Learning a new language: privilege, self-examination and hope

Privilege is a word that has only fairly recently become part of my vocabulary. About time too, but that leaves me, like many others, feeling like I’m playing catch-up, with guilt making me question all the benefits I have gained – am still gaining – without ever consciously asking for those advantages.

When we talk about privilege, are we talking about things that make us feel proud? Feel loved? Feel lucky? Or are we talking about things that give us an unearned advantage in life, purely based on something we have little control over – our gender, our race, our physical ability?

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.

Joseph Campbell

The problem with language, glorious though it is in ever so many ways, is that here we are talking about both; and sometimes what we are talking about is equally part of both meanings. This post is my attempt to process things that are still new, confusing, and sometimes seem contradictory to me. If I get it horrifically wrong, please do correct me. Nicely, if possible, but if not I’ll try to understand.

In the process of writing this post, I also accepted what should probably have been self-evident: privilege is not an individual thing. In a culture dominated by individualism, this is a topic that, like faith, football and community action, can only really make sense when it is not practised alone.

One of the things I value about Quakers is their ability to ask open questions that expose more possibilities than they expect answers. One of the things we sometimes fall short on is remembering to talk about the myriad ways in which these questions might be answered. One such set of questions was asked at the most recent Yearly Meeting. I found them both helpful and challenging, and though I appreciate why they were not answered at the time, I look forward to hearing where other people might be on many of these issues, as Britain Yearly Meeting continues to explore, deepen, and act on these ideas over the next few years.

If I was to answer those questions now – well, some of them; I can’t remember them all – here is what I would say.

Q: Have you ever been the only person in a room with your skin colour?
A: Yes. But that doesn’t mean I understand, in my tummy and through my own experiences, what it is to be isolated and categorised purely on the colour of my skin. My own experiences of this are themselves steeped in the privilege that surrounds me, that made these experiences possible in the first place, and underlined by the worldwide impact of Britain’s colonial past:

  1. About 2 months into a transformatory period of volunteering, on the coast of Kenya, I was invited to the home of one of the staff, to talk about writing essays and to meet his new wife. I was the only white person not only in that home, but in the whole village, at that moment at least; and I was feted as a result to an extent I found deeply uncomfortable. Noticed, yes; judged or sidelined, definitely not.
  2. A few years later, the dire conditions in the refugee camps near Calais hit the headline news. I was invited to a fundraiser for the people living in The Jungle. It had a bouncy castle, a Frozen tribute act, and candy floss. I had two daughters who were under 5. Obviously, we were there in a flash. So were around a thousand other people. And for some time (until my husband, far better known in the area, arrived) there were only five white people in the room: Elsa and Anna on the stage, my daughters, and me. Some people looked at us in distaste. Some people looked with anger. Some people said nice things. Under it all was a palpable feeling of what are you doing taking over even this space, that is meant to be ours?
  3. Now, I am frequently the only person with my skin colour in a room. But I am at the front, the focal point of the room, and my language and experience shapes every lesson. My students – adults and often older than I am – are uncomfortable treating me as informally as I ask them to. One student was amazed when I wiped the board myself, instead of asking her – my senior, and someone who had also been on her feet at work all day – to do it for me. This unequal position is not due solely to my skin colour – they would have equal respect for any other teacher – but still, even when the only person of ethnicity in a room, my privilege is never left at the door.

Q: Did you grow up in a house with more than 50 books?
A: Yes. Oh, yes! I grew up in a house that probably had 50 books in every room. I live in a house now that definitely has 50 books in every room. It doesn’t feel like a home without them. But what does that mean in terms of privilege? Not that I grew up in a wealthy home. Although we never went hungry, as children, we weren’t well off either. I learned the meaning of “frugal” pretty early on, and in a supermarket at that. So being surrounded by books isn’t the same thing as wealth. Is it the same as being middle class? Again, no. Growing up, the books were my parents’. Although my father was middle class, my mother was proudly not. Her parents, who worked hard with their hands, in trades that might now be artisan but back then were not, instilled in her the belief that the education she could have and they did not was the best way to change her world, not by leaving behind her roots, but by being the best she could without anyone saying otherwise.

