‘This Is How It Feels’ – Personal reflections during Mental Health Awareness week

Chris Bayes

This week marks Mental Health Awareness week.  As stated on the Mental Health Foundation’s website here, “The week will explore the experience of loneliness, its effect on our mental health and how we can all play a part in reducing loneliness in our communities.”

Loneliness affects millions each year and is commonly recognised as a driver in mental health conditions.  Research conducted by The Foundation’s ‘Mental Health in the Pandemic’ research has found that loneliness has been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.  Indeed, the pandemic as a whole has had a massive impact on mental health and wellbeing across the globe.

Within our podcast (recorded last October), myself and ‘The Open Circle’ presenter, Tim Roe explored Mental Health and Wellbeing, awareness of mental health issues across society as whole, focusing on the increasing numbers of students reporting mental health issues in higher education across the country.

As someone who grew up with a parent who suffered extensively with depression throughout my life, it is both pleasing and reassuring to see that discourse around Mental Health and associated issues are more common within society today.  When my Mum tried to take her own life on multiple occasions during my teenage years, talking about this was not something I was ever fully comfortable doing.  Obviously, there is a lot more support in this space nowadays – particularly in schools, but a stigma does remain.  Although Mental Health is discussed a lot more within the press and the public domain today, I would question how much actual understanding there is around the issue, particularly in terms of recognising symptoms and supporting people to be able to access support when they need it.

Although my Mum suffered with depression throughout my entire life, I had never considered that depression would be something that I would experience.  Embarrassingly, I was quite dismissive of the illness when I was growing up; I did not understand how or why or what my Mum was suffering with at this point.  My own Mental Health was never something I paid a huge amount of attention to in my teens and twenties – Like most of my peers, I regularly indulged in binge drinking, attending and playing football at weekends.  Alongside this, I would regularly take recreational drugs, as I was a regular attendee at gigs and raves.

Then BOOM, it happened, during the autumn and winter of 2013.  I had turned 30 earlier that year and looking back, I had begun to experience what I now recognise as anxiety on a regular basis over the course of the previous year.  This was largely due to a dysfunctional relationship and not having the maturity or emotional intelligence to be able to deal with this situation.  On reflection, I now recognise that I had probably always experienced anxiety to some extent growing up – I am an only child and I think I definitely suffered from a lack of siblings.  I used to get very nervous ahead of playing football – especially as I was a goalkeeper as a kid.  Having grown up to be a Liverpool FC fanatic, I have seen various goalkeepers from David James through to Jerzy Dudek and Lorus Karius, including the current outstanding incumbent of LFC’s number 1 jersey, Allison Becker, make horrendous errors.  Making an error as a goalkeeper (like any other player on the pitch) is inevitable, but when a goalkeeper makes an error, it is magnified.  Although my appearances for my local team and school were relatively small fry, I used to work myself into a state of panic before games, as I was so fearful of making a mistake.   

As I say, looking back, I was definitely experiencing anxiety throughout 2013 for a variety of reasons, I was using running as a form of escapism at this time.  I completed the Snowdonia Marathon (commonly recognised as one of the UK’s toughest) in under 3:20.  When I look back now, it is clear that I was using this race and the training schedule as a deflection from my problems at the time.  Once I had finished the race and the associated training, I felt really flat and low.  I initially put this down to fatigue after completing such a challenging race in an impressive time.  This accentuated over the next few weeks, but I didn’t know what to do about the way I was feeling.  I tried talking to my partner at the time, she recommended speaking to a doctor, but I was hesitant to do so.  I was probably ignorant at this time, but I didn’t feel able to go and see a doctor, because on the surface there was nothing wrong with me physically.  I had just ran a marathon in a great time, but I was ignoring that mentally, I was not well.    

One morning, scheduled to go away for a city break to Reykjavik, I could not get out of bed.  I felt physically numb and completely drained.  Eventually, I managed to rouse myself, packed my things and headed to London to meet mates.  Over the next few days, I drank heavily during this break – we were attending a music festival.  As I was visiting Reykjavik in November, it was cold, there was a lack of daylight – In Iceland, at this time of the year, the sun does not rise until 10 am, and it sets at 4 pm.  In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best place or environment for someone exhibiting early signs of mental illness. When I came back, I slumped into what I now recognise was depression.

As this had never happened to me before, I didn’t know what to do.  I tried to reassure myself things would improve and eventually they did (they always do).  However, it took time, and I didn’t seek support in a manner that was measured or sensible.  I went to speak to a doctor, but by the time I did, I had convinced myself after a couple of ‘better’ days, things were getting back to ‘normal’.  I ended my relationship – this was stop-start for a while afterwards and probably contributed to my state of confusion over the next few months.  I started and stopped medication, not giving tablets the chance to work fully before seeking another quick fix via another tablet.  For the next few months, I was a bit all over the place at work.  Some days, I couldn’t make it out of bed and just stayed at home.  In the end, I sought support via the University of Liverpool’s Counselling Service (this was my employer at the time).  The support was intensive, face-to-face and delivered over a six or seven-week period and it worked.  Following the counselling, I re-engaged with running and met someone new.  Life was good or so it seemed.

One of the most difficult things about mental illness and depression is that it is recurrent illness.  Someone who suffers a depressive episode is highly likely to suffer a relapse.  Sadly, this was the case for me.  I believe that one of the things that makes depression and associated mental illnesses so difficult to diagnose, understand and treat is that to many it is an unseen affliction.  Our guest on the latest episode of ‘The Open Circle’, Yinka Yesufu, facilitates a 12-week Health & Wellbeing programme in Liverpool and I am lucky enough to have been a beneficiary of this scheme. 

During this and other periods of talking therapy, professionals have commented that I am lucky in that I am able to articulate my experiences clearly and able to recognise my triggers and symptoms.  In the main, this is true.  Nowadays, I do recognise that when I am stressed, I become forgetful, perhaps even snappy or bad tempered with those immediately around me. 

Over the course of time, I have begun to understand what causes this and prior to the pandemic, I became very adept at managing my mental health.  If I was stressed or overtired, I would work from home for a day or two and restrict my social interactions.  I would go for a long walk or a run, recognising that this was beneficial and within a day or so, I would be able to return to a normal pattern.  However, life events aren’t always something that are presented to you with prior warning and you can find yourself presented with challenges that you are not equipped or skilled enough to cope with.  In my next two episodes of depression, this was definitely a massive factor, as was the fact that anxiety and depression can often be interchangeable, thus clouding your judgement and having the potential to leave you feeling as though you have been blindsided.

My second experience of depression came when my ex-girlfriend and I suffered our first miscarriage in 2015.  We had not really been together that long, but we were very happy.  Neither of us had any real life experience or frame of reference regarding pregnancy or what happened subsequently.  What I now realise is how incredibly common miscarriage is, but again it is considered something of a taboo subject to discuss openly, especially for men.

Over the next few months, I once again tried to convince myself that I was fine and looked to throw myself into work.  I subsequently lost focus.  The role I was in at the time entailed the establishment of a collaborative network.  Encouraging HE and FE institutions to collaborate against a backdrop of a marketplace, in which they were cast as competitors, was tough.  I felt as though I was just beginning to get to grips with this before the miscarriage.  I subsequently became withdrawn, paranoid and convinced myself I was failing.  In reality, I wasn’t, I had just lost sight of reality.  As before, I pissed about with medication, stopping and starting on various tablets due to the fact I could not clearly define whether I was anxious or depressed.  During this episode, I was initially suffering from anxiety, but was unwilling to consider talking to anyone or countenance taking medication.  Over the next few months, this escalated into depression, as with the previous episode, it was a combination of factors that enabled me to get ‘better’; the support of a therapist, regular running and the support of friends and family, all helped bring me out of the malaise.

