Jenny Lindsay: On Education

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This is a transcript from a recent speech given by Jenny Lindsay at the Aye Talks event on the 1st June 2014

My journey to yes coincided with my experience of being a teacher for the last three years; I have just finished up my last temporary contract. Because of this journey, my hopes for an independent Scotland have always been bound up with my hopes for Scottish education. Of course, education is devolved, and though I’ve always thanked my lucky stars for that, it is not enough.

By way of an introduction:
If you had told me when I was younger that I would end up becoming a teacher I would have been amused and slightly horrified. I grew up in a small town in South Ayrshire, and high school was a bit of a battle. I was bored by school, bullied and disillusioned; at my worst, I had 56% attendance. I left school in 1999, having scraped two Bs in my fifth year, and three Bs in my sixth year. And I do mean scrrrraped. I was a pragmatist though; all I wanted was enough to escape.

If I had left school a decade later, in 2009, those grades would have made it a struggle to get into university. As it was, I got a place on my first choice. University was rapidly becoming just ‘something you had to do,’ I remember, if you wanted to ‘achieve success’. I was 17 years old, magnificently unclear what I wanted to do, and in a vibrant city full of exciting bars, clubs and artistic happenings. I dropped out after a year, working in various jobs I didn’t really struggle to find, including waitressing, bar work and door-to-door sales. I benefitted from the introduction of the minimum wage, and my rent was a reasonably affordable £175.00 per month.

If I had left school a decade later, in 2009, both my minimum wage and my rent would have been higher; the wage meagrely, the rent massively. Rent currently, for a similar room in a shared flat is £375 per month. If I had left school a decade later, I would have been told similar things to what I was told in 1999; that a university education is a must-have to achieve success; that it is something you have to do if you want to be “middle-class”; that it is something you must do straight from school. And it’s important to use this tool to write better projects and attract more customers to your business. But now, there is an added dimension:

I have heard young people panicked that they won’t get into university, with a palpable fear that their life will be ruined if they don’t get in; but at the same time as knowing that a degree is not a guarantee of any job. I have also heard young people give themselves and their peers a hard time for working in McDonald’s or other minimum wage jobs, reflecting the way that privileged adult society unfairly views and portrays such jobs. I’ve had young people tell me that that they are worried about their exams, worried that they are stupid, or failures already, because they’ve internalised the menacing message, told to them by undoubtedly well-meaning adults, that if you ‘screw up at school, you’re screwed for life.’ This, at the same time as young people are told that an A today means far less than it did ten years ago, and certainly less than it did back in the days when a minority of people would manage to get them! It’s clear that some find this narrative a comfort: that affluence, or degrees, or mortgages or relatively stable employment were won through individual hard work alone; that structure and governance and opportunity had nothing to do with it; that young people now just need to try harder. Rather than stopping, pausing and saying, “There but for the sake of ten years, or twenty, or forty-five years, go I…” we are led to believe that young people are less skilled, less literate, less employable, than we were.

This is a nonsense.

A little anecdote for you:
In a lesson with an S3 class in 2012, one girl explained to me her reasons for thinking she, and most of her peers, would probably vote ‘No’ in the referendum. With a frown, and a perceptible unease at what she was saying she said, “Well, we know things are bad for us. But at least we know how they work.” If anything can sum up in two sentences what finally led me to support Scottish independence, it was this.

How we choose to educate young people at all ages and stages says a great deal about our priorities and values as a country. Secondary schools are also where wider social divisions are played out. Simultaneously, often seemingly contradictorily, schools are asked to resolve those problems for which wider society has no answer, or, sometimes, which wider society serves to perpetuate. In any debate about education, therefore, there are two questions that need to be at the fore-front of any policy proposals: what kind of society do we want to educate our young people for; and how best can we build that society? The latter for me, is answered with a yes vote – as a starting point only, to addressing the first question. I know that I, for one, want to build a society where no young person looks at it through resigned eyes and says, “I know it’s bad; but at least I know how it works.” If I have achieved anything as an educator, I can only hope that I managed to persuade my students that politics is not something that has to just happen at them; that it is something they can shape.

I came into teaching at a particularly difficult time; during the upheaval of curricular change. There isn’t the time to deconstruct the entirety of Curriculum for Excellence, but regardless of the undoubted positive aspects of CfE; particularly a recognition that students learn in different ways, examinations remain the mark of success. National 5 ends, despite the lip-service paid to the importance of other forms of assessment in the run up to the end of the course; it ends, in the majority of subjects with a massive examination.