And yet, if privilege means unearned advantages, to me, coming from the household that I did gave me privilege. My parents read to me as a child: in Dad’s case, the whole of the Lord of the Rings. With the voices. They helped me with homework – and between them and my terribly smart, depressingly laid back, older brother, I had help with every subject up to A Level maths. My parents never said that reading was for losers, and didn’t have to hide their own fear or uncertainty behind making it sound dull. They never suggested that I couldn’t do science or maths because I am female – in fact, quite the opposite. University was an expectation and the household timetable was organised around enabling that. And now, a qualified teacher with a mountain of debt and the option of working in a variety of fields I care about, I know just how many doors are opened to me not because I am smart, not because I sound posh, but because I have good GCSEs, and a few letters after my name. Did I work for them? Yes – some a lot more than others. Did I get there purely on my own merit? No. No more than Jacob Rees-Mogg or Donald Trump are self-made men.

Q: Can you publicly display affection to your partner without fear of the reaction?
A: As a heterosexual, happily married, cis woman, yes, I can. I do not fear that people will hurl abuse – or worse – at either of us. They will not mutter, stare, or even notice us. Unless, that is, my husband is in work clothes. As an Anglican priest, he spends much of his time in a cassock. Which means that I have walked through shopping centres; held hands with; even kissed a man in a cassock in public (though maybe not quite as often as he might want me to…) And that means that I have been stared at. I have heard people questioning around us, full of judgement and negativity. I have heard people shout abuse and accusations of paedophilia at the man I love and not had the courage to do anything back. We are Christians, in a culturally Christian country, and with that comes a lot of things that make life easier. But living in a society that sees you living out your faith as an outmoded throwback at best, and an active participant in a horrific period of failing within a worshipping community that should always have been better than that, guilty by association, at worst; that is not the normal picture we paint when speaking of privilege.

Q: Have you ever been blamed for your own illness? (They didn’t actually ask that. I think maybe they should have done.)
A: As I have said before, I am overweight. I have always been “big boned”, but being tall helps it to not dominate people’s first impressions of me. But recently, I transitioned from that to someone who has high cholesterol. This, apparently, is the point that you start being a thing, instead of a person. Someone who gets told that you should “think about eating 5 a day” to make yourself healthier. No one asks what I’m already doing. No one checks why it’s hard. The assumption is that I am this way because I am lazy or ignorant of how to look after myself. End of story.

Is being thin a privilege? I don’t know. Does it open doors? Yes. Does it change how others see you, well before you open your mouth? Yes. But is it unearned? For some people, maybe, but for others, no. They have worked hard for the bodies they have, and have to continue doing so to keep them that way.

There are some things, protected characteristics that clearly carry with them discrimination and privilege. But this is not a straightforward subject. There are grey areas, uncertainties, confusion. I do not yet have all the language I need to discuss and learn from others’ experiences, and my own. What I can say is that no one is only privileged (well, almost no one, anyway). For those of us who have benefited more from privilege over the years, though, it is time to step up to the mark, own our own lives, and roll up our sleeves to start serving those who have not had as many open doors and step ups as they deserve. Not because we need to, but because we want to. Not because of fear, but because of hope. Not because of guilt, but because of love.

Picture from Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/users/ivanovgood-1982503/

Waste not; want a lot

I have just come back from a little time at the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. It’s hard to explain what this means to people who have never experienced it, but here’s my current best attempt. Over 1000 Quakers from all over Britain (and a fair few visitors from all over the world) gather in one building in central London for 3 days, and worship and work together to discern where we are at the moment, and where God needs us to be, in ourselves, our community, and the world. It is the very definition of organised chaos – there are never going to be enough toilets for that number of people to use in a 20 minute session break – with a lot of hugging (not a fan) and a lot of gin (bit too much of a fan). Before this year, I would have described the group as fairly homogeneous, but I wouldn’t do that now. Although it is not yet close to being the embodiment of diversity in action that we would like it to be, I think as a Society we will be healthier, happier and able to welcome others more sincerely if we continue and deepen the work done so far, speaking as clearly about how we are already different as we do about how we are the same.