As stated at the outset of the article, the past two years have influenced people’s Mental Health and Wellbeing massively. A lot has happened during the pandemic and it certainly has been a tough experience for many.  Personally, I found the first lockdown an almost therapeutic and certainly positive experience.  That first lockdown probably enabled me to avoid another mental health episode.  In November 2019, my ex and I suffered a second miscarriage.  Whilst it was a horrible thing to experience again, having been through this once before meant that I was perhaps better prepared to deal with it.  However, I also recognise that I was exhibiting trigger signals in the early part of 2020; extreme fatigue, becoming closed in my social interactions and behaving in an insular manner.

Therefore, the first lockdown and the increased flexibility it afforded people probably enabled me not to go under again.  However, as I said before, mental health is not like a physical illness, it is something that never truly goes away, it is always there bubbling under the surface.  Like many people, I have experienced traumatic and painful life events (as well as some truly amazing ones) over the course of the past two years against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic.  An edited highlights package is provided below:

  • Relationship break ups and associated grief cycles
  • Division of assets and associated legal fall-outs from relationships ending
  • The birth of child and becoming a parent
  • The death of a parent and associated grief cycle
  • My team winning a first League Championship in 30 years (albeit when I and many other thousands could not attend and enjoy this experience)
  • My team losing 6 home games consecutively at a point when no-one could attend matches
  • My Dad becoming afflicted with a ‘mystery’ illness impacting hugely on his mobility
  • My Step-Mum being diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and then breaking her hip as she was in remission

As stated previously, something you become increasingly aware of as you get older is how life has a habit of throwing things at you for which you are completely unprepared for.  The COVID-19/SARS-COV-2 pandemic has certainly fitted this bill.  As I said, initially I quite liked the novelty of lockdown.  The sun was shining, I had more free time than I had experienced in years and like many, I immersed myself in things I enjoyed.  However, by the time of the second and third lockdowns during the autumn and winter, my mental health and wellbeing slumped dramatically.  I had completely lost sight of my ‘triggers’ due to the pandemic and the monotony of each day, I am sure I am not alone in saying I empathised with Bill Murray’s character in ‘Groundhog Day’ during those dark, long, cold months of January and February 2021. 

Looking back now, I clearly had not been ‘well’ for a while before I actually began to suffer actual depression.  By the back end of last year, I had reached a point at which I recognised I had to make some big life choices.  My Mum had died in July last year and my daughter was born a mere four weeks later.  I was signed off work between July and September.  When I went to work, I realised how trapped I felt in my current role, how miserable it was making me and had been doing so for an inordinately long time.  By December, I realised something had to give, I spoke to the doctor, was signed off again and decided I was not going to go back to work until I felt I was in a position where I was living well.  Over the next month or so, things definitely got worse before they got better, but I began therapy again and acting upon the advice of trusted friends, I finally committed to taking medication.  Since then, things have improved immeasurably.  I am in a lot better place and think people should be encouraged to continue to speak openly about Mental Health.  If you are experiencing anxiety, loneliness, self-doubt, negative thoughts or depression, all I would say is that you are not alone.  There are many services available to support people suffering with Mental Health issues.  Make sure you access them, do not feel ashamed to do so and ensure you play your part in supporting and raising awareness of this key issue.

Mental Health Websites:


Papyrus UK Suicide Prevention | Prevention of Young Suicide (papyrus-uk.org)




T Levels Week – Taking Vocational Education to the Next Level?

This week sees the latest National T Levels week celebrated across the country.  There has been much activity amongst advocates and supporters of this ‘Next Level Qualification’, but in terms of wider consciousness around T Levels and what their implementation means for the Level 3 qualification landscape, there remains much to do.

Since 2017, ministers have spoken excitedly about T Levels and their potential as a ‘unified technical qualification with equal status to A Levels’.  I have written several times previously about how T Levels are the latest attempt to develop greater parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications here[1] and here[2].

The first wave of T Levels were introduced in 2020 and the first qualifications were awarded in August 2022.  During this summer, former Skills Minister, Alex Burghart commented how despite initial fears amongst ministers and educationalists, “well over 90 per cent of students”[3] amongst the initial T Level cohort of 1300 had successfully completed their mandatory 315-hour, or 45-day work placements.  Set against the backdrop of COVID-19, this appeared to represent no mean achievement.  However, Burghart, who like many Conservative ministers was involved in the domino rally of resignations that signified the death knell of Boris Johnson’s Premiership was referring to “internally held data” and The Department for Education (DfE) subsequently confirmed that there was not any published data on T Level work placements and refused to “divulge any further detail”[4] on whether this ‘alleged data’ was based on all T Level students who started their T Levels in 2020 or a proportion of this cohort, such as those who did not drop out.  The release of the results of the first T Level cohort did help to shed some further light on things.  In total, 1029 learners received results (my maths is somewhat rudimentary, but this would appear to indicate over 20% who started a T Level did not complete it), but the below statistics are impressive:

• 92.2% achieved Pass or above on their T Level.

• 31.9% achieved a Distinction. 2.7% achieved a Distinction*

• 99.5% achieved E or above on their Core component.

• 97.5% achieved a Pass or above on their Occupational Specialism.

• 94% completed an industry placement.

When T Level implementation was announced, it was reported that their introduction would have dire implications for BTEC qualifications.  The then Prime Minister, Theresa May – Yes, it was that long ago, commented their introduction would enable Britain to “compete globally” and more recently, Boris Johnson in September 2020 was quoted as how in modern Britain we “have too few” young people with the “right skills for the job our economy creates” whilst also having “too many graduates with “degrees which don’t give them the jobs they want”.  In response to this Johnson appeared to be steering young people away from HE in favour of “more practical options (such as T Levels) […] that lead more directly to well-paid jobs.”

However, the government appeared to have underestimated the strength of support within the School, College and HE sectors for the BTEC.  The #ProtectStudentChoice campaign led by the Association of Sixth Form Colleges and supported by a coalition of organisations lobbied extremely effectively and by April 2022, the then Education Secretary, Nadim Zahawi announced that “less than half of BTECs” could see funding cut.  Having secured over 100,000 signatures via the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, the future of BTECs was also debated in parliament with a number of ministers from both sides of the political divide speaking passionately about the positive impact that BTEC have on supporting the future life chances of young people within their constituencies. 

A key aspect in the discourse surrounding Level 3 reform, which appears to have been missed, is the fact that BTECs underwent relatively major surgery in the recent past.  This was largely at the behest of the HE sector, elements of which had long decried BTEC students’ inability to cope with some of the demands presented by a traditional degree.  These issues intensified when the increasingly marketised nature of the sector meant that more BTEC students than ever were accessing HE, increasingly at selective institutions due to the relaxing of student number controls. 

This was something discussed at a recent NEON meeting by Dr Catherine Dilnot; Catherine’s research focused on ‘Educational Choices at 16-19’ and explored outcome gaps by L3 qualification type and socio-economic status.  There has been a long-standing correlation between those studying BTEC qualifications and those from the lowest Socio-Economic (SE) backgrounds.  In 2015, HESA data showed 41% on entrants to HE who had studied a BTEC came from the four lowest SE groups.  In the subsequent years, more students than ever before are studying a blended qualification involving A Levels and BTEC studied alongside one another. 

