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‘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:

https://www.mind.org.uk/

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

https://www.themix.org.uk/

https://www.samaritans.org/

https://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/

(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.

Being PURSUE: Our Launch Event

I’ve worked in higher education for almost four years now, moving into this sector from a job in what now feels like the ‘real world’, where I was often engaging with people who were taking part in our research projects – ranging from parents being asked about their views on funding for their parent’s group being cut; to people who were homeless and being asked about their experiences.

I’ve been trying to get involved in things that keep me in touch with the people my job is supposed to be supporting

Going from this to a job that was much more focused on a specific group of people (young people who essentially live in certain areas deemed ‘Low Participation Neighbourhoods’) and basically colleagues in my own HEI and across the sector was quite a shock! Coupled with the fact I work in data and I now have a desk job. Since then, I’ve been trying to get involved in things that can keep me in touch with the people my job is supposed to be supporting – and I think I have found this in PURSUE.

Not knowing much about the university world, and only understanding widening participation from reading about it I was looking for events which would explain it all to me. I ended up attending events about evaluating widening participation endeavours, or how to complete the access and participation plans…but nothing where I heard from actual students. The majority of events I’ve attended or been involved with since working in HE have been around the following subjects:

  • Data in higher education
  • Evaluation of outreach/widening participation work
  • Teacher and advisor conferences
  • University application cycle type events
  • General working in higher education type events
  • General working in widening participation type events

Although I would say these events were worth attending, basically they were nothing like PURSUE’s first event. Disclaimer – I am part of the PURSUE group, and assisted with the afternoon discussions; but the main event PURSUE colleagues had put together was one you couldn’t help but find memorable.

The speakers at the event were those kind of people people who when they talk, you listen

Names that anyone with an interest in widening access, social mobility and social justice will immediately recognise. The talks from each of the speakers were genuinely engaging, it was clear speaking to this audience was important to them. You could tell this was the case for other attendees too, just by reading through the chat! Personally, my favourite speaker (aside from the students) was Nicola Ingram – I loved how she took the opportunity to read out a poem from a student of hers – and openly admitted she hates public speaking!

The Student representation was hands down the best bit of the event – hearing from working class students about their lived experience of university as working class students – intersecting with their gender and race was what I had been searching for since I first started working for the university. The speeches were emotive and rousing, and I could have listened to them speak all day. It’s the kind of stuff we should be listening to and putting to the top of the agenda for learning from. The students were from RECLAIM[1] – an organisation well worth checking out

Afternoon Discussion session – What a turnout! End of day in December, at the end of a very long year….

Tt was great to sit and chat to other people who had similar views and interests – but also those who have so much knowledge, experience and ideas. It didn’t feel like a chore and I didn’t feel like running a mile when the breakout groups began like I have done on other occasions!


[1] https://www.reclaim.org.uk/

Vicky Peace

If you’d like to get as fired up by one of our events, there’s still time to register for our upcoming Language, Accent and Unequal Opportunity event, see below for details.

Working to the Same Goals

A case study of Southampton Hub’s work at Student Hubs

Sophie Ford and Fiona Walsh, Student Hubs

As a charity working within the higher education sector, Student Hubs has a unique point of view on working with communities, students, and higher education colleagues to enact change. We work in partnership with five UK universities, reaching 1800+ university students through over 100 community projects.


We want to share our approach with our Southampton Hub, who works in partnership with the Widening Participation team at the University of Southampton, and our relationship with young people aged 7-14 in the community.

Designing Activities

In Southampton, we work in partnership with schools, social services, youth clubs, and the Council to run volunteering opportunities that make an impact on young people and the university students we engage as volunteers. Our recruitment of student volunteers informs what social issue programmes students are interested in, but our work with individuals in the community shapes what these opportunities look like practically and what interventions for young people are actually needed to ensure they are not prescriptive.

We’ve run tutoring, STEM clubs including coding and engineering, mentoring, activity days and sports clubs, along with tutoring, art and a whole range of other clubs and activities for young people. It’s important to note that these are a mix of academic and non-academic activities.