“Quakers Meeting” by Thomas Rowlandson is licensed under CC CC0 1.0

As part of a wider exploration of Privilege and Power, we were also thinking about sustainability in the face of the climate emergency. The words currently ringing through my mind, pushing me out of my comfort zone in all the right ways, are “I need to do everything I can do. Then I need to do a little bit more.” But I don’t want to do a little bit more. I feel like a lot of the time I’m at breaking point already. How can I do more?

But, of course, I can. No, it won’t be easy, or I would have done it before. But as the same speaker said, I can’t look my children in the eye and say, in 30 years time, that I’m sorry I didn’t love them enough to leave them a world they can enjoy with their own children, in the way I can enjoy this world with mine. How can I deprive them of sharing the thrill of rolling headlong down hills covered in wildflowers (and plenty of things we all pretend are not hiding under the grasses); of counting the spots on ladybirds; of always knowing there will be enough food in the cupboards to keep them safe from hunger (even when half a loaf of bread has once more gone fluffy in the bread bin)?

So I need to do more. What can I do? How am I being called to change my life, and through that, help to make being more sustainable part of the collective default?

A phrase that I always associate with my grandmother (who was born into extreme poverty, lived in London through both World Wars and lost her parents-in-law to the Blitz) is “waste not, want not”. She also loved “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” In my head, whenever I hear that, I hear it in my own mother’s voice, with that slightly horrified tone of “did I just turn into my mother?” When I say it (and I do), I would imagine I say it with exactly the same inflection…

Waste not, want not. It has a visceral memory of rationing running clear through it. And it is in direct opposition to most of the way that things are made and marketed in modern society. But what does it mean to me?

The main areas of unquestionable waste in my daily habits are buying clothes I do not need, and eating too much. And in both of these areas, saying no to wasteful habits means saying no to things that I really, really want, if only in that moment. Saying no to consuming more than I need, more than is healthy, more than is right, is saying no to waste. It is also saying that I have to learn to resist the yearning that floods through me for that moment of indulgence and zoning out when tucking into a doughnut or three in the gasp between lessons; or the siren call of inhabiting that body and luxuriating in that lifestyle slithering its way into my subconscious as I dash into town for pens or the chemist.

I am a firm lover of lists and making plans (and usually slightly weaker at actually actioning those plans), and so I have been thinking about how I can create ways around me of reducing waste, and in particular, of stopping throwing away so much spoiled food, and eating so much food that I really don’t need – ways that are sustainable long term, by not adding straws to our already-creaking camels’ backs. I started this year intending to do something different and sustainable every month, a lifestyle change I called #Challenge2019. This (admittedly quite overdue now) is its next installment. So here we go.

I have said before that food waste in our household happens for a number of reasons. I buy healthy food and then don’t have the energy to cook it, so it goes off. (I’m not talking about going past its sell by date here, incidentally – I’m talking liquid cucumbers and green yogurt). I buy chocolate and crisps as occasional treats, and we all end up eating them as the satsumas go hard and brown in the fruit bowl. I cook what feels like the right amount of food, and put too much on our plates, so that we all end up either throwing some away (The Paleontologist) or eating until our tummies hurt (both The Cowgirl and me). I come home from work or days out, full of good intentions, and then snack on cheese because I need a quick boost and everything else takes effort. Then I put too much food on my plate when tea is finally ready and the cycle continues.

Working on all these things at once is impossible for me. Trust me – I’ve tried it I don’t know how many times, and it has never worked. Small changes, embedded one by one and built on slowly, is the only way I can see this working. This week, we’re looking at 5 a day. As a family, our challenge is to eat 5 portions of fruit or veg a day. If we do, we each get to put a cork (reused, of course 😉) into a pot. When there are a full week’s corks in there, we get a family treat.