Perhaps most interestingly, the research showed that the gaps regarding graduate outcomes, students having retaking a year and retention rates between A Level students and those studying a combination of A Level and BTEC were significantly smaller than the gap between students who had studied for A Level only and BTEC only.  Therefore, the data would appear to support the prevailing notion of the ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign, this being that a greater freedom of choice is of benefit to students, specifically those from lower SE backgrounds.  Whereas a return to a tripartite education system offering A Levels, T Levels and Apprenticeships, appears on the surface regressive and a return to the failed Tertiary system of the immediate Post War era.[5]

Returning to T Levels themselves, despite extensive government backing, there currently appears to be something of an issue with regards to awareness of the qualification itself.  The Institute of Mechanical Engineering (IMechE) published a poll earlier in the year, which showed there is much to do in terms of raising public awareness of this ‘Next Level Qualification’.  The IMechE’s research showed a number of areas for concern:

  • Only 1 in 5 (18%) had heard of T Levels
  • Around 70% said they knew little about them

Thankfully, the research did show that awareness is highest amongst parents and carers of 16–18-year-olds, with 39% having some awareness.  However, put bluntly, over 60% of the parents and carers of the target cohort appear to know little or nothing about this “brilliant alternative to A Levels”. 

Whilst working on this piece, I did a little exercise on LinkedIn, which appeared to confirm that raising awareness of T Levels is of utmost importance.  At the outset of the week, there were 6 followers of the hashtag #tlevelsweek on LinkedIn.  By the point of proofing, this had increased, but only to 12 followers.  An overwhelming majority of my network will work within schools, colleges, third sector organisations and universities.  As such, this is somewhat worrying.

T Levels are not the first vocational qualification introduced amidst much fanfare as “a brilliant alternative to A Levels”, with those championing the qualification highlighting how they’ll equip “young people with the technical and practical skills needed to succeed in the workplace”.  As stated in previous pieces, it evokes memories of the ill-fated Diploma qualification, which like T Levels were also heralded as a solution to ‘skills shortages’ and an opportunity to bring new talent into business.  One hopes that if Labour were to win the next General Election, they would not toss T Levels into the dustbin of history with the same fervour that the Coalition did with the Diploma, as the people who suffer most are the young people studying these qualifications.

For several years, we have seen much criticism from business and governments around young people and more recently graduates being unprepared for the world of work.  Indeed, a piece of analysis published in 2019 “identified around 20 providers where at least three quarters of all students are still not earning enough to start repaying their loans five years after graduation”[6].  The current government is not the first to measure the value of qualifications in largely monetarist terms, but I am always troubled by statements such as ‘skills shortages’ and how a new qualification will enable “success in the workplace”.  The cynic in me thinks these qualifications are merely the latest attempt to provide cheap labour for identified ‘development’ sectors or local growth sectors.  It will be interesting to see how many employers beyond local government, the NHS and those in receipt of government contracts within industries such as Construction are fully behind T Levels. 

When conducting research around #tlevels week on LinkedIn, I found a few interesting articles explaining and promoting the qualification, one of which from Anthony Carr highlighted how:

“Not everyone knows what they want to do at the age of 16, in fact I would argue most do not know.  T Levels can cover both bases”

 There is no disputing the validity of the first point, but I would argue that the reformed BTEC and the increasing number of students studying a blended qualification profile of A Level and BTEC offers a greater degree of choice for students.  Whereas T Levels seem to offer a clear and coherent pathway into a particular industry/career space.  There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but it needs to be clearly articulated to students.  In the past, too many students have been failed by a system that promises something that doesn’t deliver – e.g. The Diploma.  Many are under the impression that T Levels lead to university progression, but the composition of a T Level is equivalent to three A Levels/BTECs and therefore rules out the blended qualification choice which has proved increasingly popular amongst 16–18-year-olds in recent years.

A key component of the T Level and what appears to differentiate it from A Levels and some of the popular (academic) preconceptions of BTECs is the placement element.  This again is playing to the long-discussed area of the skills agenda, ensuring that young people are work-ready and go on to have rewarding careers which support economic growth. 

From a university perspective, we are aware of how much of a battle it has been to challenge outdated preconceptions amongst academics and Admissions staff regarding BTECs.  As Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since 2018, myself and colleagues have obviously been strong supporters of the #ProtectStudentChoice’ campaign, but we are also realistic.  T Levels are here and as such, we have shifted our focus slightly to be inclusive of their arrival.  We have changed the name of our Group ‘Supporting Access, Success and Progression of Vocational Students’ and as part of our plans for forthcoming meetings, we have invited speakers from industry to give their view on T Levels and their benefits, alongside views from inside FE and HE institutions.

For T Levels to truly represent a next level qualification, we need to really think about the age-old distinction between academic and vocational education.  As UCAS Executive Director, John Cope commented in an article in HEPI’s publication ‘Holding Talent Back – What is next for the future of Level 3’ “Every education minister in living memory has said at some point they wanted to bring parity of esteem to apprenticeships, higher education and technical education […] Not many genuinely moved us towards it.”[7]   When we look at the situation in Germany for example, it provides a stark contrast, as Professor Hubert Ertl states in the aforementioned HEPI publication “In Germany, vocational education and training has long been an important pathway for young people from school to work” resulting in “consistently one of the lowest youth unemployment rates – European rate of 5.8 per cent in 2019 compared to a UK rate of 11.2 per cent”.  Alongside this, vocational qualifications also offer an important stepping-stone to higher education in Germany.  With 22% of entrants to HE in Germany holding a full, state-recognised initial vocational qualification”[8]. Until we fully commit to providing genuine parity of esteem between these qualification types in England, we will continually be facing the same struggle.

[1] https://www.face.ac.uk/blog-post/guiding-principles-for-supporting-btec-students/

[2] https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/neon-blog/vocational-education-reform-is-over-rated-and-t-levels-are-the-monster-it-created/

[3] https://feweek.co.uk/minister-claims-90-of-first-wave-t-level-students-secured-work-placements/

[4] https://feweek.co.uk/minister-claims-90-of-first-wave-t-level-students-secured-work-placements/

[5] https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/news/collective-acts-of-forgetfulness-the-past-present-and-future-of-vocational-pathways-into-higher-education/

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/education-secretary-calls-for-an-end-to-low-value-degrees

[7] https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Holding-Talent-Back-What-is-next-for-the-future-of-Level-3.pdf

[8] https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Holding-Talent-Back-What-is-next-for-the-future-of-Level-3.pdf

‘Juxtaposed with U’ – The problem with Social Mobility and Levelling Up

3/3. Written by Chris Bayes.

“talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not” and seeks to redress this “giving everyone the opportunity to flourish.”

The ‘Brave New World’ of Levelling Up

At a recent NEON Summit on Regional disparities in widening access and higher education’s contribution to levelling up, one speaker (Stephen Pomfret, Make Happen) highlighted how 2022’s Policy Paper ‘Levelling Up in the United Kingdom’ featured minimal references to Universities, Further Education and zero references to Higher Education.  The Levelling Up agenda claims to be about challenging and changing the fact that whilst “talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not” and seeks to redress this “giving everyone the opportunity to flourish.”[1]

Following the collapse of the supposed ‘Red Wall’ at the 2019 election, Boris Johnson thanked traditional Labour voters for lending the Tory party their votes to secure a sizeable majority enabling him to ‘Get Brexit Done’.  He pledged to repay their trust through reforming the Tory Party, the political landscape and the country to revive the fortunes of ‘left-behind’ communities in post-industrial towns situated largely (though not exclusively) in Northern England.

