Light a fire: The teachers who inspired me

I’ve always been an awkward learner. As a kid, when others blazed a trail I’d always hold back, a little uncertain, looking around for a bit of encouragement. I was never really sure of what I could do, never confident of my grasp of anything. Even now, I’m an unconfident learner. That’s why, I think, I’ve always needed good teachers – and I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a few, as an adult at least. I’ve always found that while those who can, do, not many of those who can are also able to teach it – and those who can teach what they know, and do it really well (the ones that connect with and inspire you), are pretty special.

I had a fairly bad time of it at school, partly because of my school (which was at the crappy end of bloody awful), partly because of persistent bullying, which went on unchecked for years, and which led to me dedicating the final years of my compulsory education to the less-than-noble art of bunking off. I didn’t get any qualifications because I decided not to sit any exams. I left school at 16 and went straight on the dole. I didn’t think much of myself, didn’t think I could do anything, but I did love reading and knew the books I read were different to the ones everyone else I knew read (if, indeed, they did read, which generally they didn’t). I had a vague idea that I might want to study English, or write, or do something literary, maybe become a poet.

The government didn’t want me to stay on the dole (the thought of it made them – and the Daily Mail – very angry) and I was soon on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme, for younger readers) – a sort of government-subsidised child labour scheme, which, as it turned out, involved a lot of sitting around, a bit of making the tea and the occasional visit to a classroom (more sitting around but in a different room). And, because there were no real jobs to be had, as soon as the scheme finished we were all back on the dole.

It was around that time I decided I wanted to be a journalist (I still do). I enrolled at my local technical college (now St Helens College), taking the courses I needed to get onto a training course at Preston Poly (now the University of Central Lancashire) – four GCSEs, two A-levels, including one in English Language, taken over the course of a year. It was on that English course that I encountered – or, at least, noticed – good teaching for the first time. The tutor – her name was Carol Urbanowicz – made a huge impression on me. She dressed differently to most of the people I knew – she made me think of the people in the books I liked (I had set myself a challenge of reading one Penguin Modern Classic – those beautiful orange-spined little books – each week) – and she thought and talked differently too. She was interested in what the students had to say and made a real effort to engage us. She asked me what I thought about this or that and listened while I answered. She liked my writing (there was a lot of course work), encouraged me to do more. I started to think there was something I might be good at. And I worked hard, really hard, on that course. I got an A (the only student that year who did). I never really told Carol but that course changed things for me. I realised that if I concentrated, if I was passionate about something, I could do things, I could get good at something.

I got on my course and I got my start in journalism (this was back in the day when working-class kids could still access a profession and the Guardian still occasionally employed journalists who hadn’t been to public school and Oxbridge). I worked for a couple of papers and really liked it but I always had university at the back of my mind. I thought it was something I could have a good go at. I didn’t have the best qualifications though. My grades at college were a bit mixed. But I applied through UCAS to a few places, really picked at random (I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or where). All but one turned me down. The one that didn’t was Cardiff University, where I’d applied to do philosophy. I was asked down for an interview and it was there I met Barry Wilkins. I was incredibly nervous. No-one in my family had been to university and it was my first time on a university campus. I was struck by his little room, crammed with books and papers, not only on the shelves, but piled on the floor. I loved the disorderliness of it, the wonderful musty smell. I had no idea what the interview would consist in. He asked me what I liked to read and we talked about Milan Kundera. He asked me what I thought of ‘the idea of the unconscious’ and we talked about Freud and Bruno Bettleheim. I felt an immediate affinity, and when I was offered a place I jumped at it.

Barry was my tutor. He taught the history of political philosophy, Marx especially. But it was Barry’s pastoral care that was the most remarkable part of his work as a teacher. He took real interest in his students, in their wider lives as well as their academic lives. He inspired and encouraged. He resisted the treadmill. He made sure he saw all of his students, really saw them, and engaged with them too. He made you feel he was really interested in what you were doing. And it wasn’t just me; other former students of Barry’s have told me the same thing. His commitment to his students and to the principle of pastoral care was remarkable. He was invigilator of one of my finals exams. I was answering a question about Machiavelli, speedily regurgitating an essay I’d written some months before. ‘You’re off to a good start, Paul,’ he said, as he passed. I laughed. And straight away I calmed down, got a bit of perspective, and thought about the question. It made a difference.

Both Barry and Carol, in their different ways, inspired me and made me see the world, and myself, differently. I’m sure I am not alone. Many of us, at some stage in our life, have met someone who inspired us, challenged us to do better or made us look at the world in a different way. I guess what they had in common was an ability to listen, to appreciate. They both took their students seriously; both saw education as a shared endeavour, a joint venture in which student and teacher met as equals. Encountering that for the first time, as a young adult, was really remarkable and inspiring. But that’s just what teachers do, isn’t it? They light a fire.