How does this help sustainability, I hear you ask? I’m hoping, in lots of ways. It will mean snacking on the short-lived fruit and veg already in the house, instead of crisps and sweets. It will encourage me to incorporate more veg into meals, and hopefully give the girls the incentive to eat them instead of them going straight from the pan into the food waste canister. As we all get better at adding daily corks to the family total, I’m also hoping to bring in ideas about where our fruit, in particular, was grown, and how it reached us. And yes, it’s also about encouraging us all to eat more healthily, which might also help me to fit into more of my old clothes, meaning I don’t have to buy more when I have a whole wardrobe of clothes already that I don’t want to admit I may never be able to zip up again. Wouldn’t it be great to address both areas of waste in my life at once?

Is this going to save the world? Clearly not, with just me on my own, saying the same thing over and over to my nuclear family. Is it going to help? Yes. It will help me, but it is also a way of living my faith and my conviction, making the choices and sacrifices I can right now, helping my children and myself see I mean what I say, and that hard choices for me can look everyday and commonplace for others around me. And that’s ok. They may have their own hard decisions which I can support them with, which if we’re all lucky may be something that someone else they know has already overcome, and can show them the way around.

This is me doing everything I can, and then a little bit more. When this is normal, I will do a little bit more of the little bits more. What do you do that is a little bit more? And what can I do to help?

Leaders should be made of stardust.

Many years ago, in a marquee somewhere in the South of England, I listened to Jocelyn Bell speaking about her work, and the magic of the universe. At the time, I had no real idea what an astonishing woman she is, and how lucky we were to have her speaking to our Quaker community. Now, I love that she is a hero of The Paleontologist’s, and magic in her own right as she lives her faith through her work.

After she spoke, she joined us in worship. I remember others sharing feelings of awe and insecurity in the face of the vastness of the universe, and I certainly felt that too. For me, though, that feeling was tempered by another that was somehow both complementary and, simultaneously, in direct opposition. It was not a recognition of overwhelming stellar entities, but rather of the incredible nature of the minute particles that group together to make them. Those particles that also make us, and everything else around us. We are eternally interlinked with mosquitos, with mountain ranges, with far-flung galaxies, and we are all unable to be anything at all unless all those miniscule dust specks work together in harmony.*

Over the years, I have been part of a lot of rants discussions about leadership, particularly in politics. I’m not going to lie, a lot of them have involved Jeremy Corbyn, and whether he has an effective leadership style. I know he has been slated in the press for being a weak leader, but as someone who thinks very little of command and control leadership, I tend to think that kind of slating is a good thing. In my not-even-slightly-humble opinion, the idea of imposing your own will on your followers is not leadership at all, it is dictatorship, and there are very few situations where it is ever going to bring out the best in a situation.

Good leadership to me might be better described as leadership by consent. A real leader – let’s call him Jed – is someone who is respected by his team, who collectively understand the direction they are travelling in. He encourages everyone to have a voice, before pulling together the best ideas, accepting he may not have got it right first time, and putting together a plan that everyone has faith in. Jed looks for the best in everyone, whether they have put themselves forward or not, and gives them opportunities to grow in themselves and try out new ideas, giving more and more people the skills and experiences vital to being able to lead well.

As I said, I had hoped Jeremy Corbyn might end up being a leader like this, which would certainly have been a breath of fresh air in the smog of British politics, then and now, as well as advertising on a huge stage that there are other ways of doing leadership, especially somewhere like Westminster. I hoped for a politician who could set aside ideas of personal grandeur and old allegiances and find ways of building consensus among those who, ultimately, are all there to serve their country and their constituents. Jeremy Corbyn has done some wonderful things, before and after his unexpected rise to prominence, but pulling people together to form a collective movement for positive change is sadly not something he can claim to have achieved.