In fairness to Johnson (something I’m not often guilty of being), his ambitions of 2020 being ‘a fantastic year for Britain’ were somewhat derailed due to a Global Pandemic, but his own ineptitude and arrogance undoubtedly exacerbated the severity of the impact on the UK (especially England).  The pandemic highlighted his hypocrisy to genuinely levelling up with evidence of grade inflation for public-school students being prevalent during the pandemic[2] .  This was coupled with the fact that many children living in the very communities ‘Levelling Up’ was purported to support had to rely on the campaign led by footballer, Marcus Rashford to access food[3] and workers who had been labelled as ‘unskilled’ months earlier by Priti Patel and worked continually to keep the country going received a ‘Clap for Heroes’, rather than an actual reassessment of their value and a pay rise.  Lastly, a recent IPPR study highlighted how despite Johnson’s rhetoric, public spending in the North continues to lag behind that of London.[4]  

Given ‘Levelling Up’ is explicitly linked to Johnson, one questions how much (if any) of the policy will remain moving forward.  The Daily Mail approved continuity candidate, Liz Truss is being billed as that candidate to ‘build on what Boris Began’[5], but given the constant shifting sands of policy since 2010, this remains to be seen.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/levelling-up-the-united-kingdom

[2] Another omnishambles? Inequality and A-level results in 2021 – Sutton Trust

[3] ‘Protect the vulnerable’: Marcus Rashford’s emotional letter to MPs | Manchester United | The Guardian

[4] https://www.ft.com/content/af661dc9-7500-4447-890e-700f9ac9a731

[5] Daily Mail, August 3, 2022

The juxtaposition between the two

What is equally troubling to me is the fact that ‘Levelling Up’ should on the surface be juxtaposed with and provide a challenge to the predominant narrative of ‘Social Mobility’.  Social Mobility and the projects that champion it appear to be about little more than getting working class young people to play ‘The Apprentice’, dress like a businessperson, be mentored by someone from a similar background and progress into a role at FTSE 100 Company.  This is a tried and trusted SM trajectory and one which appears to encourage young people to believe that to become socially mobile, they must become middle class and leave behind any vestiges of a working-class upbringing.

‘Levelling Up’, on the other hand purports to be about genuinely improving the life chances of all within ‘left behind’ communities.  Given the emerging evidence, my initial scepticism of this policy does not appear to be unfounded.  What I fear will happen is just an extension of the more troubling elements of the SM agenda.  Third sector organisations and ‘elite’ universities peddling a mantra, often led by working class young people made good, parachuting back into the community they’re from (but have ironically left behind) offering a pathway out for a selected few.  The fact that Michael Gove served as ‘Levelling Up Secretary suggests a bittersweet irony at play, see Gove here when he used to be Scottish suggesting his countrymen are seen as by civilised Londoners working in the professions as “unattractive creatures”, who do little more than “beg for money”. [1]


Working class people and communities have long suffered from engagement with HE in this way (from a perceived position of deficit).  It is sadly very rare that a University genuinely engages with the impoverished communities within its locality as an equal partner.  A recent episode of ‘The Open Circle’ podcast appeared to offer some insights suggesting that WP should be about “listening as much as speaking”[2] and when we do speak to working people, we should try to do so in a way they understand and offer provision that is genuinely appealing to them.  Until we do this, ‘Levelling Up’ will be little more than what is currently, the latest in a long line of soundbites, devoid of any substance or meaning.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCyMPBI8Z2Y

[2] https://open.spotify.com/episode/4nmWHBhxpqS2qbNrWYRLUw?si=1cc06b4273f541a3

‘Juxtaposed with U’ – The problem with Social Mobility and Levelling Up

2/3 Written By Chris Bayes.

The industry of Social Mobility

Over the course of the two past decades, Social Mobility has increasingly become intertwined with WP.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given it has been championed successively by New Labour and Conservative administrations and is easier to reconcile the below definition with the values of neoliberals and centrists than the concept of ‘Social Justice’:

“Social mobility is the link between a person’s occupation or income and the occupation or income of their parents. Where there is a strong link, there is a lower level of social mobility. Where there is a weak link, there is a higher level of social mobility.”[1]

Social Mobility has almost become something of an industry.  Underpinning this is the Social Mobility Commission (SMC), an independent statutory body (an organisation created by an Act of Parliament).  The SMC itself a continuation of the body previously called the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.  Alongside the SMC, there exists a plethora of charities and organisations, which either explicitly or implicitly state support for Social Mobility as part of their mission statement. 

The following link https://socialmobilityworks.org/organisation-directory/ highlights the work of around 50 organisations, all of whom appear to be singing from a similar hymn sheet and many of whom work in partnership with widening participation teams within universities.

Given the apparently verdant nature of activity within this space, you might then be surprised (or probably not if you’re well-informed) that

“The UK has one of the poorest rates of social mobility in the developed world. This means that people born into low-income families, regardless of their talent, or their hard work, do not have the same access to opportunities as those born into more privileged circumstances.”[2]

Interestingly (perhaps worryingly for some active in WP), the latest SMC report ‘State of the Nation 2022: A fresh approach to social mobility’ (underneath a heading entitled ‘The Problem’) states “Widening access to university has not brought the dividends many hoped for, and has diverted attention away from the 50% that pursue other routes.”[3]

In a previous piece, I highlighted how the government’s mantra appears to be that certain courses and types of provision should be the preserve of certain types of people.  If you happen to be from a ‘disadvantaged’ background, they appear to be suggesting that skills-based learning to be the right educational pathway to take.”[4] 

The fact that the current government appears to be framing the achievement of a previous administration’s stated goal of “a university participation rate of over 50% among the under 30s.”[5] as part of ‘The Problem’ was highlighted in a 2020 speech by Boris Johnson.  The current PM firstly highlighted how “It is one of this country’s great achievements massively to have expanded higher education”.  However, he then went on to add that “we seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates” and questioned whether they (young people) were “ever given the choice to look at the more practical options, the courses – just as stimulating – that lead more directly to well-paid jobs?.”[6]  Given the utter decimation of a fully funded Careers service under the Conservative led administrations since 2010, Johnson’s question was perhaps a rhetorical one, but it appeared to be reflective of a shift in thinking towards a greater emphasis on vocational alternatives to HE study.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/social-mobility-commission/about#definition-of-social-mobility

[2] https://www2.deloitte.com/uk/en/pages/about-deloitte-uk/articles/social-mobility.html

[3] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1084566/State_of_the_Nation_2022_A_fresh_approach_to_social_mobility.pdf

[4] https://workingclassinwp.com/2022/07/22/vocational-education-reform-is-over-rated-and-t-levels-are-the-monster-it-created/

[5] Tony Blair, 2001

[6] Boris Johnson, September 2020

‘Juxtaposed with U’ – The problem with Social Mobility and Levelling Up

Article Piece 1/3 Written By Chris Bayes

Shifting Sands

The political landscape does not stand still for very long.  Labour’s most successful 20th century Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (Yes, he won four elections to Tony Blair’s three and unlike BLiar managed to avoid tarnishing his legacy by keeping Britain’s involvement in Vietnam to lukewarm verbal support and no military aid) famously quipped that “A week is a long time in politics”.  Looking back further in time, Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain was recorded in 1886 as having said: “In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight.” 

