reclaim spoke plainly, honestly and in an impassioned manner about how their backgrounds, ethnicities and accents have been met with negativity during their life journeys.  From listening to the young people, it was clear that WP practitioners and the agenda as a whole could learn a lot from the young person-centred approach adopted by Reclaim.  An example of a successful campaign led by Reclaim that could act as an inspiration to WP colleagues is the #IfWeDidThis campaign – https://www.reclaim.org.uk/ifwedidthis, which focused on challenging the violent or dehumanising language used by some politicians.  Working class young people led the campaign and their petition received support from 70,000 signatories including the former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. 

“There’s no way we’d get away with speaking like that…why should they?”

Reclaim, #IfWeDidThis campaign

As WP practitioners, we must always remember that our job is to communicate as clearly as possible to the young people that we work with. Offering clear and easily digestible Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) is the first and main step to ensure that they are empowered to make good decisions and to become what they want, and can be.  Too often though, IAG in the current climate is found wanting, particularly glossy leaflets focusing on ‘Jobs for tomorrow’, which tend to be the preserve of beige bureaucrats in Local Enterprise Partnerships and are written in the language of the skills agenda (“words that only 10 per cent of the viewers understand”).  Therefore, only a small percentage of the proposed audience are likely understand the content. To end, I will return to another quote from the aforementioned greatest manager of the 20th century “Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling, aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor”

Chris Bayes

Our next event is going to focus on the use of language within with the WP agenda.  Working towards “a language that everyone understands” to take back ownership of the terms and language HE uses to describe us.  If this sounds like something which you would be interested in, please attend our next event and support us in our endeavour to change WP practice.

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