Daily life in my household is universally frazzled, as I may have just hinted at before. The school run is consistently accompanied by a discordant symphony of shrieks, dinosaur roars and grumbles, and is always done in the car, so that we can scootch off after generously donating our chaos-makers to their breakfast club, and still get to work in time to not be horrifically late; or scoop them up, yawns, chatterings and all, with just enough time for tea and bed. This afternoon was rather beautifully different. It was a glorious day, so I decided to do the utterly unthinkable, leave work a little early (and the sky didn’t fall on my head. Miracle!) and walk round to pick the children up from school. Double bonus, I got to stop off and vote on my way, and even had time for a chat with the Guardians of the Big Black Box.

On our way home, staggering behind my super speedy offspring, laden down with bookbags, violin and PE kit (there is always some truth at the bottom of every stereotype) as they scooted away with quicksilver grace, I watched them repeatedly stop, bend over, shake their heads, move on. We got to the traffic lights and I got close enough to hear The Cowgirl muttering to herself at one of these stops, bent double with a squashed plastic water bottle in her hand. “I need to talk to all my class about this. We need to do a litter pick At Once. We need to all Work Together or it will get Worse and Worse.” (I promise, you really can hear the capital letters as she speaks.) Her face was scrunched with concentration, and determination and anger radiated from her in equal measure.

What a difference there would be if that was the reaction we all had in similar situations. This is bad leads to something must be done often enough. But she went so much further than that. She went on to I must do something about this, and then, even better, and I must ask other people to help me.

A lifetime ago, in a marquee in the middle of a field, I first realised the beauty and power of an infinite number of interlinking particles working together in a harmonious single unit. Walking home from school, The Cowgirl demonstrated that she has learned the same lesson, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t go along with it. Maybe it is time for us all to find a new kind of leader. She is unlikely to be someone who speaks loudest. She may not be someone who speaks at all. But she will understand that this world only works when we all act together, and she will live her life in the knowledge that we are all made with stardust.

*Yes, I know. My science is a little shaky, but I’m going for a metaphor here, people…

Rocks form an arch framing a silhouette. The sky is crowded with stars. Image by skeeze, on Pixabay.

Take a deep breath

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A couple of years ago, we went on holiday to Valencia. Whilst there, we learned many useful life lessons: beaches and dinosaur museums are almost as good for bribery as Haribo and ice cream; Spanish meal times are the way forward (breakfast until 11 as a normal thing? It makes life so much more civilised!); never expect a child to walk more than 3 metres in direct sunlight, unless you have earplugs or there is ice cream at the end of it (at which point, running and leaving you behind, panting in the heat, becomes way more fun). The most lasting lesson, however, was one I learned alone, on a sun-filled stressful family adventure to the beach. The children were finally old enough to be watched by just one adult, and having a fabulous time getting covered in as much sand as possible, so my husband and I took it in turns to go out of our depth and actually swim in the sea. It had been so long since I’d done this, my body had completely forgotten what to do. Waves came towards me and I panicked, freezing and fighting to stay in control. The wave passed. I remembered I can actually tread water pretty well. I looked out to sea, saw there were no immediate waves, and took a breath. The next wave appeared, and my body started to remember that it knew what it was doing. By the third wave, I had it, relaxing into the incoming surge, focussing on the moment, accepting that when the waves came, they were not there to be fought but to be ridden, to be felt, endured sometimes. And then they passed. There was a moment of stillness in which to breathe.

Take a breath.

It is advice I dish out with joyful abandon, and almost never take myself. I say it to my students: if you are getting panicky in an exam, look out of the window and take a deep breath. Let it out. Count the beats to make sure you are breathing more slowly than normal. Keep going until the voice in your head stops repeating “I can’t do this” at the top of its lungs and lets you listen to the question in front of you instead.

Take a breath.

I do this with The Cowgirl, whose emotions regularly consume her entire being. Excitement needs to be jumped and wriggled out. Exhaustion has her curled in a bundle like a nesting cat. Fury cannot be contained in her tummy but comes out in screams and flying fists. Actually, I think this is probably more healthy than the volcano I often have bubbling in my gut, but that doesn’t help if you’re on the receiving end of one of her deceptively strong left hooks. So she screams for a while until fury turns to fright, and then she huddles on my lap and we recover together. We take a breath, feeling the air together, bypassing our lungs and going straight into our bellies. We compare who has the biggest tummy, and I stop holding mine in. We blow out and try to blow each other over. And we keep taking breaths until the anger has passed.