The modern political era (since the 2010 election) has seen the political winds of change reach almost gale force proportions.  It has seen an era of coalition politics, one of austerity and of multiple referenda.  It has seen the coming and going of Corbynism.  It has seen the UK leave the European Union.  Associated to this cataclysmic shift, the period has also seen the latest reboots of “one of the most successful political parties in the democratic world”.  The party that has for much of the 20th and 21st centuries been seen as “the natural party of government”[1], The Conservative Party or The Conservative and Unionist Party, as they have cleverly rebranded themselves at points when it has suited their agenda to do so.

Given the rapidity at which administrations have come and gone, there has been an unprecedented turnover of holders in roles related to education.  Since 2010, there have been no fewer than eight Education Secretaries, six of which (including the current incumbent, James Cleverley) have served less than two years.  A notable mention here goes to an old friend of widening access, Michele Donelan, who now and for the foreseeable future, holds the dubious honour of being the shortest serving Secretary of State for Education, having held the post for two days in July.  During the same period, no fewer than nine people have held the following roles:

  • Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities (2010-15)
  • Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation (2015-19)
  • Minister of State for Universities (2020-21)
  • Minister of State for Higher and Further Education (2021-22)
  • Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills, Further and Higher Education (present role)

This is confusion, am I confusing you?’

Given the frequent turnover of roles and post holders within this space (even before you factor in the impact of a Global pandemic); it is therefore perhaps little wonder that our current educational policy landscape has become reminiscent of shifting sands. Various strands of policy seem increasingly at odds with others, which has resulted in a confused hotch potch patchwork.  Within Widening Participation (WP), this crucially undermines the government appointed regulator’s stated ambition of taking an evidence-informed approach in which “Compelling evidence should underpin every provider’s strategy to improve access and participation.”[2]

Myself and other PURSUE colleagues have spoken at previous events about our collective disdain for the term ‘Social Mobility’, preferring to frame our work through the lens of ‘Social Justice’.  Last year, our friend and esteemed educationalist (Andy Griffith) delivered an excellent webinar on how schools can seek to build cultural capital appropriately and effectively and become organisations working to a compelling definition of equity and equality here.  One of the twentieth century’s seminal educationalist works was ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire.  In this text, Freire argues that oppressed people can regain their humanity in the struggle for liberation, but only if that struggle is led by oppressed people.  Such an approach is central to our vision for PURSUE, in that we seek to[

“Encourage and support working class practitioners within our Widening Access agenda, to make their voices heard at all levels.” [3] 

Linked to the above, it was interesting to see a recent presentation at NEON’s Summer Symposium suggesting that the vast majority of WP practitioners are not classified as working class.  The presentation ‘Who widens participation?’ was delivered by Dr Jon Rainford, Dr Ruth Squire and Professor Colin McCaig, who have recently collaborated on the forthcoming publication ‘The Business of Widening Participation’.  Within this presentation, they highlighted how within their research, both Rainford and Squire had interviewed WP practitioners to understand (amongst other things) their demographic background and personal motivations for working within the WP space.  

69.88% of respondents working for a UniConnect partnership and 69% of respondents based in HEIs stated their parental occupation as falling within NS-SEC classes 1-3, which consist of the following roles:

“1        Higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations

 1.1 Large employers and higher managerial and administrative occupations

 1.2 Higher professional occupations

2          Lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations

3          Intermediate occupations”[4]

[1] https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/conservative-party

[2] Office for Students, 2019

[3] https://workingclassinwp.com/about/our-seven-endeavours/

[4] https://www.ons.gov.uk/methodology/classificationsandstandards/otherclassifications/thenationalstatisticssocioeconomicclassificationnssecrebasedonsoc2010

(Vocational) Education (reform) is over-rated and T Levels are the monster it created

Written by Chris Bayes.

Like many of my practitioner brethren, it would be fair to say my journey to becoming a widening participation (WP) practitioner was not exactly linear.  Prior to commencing a career in WP in 2007, I worked (in chronological order) as a paperboy, a factory worker, a retail assistant, a barman cum waiter, a colleague (In ‘The Asda’), a Compliance Assistant (ironic given compliance has never been a strong point of mine), Helpdesk Officer, Trainee Teacher/teacher and freelance music journalist.  It was within the latter role (which I managed to juggle alongside my early roles within WP), where I encountered the track whose lyrical content, I am paraphrasing in the title of this article. 

A lot has changed since 2008 when I wrote this review, the political landscape is almost unrecognisable.  Back in 2008, Labour had been in power for 11 years.  Although the honeymoon period experienced by Gordon Brown upon his ascension to power was well and truly over by this point.  However, I maintain that if someone had told me back then that by 2022 the Conservatives would have been back in Downing Street for over a decade and that Boris fucking Johnson would have led us out of the European Union, I would probably have shook my head in disbelief and asked you for some of what you were on.

In short, a great deal has changed in the intervening 14 years, but within the tabernacle of WP, there are some things that remain starkly similar.  Whilst undoubtedly progress has been made in certain areas of the agenda, within others the rhetoric remains frustratingly similar.  One example of this would be the lack of progress in terms of opening up access for white working class males. Another area in which advancement has been almost non-existent during my career to date would be vocational education. 

Around the time at which I still harboured ambitions of being the next Keith Cameron, Paul Morley or Stuart Maconie, the Labour government launched the 14-19 Diploma.  A qualification apparently capable of ‘Bringing learning to life’, of crossing the age-old divide between academic and vocational education and widely promoted with ministerial backing.  I can vividly recall attending a Diploma event a couple of years later at Turf Moor, Burnley at which exhibitors greatly outnumbered young people in attendance (never a good look).  Soon after, the winds of political change were afoot, a coalition government replaced New Labour in Downing Street and by 2013; the Diploma had been banished to the dustbin of history. 

I have written previously here and presented at last year’s NEON Summer Symposium about the potential parallels between the Diploma and the current government’s much vaunted ‘next level qualification’, T Levels, here.  The Symposium presentation highlighted how the BTEC qualification has been the great survivor within the vocational education space in England, remaining an integral part of the post 16 education system whilst other qualifications have come and gone or been repackaged various times.  The number of students progressing to HE having studied a BTEC has grown dramatically in recent years, increasing from 13.3% in 2008 to 24.3% in 2015.  In spite of this shift, the BTEC has remained the subject of some criticism amongst selective institutions and having worked in both Russell Groups and other ‘elite’ universities, I became accustomed to hearing snide remarks about both the qualification and the students’ accessing university via this pathway.  Therefore, one would imagine few tears would have been shed amongst elements of the sector when the government announced plans to defund BTEC qualifications (in favour of implementing T Levels) between 2023 and 2025.  However, the government clearly underestimated the strength of feeling both amongst Sixth Forms, FECs, WP teams, Student Recruitment and Admissions functions within universities.  The pushback from the sector included publications from NEON, here and here, HEPI here and most notably the Protect Student Choice campaign led by the Association of Sixth Form Colleges.  In the face of increasing pressure, one of many incumbents of the seemingly revolving hot seat of Education Secretary, Nadim Zahawi announced a retreat from the government’s initial proposals in November 2021; stating “It is quite likely we will see many BTECs and other similar applied general style qualifications continuing to play an important role in 16 to 19 education, for the foreseeable future.” 

