“I just want to be normal,” says Joanne, one of the 16 participants in Vicky Duckworth’s study of basic skills learners. As millions watch Channel 4’s Benefits Street, more and more local church groups open food banks and one of our greatest research charities leads an investigation into the ways poverty affects children’s education, this compelling and informative study shows us how poverty and stigmatisation also affect the learning lives of adults and urges teachers to do what they can to break the cycle of educational disadvantage.
Learning Trajectories is mainly a study of the hurt and harm inflicted on people in disadvantaged communities, examined through the life histories of learners in Oldham. Many people think of basic skills as a remedial and low-status area of education. Journalists and policymakers routinely enact shock and horror when surveys discover that between a fifth and a quarter of UK adults are “functionally illiterate”. Several of the learners interviewed here talked about how they felt ashamed of having to take a literacy class.
Duckworth sees this attitude towards people with weak literacy as an example of “symbolic violence”, an idea that she borrows from the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. These 16 learners certainly suffered from disparaging comments and bullying earlier in their lives. They endured mockery from peers – and sometimes teachers – for their unfashionable clothing and appearance, and were labelled “losers” from “no-hoper” neighbourhoods. These experiences continued into their working lives, as did the unwanted sexual attention, of varying kinds, that some of the women received from older men in their family or friendship circles. Sometimes they also suffered physical violence, at home and school.
Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic violence encourages us to see these labels and behaviours as an oppressive and brutal way of sustaining the structural inequalities that also shaped these adults’ lives and set constraints on their ambitions. I’ve always been rather sceptical of this idea; such hyperbole unhelpfully blurs the line between stigma and sneering on the one hand and actual, physical violence on the other. I am still not entirely convinced that we can justify speaking of violence, but Duckworth’s analysis certainly made me reflect again on this question.
Poverty and marginalisation are socially created and not fixed in stone. By following learners over time, Duckworth shows how their aspirations changed as their learning capabilities developed; by the end of her study, all the participants have developed as people and made changes to their lives. Nothing in Duckworth’s study suggests that these 16 learners have become the vanguard of a new people’s movement, or even its rank and file. They have, however, taken literacy learning to a wider public audience, partly through their involvement in creative writing activities that have in turn led to publications and partly through their willingness to speak out through the local media.
Duckworth’s perspective is that of an insider. She lectured on the college courses that her research participants were taking and she grew up in a neighbouring area and came from a similar background. At the end of each chapter, she reflects systematically on what the study meant to her personally, so that the book is also partly a sociologically informed autobiography. It is intelligent, fresh and compelling to read, even if it retains more than a few traces of its roots as a doctoral thesis. Above all, I was entranced by the learners’ stories.
Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment Amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners
By Vicky Duckworth
Routledge, 214pp, £85.00
Published 15 November 2013