We need to talk: a case for political education

Two stories, both depressing, both, I fear, in their different ways indicative of the kind of society we are becoming, caught my eye today. The first was the lead story in today’s Daily Mail, a typically vicious and calculated piece of ‘journalism’ (I’ll do them the credit of not assuming it was drafted in Tory Central Office) which claimed that ‘jobless immigrants’ (yes, that lot again) would face much greater restrictions in what benefits they can claim (you can read it in full online here). The sub-heading gleefully informs readers that ‘Britain’s generous welfare system should no longer be a magnet for citizens of other EU states’, while the article is illustrated with pictures of long queues, at customs and outside a job centre, presumably all jobless migrants. The second story, altogether less sensational but sobering reading nonetheless, reported that a third of British adults feel they have ‘no-one to turn to in a crisis’, while 37 per cent thought they would suffer one within the next five years.

Both stories are striking examples of the need for and relevance of adult education to the challenges we face as a society. The Mail story is both a reflection of the poor standard of mainstream political debate in this country and an illustration of how much we need to revive political education, what we used to term ‘education for active citizenship’, both for adults and young people. There is nothing very newsworthy or interesting in the article. The problem is, first, with what it omits (any sense of the very significant benefits immigration has brought to this country) and, second, with how it is written. The tenor and placement of the article suggest that the government is introducing new legislation to combat a massive social and economic problem – that of benefit tourism. It is supported by a series of statistics showing fluctuating numbers of home and foreign workers in the UK but no attempts it made to link these to the problem of benefit tourism (the subject supposedly under discussion). The reasons for this are obvious: first, because, fairly obviously, they do not support the case for cracking down on benefit tourism; second, because, as it happens, there really is no evidence of a problem of benefit tourism in the UK at all. Unsurprisingly, the article makes no effort at all to back up the claim in the sub-heading – that Britain’s ‘generous welfare system’ makes it a ‘magnet’ for citizens from other EU states – and offers no evidence to support the proposition that UK benefits are particularly easy to access.

The number of people who come to the UK from other EU countries ‘simply because of our benefits’, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, is miniscule, as Mr Duncan Smith must, of course, realise. His own department, Work and Pensions, reported in 2011 that only 6.4 per cent of people claiming working-age benefits were non-UK nationals. Furthermore, a European Commission report from October last year, examining the effects of migration within the EU on each member state’s welfare and social security system, found no evidence that benefit-related factors were a significant motivation for EU citizens to migrate. In fact, it reported, ‘EU migrants are more likely to be in employment than nationals living in the same country’. Work and family were, overwhelmingly, the main reasons for EU citizens migrating to other member states. This is unsurprising and, in a way, I suppose, beside the point. Articles like this one do not seek to inform or advance the debate. They are intended to provoke the bitterest sort of rancor in their readers. Reports over the weekend suggest that we can expect to see similar stories in the press on a pretty much daily basis until the general election next year.

The Mail story highlights the poisonous nature of much contemporary political coverage; how it appeals to the kneejerk emotion while neatly sidestepping reason or evidence. It also shows what a fractured society we now seem to be and how keen politicians are to exploit those fractures (and how indifferent they are – or appear to be – to the very significant human cost). Much of the reaction to Channel 4’s documentary series Benefits Street shows how little it takes to move people to anger and hatred, and how viciously that can be expressed (conversely, it also shows how little it can take to humanise someone). The BBC story, which highlighted the (insufficiently reported-on) problems of loneliness and isolation in our society, also pointed to the fractured social existence many of us now lead. In very many cases, people no longer feel able to depend on their neighbours. They feel no special obligations towards them and have little sense of any dependence on them for a shared existence (real though that dependence often is, as the story suggests). It is difficult to detect in public life much of a sense that we are living a common existence, bound by shared values, inclusive of everyone in our national community.

I was thinking about this in the context of the great adult educator, R.H. Tawney. Tawney thought that education for active citizenship was essential not only in securing the effective, fluid working of democracy but also in developing a ‘cooperative life among equals who respect each other’s humanity’. His work as a tutor with the Workers’ Educational Association showed him how important adult education could be in developing fellowship and stimulating open and comradely discussion among equals. Only through discussion of this sort could we begin to reason our way to a sense of common purpose or shared values, Tawney believed. He would have bemoaned the loss of this in current political debate but I think he would also have been quick to point to the need for serious, informed conversation, the only sort that is likely to lead to any change in the way we organise society. It is the absence of any conversation of this sort from mainstream political debate that would have most exercised Tawney about the political scene today, I suspect. He would have rejected the argument from austerity, so often used to overcome any principled objection to potentially damaging social and economic legislation. As Tawney put it, ‘As long as men are men, a poor society cannot be too poor to find a right order of life, nor a rich society too rich to have to seek it.’ We badly need a conversation of this sort. But that conversation requires a much greater degree of political literacy and political engagement than we, as a society, currently possess. Given what political debate has become it is little wonder that so many people are turned off by it or are seeking alternative ways of expressing their political views. Too often, that journey ends in frustration and bitterness. There is some hope, I think, in the kinds of informal, non-mainstream educational activities that have sprung up in Scotland around this year’s independence referendum, and in other attempts to revive the connection between education and social movements. They show how adult education, and political education in particular, can act as a catalyst for new thinking and for change. Political education can be critical both in creating a more engaged, hopeful and cooperative citizenry and in promoting that sense of common purpose and fellowship Tawney thought so essential to any properly functioning democracy, and which we so plainly lack today.