University is not all about academic activity, and neither should it be our entire focus in engaging with young people.

Many of our programmes have outcomes relating to self-belief and self-esteem, aspirations, confidence, and relationships with adults, even in programmes where there is a direct link to subject knowledge and attainment, such as our Schools Plus tutoring programme. This is because we recognise the importance of motivation, cultural capital and social and emotional capabilities in the ability for young people to thrive at school, and these interventions at an early stage also support the young peoples’ expectations for what further and higher education may hold.

Stepping Out into the Community

Our activities do not only take place on school grounds. Gaps will remain in schools; whether that be due to learning styles not being met, relationships with parents and peers or general attitudes toward education. To fully engage young people, we must meet them where they are at, which means past the school gates and in their community and youth centres, on the university campus, at local libraries, and in local activity centres. These places are key because they are where young people feel comfortable, where they hold positive relationships with the space and the people around them, and where they feel a sense of belonging.

In these spaces there are no pressures for young people to meet academic expectations

It’s there that through our programmes, we get to speak to not only young people but
families and parents, and do the important work of building relationships and supporting the individuals who play such a big role in shaping young people’s expectations about what life after school is like.

Outreach during COVID

Delivering youth programmes during the Covid-19 pandemic has definitely enhanced the relationships we have with parents in Southampton, as we have had to find news ways to communicate with them about existing activities, but also to consult them about their needs when shaping new ones. Where we once went through partner schools or services to contact parents, we are now communicating directly with them through text message, phone calls, in person drop-offs and virtual sessions. Here, the parents are not just communicating with staff but, like their children, are building positive relationships directly with our student volunteers who are the tutors and the mentors.


Like the school classroom, the university campus can be seen as an academic space, and it is a space that many of our participants and their families have never engaged with outside of school visits.

We use the University as a Community Space

We use the university bouldering wall or trying a class with the Zumba
society – exposing young people and their families to the idea that university isn’t just about knowledge or career aspirations, but about trying new activities, finding new passions, meeting people and having fun.

In our joined up approach with the University of Southampton, our projects regularly engage with campus-based events such as the Human Worlds Festival and Southampton Science and Engineering Festival. If we are not actively taking our participants to these events, we are encouraging them to attend with their families, potentially encouraging a family activity that they may never have otherwise have considered.

Joining Up a Partnership approach

In the past, youth work and university outreach programmes have worked very separately with their own aims and their own target audiences. In my experience as a young person in Southampton, but also someone who has worked as a youth worker and within higher education, it was always clear to see the difference in privilege between each group:

  • University outreach is “for” young people we expect to go to university (those with knowledge)
  • Youth work is “for” young people with additional needs or who are at risk of being NEET (those who need skills).

Even though it is a new way of working within higher education, engaging with diverse groups, listening to our communities and being youth-led isn’t a new practice. Youth workers have been doing it in their field for years and there is a lot to learn from them.

At Student Hubs we evaluate our programmes using the 6 key principles of youth social action, and our local partnership with Youth Options in Southampton has strengthened this process. By working together we have developed an extensive volunteer training programme including, Adverse Childhood Experiences, Restorative Practice, Managing Challenging Behaviour and added to our safeguarding training. We know that these ‘youth work’ skills are paramount in ensuring that we are developing skilled student (and eventually graduate) practitioners for the future, and that our activities are high quality and young person centred.


Let’s do more together, meet young people and communities where they’re at, and create more joined up interventions with students, communities and practitioners all working towards the same goals.

Sophie Ford is the Southampton Hub Manager for Student Hubs. Fiona Walsh is the Sales Director for Student Hubs. If you are interested in hearing more about Student Hubs’ work, training and our partnerships, get in touch with Fiona Walsh at fiona.walsh@studenthubs.org.