Meaningful assessment of knowledge, understanding and skill cannot be undertaken by examination alone, and yet teachers and educators, including myself, who know this fine well, have found themselves assessing students as a D, C, B, A, or a fail dependent on their ability to write formulaic answers within a time-limit. Why? Teachers train themselves to assess in this way as easily as they could train themselves to assess in a more meaningful manner. I know there will be several teachers out there who can sympathise with handing a C to a student following a prelim, who has displayed A grade knowledge and understanding in talks, debates and creative responses to a given topic. Ah-hah! – but how would we tell if a student is better than their peers? We must have standardisation to ensure quality, and competition! To decide who should get the place, the award, the job! In days when jobs were more plentiful, the damning effects of this were perhaps less obvious. But it is now an employers’ market.

Let’s be honest here: The flexible jobs-market that most of us who were born after the year 1979 are trying to get by in, and that we are educating young people to join, demands qualifications beyond what is necessary for most of those jobs; involves a seemingly endless process of applying for, interviewing for and competing for jobs that pay a wage far below what even the most menial of jobs would have paid thirty years ago. Graduates unable to find graduate-level work will automatically be given favour, even though a degree is unnecessary, over young people who don’t fulfil the criteria of being judged capable according to a system of assessment that examines in one way only and in a way that even those judging it find discomforting! That is perhaps the biggest nonsense, and for those left behind in this competition, it is infantilising, anxiety-making and has consequences that damage our entire society.

That there is a felt need for big ideas to change this is obvious, but lordy it is difficult! Far easier then, to talk of ‘upskilling’ our young people; keeping them in formal education longer; and cruelly telling young people that their lack of ‘success’ is their own darn fault. You should have tried harder in 4th year. You should have competed harder for that award. You should have impressed more on that six month unpaid internship in Central London. Your 2:1s and your firsts don’t mean what they used to. You need more skills.

That independence in and of itself may do nothing to change these damaging myths, is a fact. That many voting no share these concerns is also a fact. That these are issues faced by young people across the UK and beyond is also a fact. So why vote yes? In short: because it’s about time we recognised that there are alternatives. Because education systems and qualification systems do not exist in a vacuum: that the onus remains, in the qualification system, on the number of As achieved by pupils is because that is precisely what is currently demanded by wider UK society; by employers, by universities, by parents, by politicians, as a badge of ‘excellence’ and ‘success.’ Because there is a growing call for change of the society that our education system reflects and perpetuates; meaning devolution cannot be enough. Because when power is distant and remote, people either retreat or lash out. Because if there really is no alternative then politics has lost all meaning. Because there is an alternative, and we can create it.

To return to my student’s statement: she knows things are bad for ‘us’. That she used ‘us’ shows that she understands that she is part of a community of peoples with a collective need for change. But, “at least we know how it works.” Her resignation betrayed her belief that she had no collective agency, she had a lack of Voice, and the best she could do is hope that she wouldn’t be at the bottom of the pile. And who can blame her? This is the system. Let’s make it work for me. The trick is to get what you can out of it, and keep going just the same.
That this is an unsustainable way of being, in human as well as social, political and economic terms, became clear to many of us growing up under New Labour. We were never “all middle-class now,” and the ways in which we were told to try to become so were clearly unsustainable, short-termist, and required a disconnect from what might be best for all of us, in favour of individual gain.

But, in terms of education, we would do well to remember Hannah Arendt’s quote that “Education is the point at which we decide if we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” Education is not just systems and institutions; it is a role society plays and something we all have to take responsibility for. I look forward to Scotland assuming responsibility, because recognising where things are bad, dear former student of mine, that’s the first step to being able to change them; not just challenge them. With power closer to home, this can only become easier.

There, but for the sake of ten years go I. I’m voting yes, because of the recognition that my students, under the same system, with the same agenda, and the same priorities, despite the supposed ‘lessons learnt’ from the crash, continues to push the same rhetoric that didn’t make much sense ten years ago, and makes even less sense now. This is our chance to change that, and that is the best lesson my students have taught me. It is an act of assuming responsibility for that lesson that leads me to vote yes, for them.

Jenny Lindsay
National Collective


About Jenny Lindsay

Jenny is a poet and promoter based in Edinburgh. Her work has been featured on the BBC, STV, Channel 4 and the BBC World Service. She has produced commissioned work for, amongst others, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, BBC Radio Scotland, Young Scot, Host City and The Scotsman. As one half of Rally & Broad, Jenny dedicates as much time and energy to promoting the poetry scene as she does to her own writing and performances.