Take a breath.

Trying to get up when it takes everything in you not to cry at the pain running like acid down your spine, you suck air through your nose as hard as you can. Controlling your body as your instincts control you, you pant through contractions before a long low exhale and a baby’s first, faltering inhale. Laughing like maniacs as you lie on your tummies, sharing secrets, you inhale in whoops to try to limit embarrasing consequences. Learning how the world works and what your interactions do to it, you gently breathe out bubbles, whoosh away dandelion clocks, puff out birthday candle flames.

Take a breath.

The thing about taking a breath is that, however perfect that breath is, however much it gave you exactly what you needed in that moment, it can never be enough to stop, to not need to do it again. In the next moment, after a few heartbeats, you need to do it again. And again. And again. The cycle is always necessary, and endlessly repetitive. Most of the time we pay no attention to it at all, until something comes up that gets in the way and makes us focus by breaking the rhythm.

Take a breath.

Today may be an amazing day. Today is allowed to be the day you get it all right. Today can be the day you have the right answer to a crisis at work, or you get home with the time and energy to chat about discoveries, sorrows and playground shenanigans before the bedtime conveyor belt starts. Today might be the day you keep going with fighting bad habits or finally take a step towards building up better ones. Today might be the day everything goes entirely as you wish it to. And then tomorrow comes, the cycle starts again, and the mystery and mayhem of a new dawn takes over. And tomorrow may not be perfect. And that’s ok.

Take a breath.

Everything that matters in life follows that same pattern. Breathing. Eating. Learning. Loving. Growing plants and making memories. Reading, teaching, worshipping, praying. Sometimes it is perfect. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes it gives you everything you are craving. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes the answer appears in your heart before the sentence has even made it past your lips. Sometimes your cries echo for years, unanswered and seemingly unacknowledged. And whatever the moment, the feeling, the answer, next time, you get to do it all again. We want to see results, to know there’s a reason for all this. The rhythm keeps repeating and we look for meaning from the centre of the cycle and cannot find it.

Take a breath.

That answer will come. Every time you do this, it has an effect that cannot happen without what you have done. Each repetition is important, even when the results can only be seen after a long and cumulative journey. Creating a sustainable future; learning the alphabet; trusting that you are actually doing quite a good job of this whole life thing: all these things are made up of tiny moments, none of which are turning points, all of which are important.

You have this. We all do. Sometimes we can see it in ourselves. Sometimes we need others to find it in depths we are too tired to dig through alone. But it is always there. You’ve got this. If not in this moment, then in the next. Or the next. Or the next.

Take a deep breath.

An Ode to Further Education: the good, the bad, and the utterly impossible

21st century life makes it very easy for us to make bubbles around ourselves without even realising it. Facebook shows us posts we are already likely to agree with. We make time to talk to the people whose views make us happy, and the others fall by the wayside – something that is all to easy without ever noticing in the crazy busyness of life.

Bursting that bubble means leaving that comfort zone a little bit. Doesn’t have to be far. Church is one way of doing that, as you worship together next to people of different ages, languages, life experiences. Further Education is another way. You walk into a classroom intending to improve your maths, and you find yourself sitting next to someone with a swastika tattooed on his arm. Or someone who voted Remain when you voted Leave. Or someone passionate about averting climate disaster when you think the whole thing is depressingly talked about too much already, and really, what does it have to do with you?

Being a Further Education teacher hasn’t just burst the bubble I live in. It’s sent it spiralling into the nether regions of outer space. It’s changed a lot of other things about me too, of course – I used to have less grey hair, a recognisable waistline, and the ability to stay awake past 9pm, for starters. But balancing out all those things is the moment you get it right, find the right question, and everyone in the room learns something they used to disagree with.