Indeed, one of the great ironies is that the BTEC itself has undergone an extensive degree of reform (largely at the behest of the HE sector) in recent years.  This shift was designed to make the qualification more academically robust to equip those studying the reformed BTEC for the demands of studying at a greater range of universities (including elite institutions) than was the case before the marketisation of the sector.  Despite being notionally committed to making evidence-informed decisions, T Level enthusiasts within DfE have continued to champion the unproven T Level’s merits over the BTEC in a manner, which evokes memories of the Diploma amongst practitioners of a certain vintage.

The current government are committed to using vocational education as a means of widening participation.  Recent APP Variation Guidance encouraged institutions to “consider how they can develop technical routes at level 4 and 5 and contribute to the expansion of degree apprenticeships”[1].  Given that many providers have been guilty of using the Apprenticeship Levy to upskill current members of staff (many of whom already have degrees and Masters level qualifications), it remains to be seen how effectively institutions embrace this.

One of the unwitting consequences of a marketised sector has been that it has become harder for FE and HE institutions to collaborate effectively (an integral facet of a fully functional vocational system) against a backdrop of a competitive marketplace, which sets each against each other as competitors.  I speak from personal experience here, when establishing the government funded National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) and National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) projects in Merseyside, it was striking how certain institutions behaved in complete self-interest, stating that FECs were only involved in the projects to promote their HE offering.  Taken at face level, this was correct, but effective collaboration between FECs and HEIs can and should offer much more.  However, as long as they are set against each other as ‘two tribes’, effective collaboration and policy in this space will be undermined.  Therefore, those highlighting the latest government funded iteration of collaborative outreach (UniConnect) as a mechanism for change in this space as a ‘no brainer’ would do well to recognise this.

Another interesting feature of higher education in the UK is the impact of devolution since 1997.  In essence, we now have four slightly divergent systems at play within the UK.  Presenting about the work of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ at a SRHE online conference in 2019, it was striking how at points there is limited awareness of the deviation between respective systems when a Scottish attendee expressed surprise that English FECs and HEIs were struggling to collaborate due to the fact that policy had placed them against each other as competitors.  In Scotland, there are long-standing matriculation partnerships between FE and HE (linked to industry) based around progression pathways.  The barrier to the establishment of similar arrangements in England is policy and restrictions imposed by the current fee structure.

The current Conservative administration has exhibited a strong commitment to developing technical education.  The soon to be former PM stated in 2020 that “It is one of this country’s great achievements massively to have expanded higher education but…we seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates, and on the other hand too many graduates with degrees which don’t get them the jobs that they want…were they ever given the choice to look at the more practical options, the courses – just as stimulating – that lead more directly to well-paid jobs?” 

Alongside this, they seem be committed to eradicating so called ‘Micky mouse degrees’.  Such a narrowing of focus is unlikely to widen access to and participation within higher education.  In essence, the government’s mantra appears to be that certain courses and types of provision should be the preserve of certain types of people.  If you happen to be from a ‘disadvantaged’ background, they appear to be suggesting that skills based learning to be the right educational pathway to take.

The vocational education landscape in England has long been a patchy hotchpotch of frameworks and pathways, especially when you compare it with our continental neighbours.  In Germany, “vocational education has for a long time been regarded as a vital part of the overall educational system, co-existing separately but on an equal footing with higher education”[2].  The OfS are encouraging providers to “consider how the development of such provision could contribute to their access and participation while benefiting students from all backgrounds.”[3]  From analysis of data, it is clear that there is substantial correlation between ethnicity, low socio-economic status and BTEC learners.  Removing this pathway before T Levels are fully established is not only short sighted, but risks endangering much of the good work that has been done in this space over the course of the past decade.  Therefore, it is hugely important that practitioners keep the pressure on via channels such as the ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign, through the NEON ‘Supporting Access, Success and Progression for Vocational Learners’ and by getting in touch with MPs to ensure the BTEC qualification is maintained.

[1] https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/advice-on-requests-to-vary-access-and-participation-plans-2023-24/

[2] ‘Holding Talent Back? What is next for the future of Level 3?’, HEPI number 149 (2022), pp 44

[3] https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/advice-on-requests-to-vary-access-and-participation-plans-2023-24/

‘’There’s nothing more dangerous to power than a working class person with a thirst for knowledge”

It was a very proud day for both myself and my family when I was accepted to study BSc (Hons) Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh, which is located outside of Edinburgh. When I attended my first day, I was, I have to say, reminded of the theme tune from the tv sitcom Cheers ‘’Nobody knew my name, and nobody was glad I came’’. This feeling never stirred from any negative experience I had on my first day. But was indeed, a symptom of the insecurity I felt coming from a working-class background, entering higher education. The arena of university never appeared a natural environment for me. As most of the guys I grew up with entered blue collar occupations, therefore, going to university appeared an alien choice.

See, growing up, I felt I was part of a lost tribe, a condition of being working class in a post affluent society. The possibilities available to my generation, such as going to university. Are in opposition to the choices available to my grandparents. Men and women who worked either in the mining pits, or, in factories. I knew pursuing a trade wasn’t a viable option for me as I have a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) and, Dyspraxia. But through the encouragement and support I received from my parents I recognised my academic potential. As I was spurred on by them to go onto university.

I was very fortunate in the choice of university I made and the subject I chose to study. As throughout my time at Queen Margaret University I was supported immensely by all my lecturers and other members of staff. These people always believed in my academic potential. And it was their belief that gave me the motivation to succeed in my studies. I never directly encountered any negativity from being working class during my studies. Except from the self – doubt I initially internalised from being a working-class student. During class discussions, I felt in some ways inferior to my middle-class peers. As I couldn’t imagine myself being able to engage them academically in a debate. As places I read about, they had been to, and some books they had read, I had never even heard of. It just seemed their cultural exposure had situated them in a more advanced position to succeed in academia. But as I got to know my lecturers on a more personal level I soon realised that they shared a similar working-class background to myself. This led me to the realisation that my potential to thrive in academia wasn’t limited, but instead, it was limitless.

As I undertook my sociological apprenticeship. I was able to engage with the subject in a way that gave me meaning and understanding of the barriers I had to overcome. Through reading the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Paulo Freire, to name a few. This enabled me to identify and decipher the anxiety I experienced from being working class in a dominantly middle-class environment. For example, my natural tongue is urban Scots, a vernacular which is widely recognised as the language of the working-class in Scotland. But when I entered university or other formal settings my vernacular would deviate its self to the more socially esteemed standard English spoken by the middle classes. This important use of language was documented in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, so not only was I learning about this topic, I actually had first-hand experience of how this identity crisis can surface amongst working-class students. So, in some ways, being working class helped me to engage with public sociology with a sense of realism that may not have been open to my middle-class peers. As I was living and encountering some of the issues I was studying.

A lot of the barriers I faced during my studies stemmed from sources out with the university itself. These factors impacted my ability to remain focused on my studies. I lost my dad not long before I undertook my degree and my mum passed away during my final year. Obviously, these were the most traumatic events of my life, but, again, the support I received from my lecturers and the university was overwhelming.