To find out more about our work at Student Hubs and Southampton Hub, join Sophie and Fiona as we present at the NEON Summer Symposium 2021 on 2nd July. Our paper presentation will reflect on our relationship with widening participation at the University of Southampton, community engagement in our youth work, our programme Branch Up and how this learning supports the university’s outreach activities. 

Designing PURSUE – Our Launch Event

Sometimes I wish my note taking was a little more comprehensive and detailed. But then again 2020 came at us quickly, and 2021, so far, is doing the same. But right at the end of 2020 we had our first event – the launch of PURSUE as a network – and now, a total of three months later, we’ve caught our breath enough to reflect!

We wanted to create a space to introduce ourselves both as individuals and a network, something challenging, open, welcoming, collaborative and – just like us – with heart firmly on sleeve.

Making Pursue different

Class ties us together in an endeavour for social justice and in this network, we’re going avoid the corporate shine, keeping events free for those interested. Things may be rough and ready around the edges, and we’re not going to apologise for that. We want to be a voice for working-class WP practitioners and people, advocating for Social Justice not “Social Mobility”. We want that ethos to be in every single one of our events.

How do you do that after a year of staring at Zoom, phasing out in Teams and giving presentations at conferences and symposia to a field of camera-off, muted participants?

Pursue is about People

One of the things about using “Widening Participation Target Students” or “POLAR Quintile X” or any one of the hundreds of other terms we use in our profession is that they generalise, the student as the one size fits all recipient of what we do. Instead, we’re going to celebrate the differences, diversity and sheer range of experiences working class people have before, during and after Uni. You can see some of them below:

Starting off our launch with PURSUE committee members and their experiences meant that we opened up discussion straight away, immediately diving in to sharing what it meant to all of us to be working class – or to have been working class – in a higher education environment. On a personal level it all felt very freeing, like we’d started speaking about something that was supposed to be secret – and twitter reported much the same!

Collaborate and Listen

A Key aim of PURSUE (you can check our Seven Endeavours here) is to collaborate and share practice. Our Launch Event featured fantastic voices inside and out of the HE sector, allowing us to hear from academics, third sector, politicians and young people – all feeding into a broader discussion of what it means to be working class in higher education and beyond.

While we’ll follow up this reflection article with more info and details on the speakers and their work, definitely check them out on Twitter:

Prof. Nicola Ingram – @ingram_nicola Sociologist and Author

Duncan Exley – @Duncan_Exley Author and former Director of the Equality Trust

Gareth Snell – @gareth_snell Former Labour MP for Stoke Central

Chris Clarke, Roukagia and Lisae – @RECLAIMproject RECLAIM Project Director of Business Development and Participants

Making Space to Speak

For all that many of those who attended work in Widening Participation as project officers or managers, there isn’t usually a huge amount of space for us to speak about our own experiences at University – positive or negative – when they relate to our class identities. We work in a middle class environment, with working class young people, toeing the line between what the Office for Students pushes – Social Mobility – and what we work for – Social Justice. There’s a tension in that, and one that can lead us to hide who we are and why we’re doing it.

That’s why our launch event made space for people to talk about their own experiences, thoughts, values and lives in HE. We’re proud to be who we are, and many of us have faced similar barriers and challenges in our educational and professional journeys relating to our class. Sometimes, though, it’s bloody hard to talk about it, and turn those challenges into positives – opportunities to push the work we do further. Scott said it best on twitter, so I’ll leave further reflection to him:

Lessons and Learning

There’s a lot more to say about the Launch event – the incredible, inspiring speakers, the young people who shared their voices, aims and inspirations, the fact we had a spotify soundtrack that spanned Gresford to Chumbawumba, and the incredible drive to go away and put it all into practice that we left with – but for me, the important bit was that we launched out into the world showing the principles and practice we want to live by.

PURSUE is about people and their experiences, working class identities and good practice wherever it’s found. It’s about sharing, listening and learning. It’s about having a good chat in the breakout sessions that gets us all fired up to try new things, push boundaries and challenge inequalities. It’s about talking about class, learning about class and then living our class identities in higher education – and we’re going to carry on with that spirit.

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.