The class you end up in within adult education is not based on age, and is not always based on previous education level. If I’m honest, quite often occasionally it’s impossible to find any logic in it at all, however hard we all try. Fully qualified and experienced nurses from other countries can be in the same classroom as people who could never progress at school because dyslexia was not a recognised thing 50 years ago, and they were just called stupid and put in a corner. They are joined by those sent by the job centre to demonstrate they are improving their employability skills, who sit next to those whose English needs improvement and who can’t afford the time and money needed for an ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) course.

An adult education classroom, for those who have never entered one, is a place frankly unlike anything else in this world. It is populated with a cast that soap operas would reject as being too extreme to be believable. As a teacher of Functional English and Maths, I think we see both the absolute best and the diabolically appalling depths of humanity, often on the same day. In my classroom, I have had refugees from Sudan and asylum seekers from Syria. I have had drug dealers and people who will do anything to cheat the benefits system. I have had women who have picked up their children, whilst still teenagers themselves, and moved to a whole new country to avoid domestic abuse. I have had men who were knocked down by cars or circumstances as children, and became unable to recognise words like “and” or “me”. I have seen hundreds of adults walk through the door with a driving ambition to be midwives and paramedics, human rights lawyers and politicians, to learn to read their children bedtime stories or fill in a form at the doctor’s without asking for help, to make their children, their spouses, their parents, finally, proud of them.

There are as many starting points as there are different ways of spelling the sounds we use in English. (If that’s too technical, make a guess of how many it is. Double it. Add another ten. Then double that if you want to include the ones that logically we should use, but we don’t.)* They all want different things at the end, too. The thing is, they have all chosen to walk back into education for their own reasons, and to them, it doesn’t matter whether they are sitting their GCSEs or this is the first time they have ever taken an exam, and they are facing Entry 1. To them, they are all significant, and terrifying, and something to put all over Facebook and boast about at the pub if they go well. As a teacher, I have been guilty of being blasé about exams, and it sometimes takes me aback how much my students have not.

The media is full of stories about the tests that are faced by children throughout their schooling. It speaks less about the tests facing those in lifelong learning – but then that’s not really surprising, as it speaks less about lifelong learning in any context. But the thing about our education system, as anyone who works in it knows, is that it is all about results – because getting results is the only way to get funding. And so, my adults have to take exams. Now, exams every now and then are perfectly reasonable. Having a fairly consistent set of exams at the end of your journey through school, for example, is actually quite useful for the Rest of Your Life. Particularly if you are lucky enough to have passed those exams. But for adults, that is not what we are talking about. They have an exam at the end of every single year. If they pass (and thankfully, many of them do pass), they get to go up to the next level, and the next set of exams. If they don’t pass, they get to take another exam. And another. And another. Until either they pass or their teacher manages to convince management that they should be allowed a break, and they retreat, bruised and battered and licking their wounds, until the next year starts and the cycle begins again.

I have become an expert on stress. The stress of finding out that their dreams of university are several years away yet. The stress of taking exams – familiar to so many at this time of year, punctuated for my students with questions like “what if my children’s school rings while I’m in the exam?” The stress of failing, and the stress of passing and being scared about moving up to the next level. I see the stress of teachers, forced to force students through exams we all know they should not be taking. I see managers stressed by trying to balance the impossible, meet all the needs of the community and the college with ever shrinking budgets and constantly diminishing freedom. I see colleagues at the start and the end of their careers, drowning alike by the desire, and the absolute impossibility, of fixing everyone who walks through our doors.

FE doesn’t get talked about much. I’d never been into an FE college before I started teaching in one. But if we are serious about making this country a better one to live in, work in, learn in and progress in, we cannot ignore this sector. Adults learn here to hold their heads high and know how to help their children with their homework. They talk to people of different ages, from different cultures, with utterly opposing views on work, Brexit, sexuality, food, capital punishment – you name it, it is found somewhere in an adult education classroom. Sometimes they learn something. Sometimes they don’t. But they are always changed by the experience.


*OK, I’ll put you out of your misery. It’s about 150 different combinations, to make the 42 sounds we regularly use. Out of 26 letters. It really is unfair when you look at it like that.