As I previously mentioned, I have Asperger Syndrome. And I claim state benefits, including housing benefit, and Personal Independence Payment (PIP). My benefits were stopped in my final year, so I ended up in rent arrears and had to attend a tribunal to see whether my PIP benefit would be reinstated. The title of the hearing ‘tribunal’ is misleading. It was in fact, more of a trial with a judge presiding over proceedings. And the way I was made to feel in the hearing left me somewhat in disbelief. I was made to feel as if I should apologise for being born with AS and it was evident that the state equates disability with stupidity. My attendance at university somehow appeared to be an issue. As the tribunal panel never seemed able to understand a person with disabilities can achieve just as much, if not more, than someone born without a disability. The financial hardships I faced were something my middle-class peers could never understand. As they didn’t have to rely on the state for support, and thus, were given a clearer space to succeed at University. As much as my situation caused me a lot of stress. This experience reaffirmed my belief that the working class must produce more of its own academics. The more working-class academics active, the greater potential there is for progression. Aiding the positioning of the working class as producers of social change. Not merely relegated to being passive spectators.

My advice, to any potential working-class student who is considering entering higher education, is don’t let your postcode decide your life chances. Take control of your own destiny and use education as a vehicle to achieve what you want to in life, both, to the benefit of yourself and the wider working class. There is nothing more dangerous to power than a working-class individual who has a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to learn. And even though our middle-class peers may have stronger networks available to them that can present gateways to more opportunities. We all have the right, and indeed, the potential, to succeed in any subject matter we choose to explore.

Article by Author, Colin Burnett. Autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic.

‘’There’s nothing more dangerous to power than a working class person with a thirst for knowledge” (colinburnett.co.uk)

FYI: Colin is the Author of ”A Working Class State of Mind” and friend of PURSUE.

Making University Truly Accessible

PURSUE would like to invite colleagues and supporters to our latest online event on 10th December.  The purpose of this event is twofold, to explore the discussion theme of ‘Making university truly accessible to working class people’ and to launch our new PURSUE podcast ‘The Open Circle’.  This is a new strand to our work, in which we explore cutting edge topics of discussion on how to tackle inequalities in HE/ED/society.

We hope that the podcast will act as a mechanism to share and champion good practice across the sector through sharing the lived experiences of our guests.  Thus far, we have interviewed a diverse array of guests including Lemn Sissay, Tony Collins (Professor of Social History), Simon Hughes (Author) and PURSUE contributors.

In order to launch ‘The Open Circle’, we will be delivering a live example of the type of discussion covered through the podcast.  Our guests for this session are listed below:

          Andy Griffith http://www.malit.org.uk/education-consultants/andy-griffith/ – Educational Consultant

          Jamie Bytheway – Head of Widening Participation at Manchester NHS Foundation Trust

           Robert Powell – Director, Pro Bono & Corporate Responsibility, London Weil, Gotshal & Manges (London) LLP

          Guy Christiansen – Director, Lancashire Youth Challenge

Get in touch to Join us on 10th December 10:00-12:00

No they don’t talk like we do, do they do, la. We’ll have to learn ’em to talk propah!

PURSUE’s event on accent and language

Our event ‘Language, accent and Unequal Opportunity in higher education’ held on 30th April, provided both a much need exploration into the HE experience of those who speak in a regional accent and also a fantastic celebration of regional identity, accent and dialects featuring input from a host of academics and invited guest speakers. 

The following are my reflections from the event, why we felt it was important to deliver such a conference, what we learnt from it and why it is important that we keep this discussion on the agenda.

What Accent means to me

I have had an awareness of accent as long as I can remember.  My family comes from different Celtic outposts of the UK and much of my formative years involved visits to see relatives from Scotland and Wales.  I recall being immediately being fascinated by the ways in which my family communicated in divergent dialects, even different languages.

Being from Merseyside, you are often aware (especially when you encounter people from outside of the local area) of the fact that you ‘speak with an accent exceedingly rare’ (The Spinners).  School trips in primary and secondary school often resulted in interactions with young people from other regions, these often became aggressive and uneasy, usually this was driven by the fact that we were ‘scousers’. 

Closer to home, accent was again a divisive issue as far back as I can remember.  I am from Knowsley, a Metropolitan Borough, formed on 1 April 1974 (An April Fools gone wrong, perhaps?) “by the merger of Huyton-with-Roby Urban District, Kirkby Urban District and Prescot Urban District, along with most of Whiston Rural District and a small part of West Lancashire Rural District, all from the administrative county of Lancashire.”[1]  Therefore, the area in which I was born and raised is a melting pot of Liverpudlian and Lancastrian, this in itself has led to some quite bizarre territorial friction between locals.  As Stuart Maconie recounts in his 2007 book, Pies and Prejudice – In Search of The North “Huyton and St Helens are five minutes drive away from each other […] but here the fault line between ‘Scouser’ and ‘Woolyback’ is a crackling seam of animosity among the population […] Essentially, they fucken hate each other, la.”[2]  Growing up, this animosity was most prevalent on the football field, where depending on where you were playing; you would be likely to find yourself labelled as a ‘wool’ or a ‘scouse bastard’.

When I moved away from home aged 18 to attend university in Sheffield, I found myself immediately being known as ‘scouse’ by some who I lived with in my first year.  I never readily accepted this moniker, not because I am not proud to be from Liverpool/Merseyside, more that I just found it a slightly lazy label.  Studying at a post 92 university in another fiercely proud Northern working class city, I never encountered any prejudicial comments relating to my accent whilst at university in Sheffield.  However, playing Sunday league football, I vividly recall being told to “shut thee mouth, yer scouse twat”.  This tirade came from a referee, hence why it remains ingrained in my brain.  I also remember one occasion in my first job after university arriving five minutes late and a colleague making a joke in poor taste about scousers always being late (I was in Sheffield, you can probably figure out the rest).  However, in the main, my experience at university in Sheffield was a positive one and I never experienced any discrimination based on my accent.

Accent and Career

Like many young people at that time, who were the first in their family to attend university, I had no real career ambitions beyond university itself.  Therefore, I spent a further two years in Sheffield, before moving onto Nottingham for further study and to train to be a teacher.  Studying at a Russell Group university, I immediately felt what I would now refer to as ‘imposter syndrome’.  Back then, I just felt I did not fit in.  I felt this extremely keenly on my History PGCE, when I felt little or no enthusiasm for learning about English Kings and Queens and felt as though my peers were judging me based on my apparent lack of knowledge. 

Two memories stand out vividly from this year; the first was during a pub quiz when one of my peers took the piss out of me, as I did not know the answer to a question about “the only child King”.   I pointed out that I had gotten many other answers right and was told, “You know a lot about sport and popular culture”.  The implication here (whether intended or otherwise) was that sport and popular culture were of lower cultural value than being knowledgeable about the Kings and Queens of England.  Nowadays, I would have told the person in question to “fuck off”, but back then, I stayed silent. 

The second memory I have of that year came towards the end of the course, when I had decided that I was not going to pursue (no pun intended) a career in teaching.  I had arranged to meet with my tutor to discuss my next steps.  When I said I did not have any formal plans for the future as of yet, but would like to continue working with young people he told me that he could see many opportunities for someone like me, with my background, in this space.  I did not really understand what he meant and asked him to clarify and he said something like “Oh, you know, probation”.  As I have recounted in a previous blog, I found this quite amusing and genuinely think he was trying to be helpful, but this example just serves to illustrate how stereotypes and connotations can permeate aspects of the student experience encountered by those who speak in regional accents.

Why is Accent Important?

Within the past few years, there have been a number of articles in the media exploring discrimination encountered by students because of their regional accent.  A 2020 report entitled ‘A Report on Northern Student Experience at Durham University’ uncovered a “toxic attitude” prevalent amongst many of the institutions staff and students with respect to students from the North of England, with some truly shocking views apparently being prevalent amongst the student body.  If you are interested in reading more about this, click here.  It is clear that Durham is not the only ‘elite’ institution at which this type of behaviour is common and therefore we wanted to deliver an event that explored this issue in detail.

What did we learn?

We already knew that issues around accent, dialect, language and discrimination were complex and multi-faceted, but our event brought together a number of fascinating and insightful speakers from across the higher education sector.  Importantly, the event also featured speakers from outside of the sector as part of our panel discussion.  All of the speakers are contributing (via either projects or publications) to a greater understanding of the discrimination encountered due to the way people speak and this made for a lively and energetic session, which provided plenty of ideas for next steps.

Further details of our guest speakers and their content can be found below:

Dr Rob Drummond (Manchester Metropolitan University) – Rob is a Reader in Linguistics, specialising in sociolinguistics, and head of youth language in the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies – Rob spoke about the Accentism project.

Dr Maureen Farrell (University of Glasgow) – Maureen is a Senior Lecturer (Culture, Literacies, Inclusion & Pedagogy).  Maureen spoke about her work in promoting Scottish dialect through Children’s Literature – Here is Maureen discussing Scots Language and Culture in the Curriculum at the Association for Scottish Literary Studies conference in 2020.

Dr Diane Potts (Lancaster University) – Diane is a lecturer in the Linguistics and English Language Department at Lancaster.

Rufeida Alhatimy (Social Knowbility) – Rufeida spoke about her experiences establishing student led projects to challenge prejudice encountered by under-represented groups/first generation students in HE.

Bob Moston (Merrym’n) – Bob is a singer-songwriter and teacher from Stoke described on his own Twitter as a “DIY Stoke-folk troubadour” who sings “songs from the dirty dishwaters of the Potteries.”  He recorded a special video for PURSUE, which you can watch here

Ben Dyer (The Inspirational Learning Group) – Ben is the Managing Director of The Inspirational Learning Group (TILG), an organisation committed to playing its part in providing meaningful engagement with employers for young people.  To watch Ben talking about his career and motivations for establishing TILG, click here

Simon Hughes (The Athletic) – Simon is a journalist and author, who has written seven books about Liverpool FC – including ‘61 Minutes in Munich: The Story of Liverpool FC’s First Black Footballer’, Howard Gayle.  Simon has also written ‘There She Goes’, a modern social history of Liverpool as a city and ‘On The Brink: A Journey Through English Football’s North West’.  Here is Simon talking about ‘There She Goes’.

Professor Jane Stuart-Smith (University of Glasgow) – Jane is a Professor of Phonetics and Sociolinguistics (English Language & Linguistics), her current research focuses on phonological variation and change (especially in the Glasgow accent, and English more generally).  Click here to find out more about Jane’s Speech Across Dialects of English (SPADE).

What’s up next?

PURSUE are already planning follow up events to explore issues relating to the themes covered in this session.  Initial details of our next two online conferences are provided below:

‘The influence of working class communities, friends and families’ – To be held in September

‘Making university truly accessible to working class people’ – To be held in December

We intend to use the findings from our conference series to produce a short publication highlighting our ‘manifesto for change’ based upon our initial Seven Endeavours

The issues covered in this event were complex, manifest and deeply embedded within society.  As such, we feel it would be useful to explore them again in further detail at a future event.  If you would like to contribute to this, please contact us via workingclassinwp@gmail.com or leave us a message via https://workingclassinwp.com/contact/

Chris Bayes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Borough_of_Knowsley

[2] Stuart Maconie, Pies and Prejudice (2007)

Unlocking Opportunity: Accessing Higher Education with a Criminal Record

Charlotte Brooks
Doctoral Researcher, University of Nottingham

A criminal record can be devastating, lifelong and far outweigh the harm caused by the official punishment itself. For instance, people with a criminal record can be subjected to discrimination within employment and experience challenges when accessing housing and education. Yet restricted access to opportunities and basic rights because of a criminal record are rarely recognised as part of a person’s official punishment. This has led a criminal record being described as an ‘invisible punishment’.

Over 11.8 million people in England and Wales have a criminal record. That equates to one in six people. A criminal record can be understood as any formal interaction with the criminal justice system. For instance, fines, cautions, community sentences or prison sentences.

What Does a Criminal Record Mean for Access to Higher Education?

Currently, little is known about the consequences of a criminal record on access to higher education in the UK. In one of the only studies that has explored the impact of criminal records on access to higher education in England, Custer (2018) gained usable data from 21 university admissions teams finding that 4,585 students in 2014–15 and 3,986 students in 2015–16 indicated having a criminal record. Applicants rejected solely because of their criminal record ranged from as low as 0 percent at four institutions to as high as 21.43 percent at one institution. This information is useful in providing an initial indication of the number of people pursuing a university degree with a criminal record.

Despite this, people with criminal records are rarely part of the conversation about widening participation to higher education. Instead, some admissions policies deem students with a criminal a ‘risk’ to campus safety, and admissions processes asking applicants to provide extensive details about their criminal record, can further exclude applicants with criminal records. There are several compelling reasons why this needs to change.

Firstly, from a social justice perspective, it is crucial that everyone should have the opportunity to access higher education should they choose to. From providing a sense of purpose, increasing career opportunities, to revolutionising a person’s worldview, education can be transformative. It is unjust and unproportionate to deny someone the opportunity to access education, for a crime they have already been punished for. Secondly, providing opportunities for people with criminal records to access higher education, could support desistance from offending by enabling people to learn essential skills to enter the labour market. This could have beneficial outcomes for those with criminal records, their family and wider society. Finally, implementing fairer admissions for people with criminal records could contribute to widening participation to university. Evidence suggests that those that are underrepresented within higher education are also more likely to be criminalised (see Lammy, 2017). Thus, creating fairer admissions processes could contribute to generating a diverse student body and in time, a diverse future labour market.

What’s Changing?

There are indications that the impact a criminal record has on access to higher education is beginning to be recognised. For instance, in 2020 the Office for Students produced guidance for universities about the obstacles people with criminal records face in accessing higher education. Eighteen institutions have signed Unlock’s ‘Fair Chance Pledge’ to demonstrate their commitment to creating fairer admissions for applicants with a criminal record. Furthermore, changes to data protection legislation in 2018, along with the successful lobbying from Unlock and The Prisoners Trust, resulted in the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) no longer requiring applicants applying to non-regulated degrees (i.e. degrees that do not require regular contact with vulnerable children or adults at risk) to disclose their unspent criminal records upon application to university.

This change from UCAS appears to demonstrate a positive step forward in providing equal opportunities for those with unspent criminal records applying to university. However, three years on, little is known about how individual higher education institutions have responded. For instance, have universities stopped collecting criminal records data for non-regulated degrees, or instead is this collected at a later stage in the admissions process? Additionally, this change would have predominately impacted students applying to undergraduate degrees, but little is known about admissions processes for people with criminal records applying to postgraduate courses.

Want to Learn More?

The impact of a criminal record on university admissions remains relatively unexplored within a UK context. As part of my PhD research, which is being undertaken in collaboration with Unlock, I will be working with university admissions teams and people with criminal records, to learn more about the impact of a criminal record on access to higher education. If you would like to find out more about the research and how you can participate, please get in touch.

To discover how your institution can create fairer admissions processes for people with criminal records, explore Unlock’s project ‘A Fair Chance for Students with Convictions’.

To join the conversation about creating fairer admissions for people with criminal records, you can sign up to the PURSUE Presents: Access to HE for People with a Criminal Conviction event on Thursday 22 July.