The language of power and inequality in education and leadership

I find Radio 4’s specialist programmes during the day remarkably good at bringing together sufficient expertise in areas of considerable complexity and bring clarity at a time when problems seem too complex to deal with. On the Tuesday edition this week of ‘Word of Mouth’, usually a ‘must listen to’ chaired by Michael Rosen, teacher Jeffrey Boakye was talking with educator Iesha Small about the language of power in education and leadership, and towards the close of the programme raised the hoary issue of ‘Disadvantage’. You can find the whole programme on BBC Sounds here, and the section I highlight starts at 21:30 in.

As a catholic boy, educated in a private, boarding public school back in the late ’60s, it’s quite easy to see why my own background could be regarded as priveleged, and if not that, certainly ‘advantaged’. Both my parents were history graduates from King’s College, London, both members of the teaching profession and indeed founders of their own independent school back in 1960. They definitely learned their way around the system, and as their lives developed showed their nouse not just by becoming really successful when other projects of a similar vintage failed, but in the way they extended their network, my father through his involvement in a catholic gentlemen’s association as well as a national society of headteachers, my mother through her engagement as a Master’s research worker in Linguistics at MIT and UCL. As I look around all of my contemporaries met at University, they too have benefitted not just from their parents’ relative prosperity, but also from the additional advantage they have brought to their own families through professional development during their lifetimes.

What I am completely blind on or about is the problem of ‘disadvantage’. I absolutely ‘get’ what the term means, but over the past many years, I have failed to understand what on earth we in education can do to influence the public environment so that society does not remain so polarised with the ‘haves’ being even more priveleged at the expense of the ‘have-nots’. What Jeffrey Boakye and Iesha Small surfaced for me was a completely new ‘take’ on disadvantage, one that permits me perhaps for the very first time to understand why the problem has been so insoluble over my lifetime.

Both speakers highlight the fact that ‘disadvantaged’ as a descriptor is slapped around in education as a useful euphemism for ‘poverty’, ‘minority’ perhaps too ‘black’ but means really nothing concrete to them. Jeffrey highlights the honesty in the word ‘advantage’, but signals our collective failure to tackle what the advantage is and how to share that set of ideas with communities that c/w/should benefit. Iesha talks about the word carried ‘sneeky’ connotations, linking blame to those described, as perhaps being their fault. They agree that many set within the communities about which the phrase is used can’t see that their communities are in any way disadvantaged, being rich, diverse, supportive, eclectic and successful (my words). They widen the conversation to higlight the real problem of the terms such as ‘social mobility’, and of educational jargon such as ‘flightpaths’, ‘progress8’, promoting the harvesting of the successes of a social mobility policy away from their communities and taking away their vital influence from where they need to remain to enrich, enhance and encourage their community from within.

Both broadcasters find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having enjoyed the benefits of social mobility, without necessarily then choosing to become leaders within the next layers of professional life they joined. Jeffrey seems to admit it is easier to snipe from the side, to agitate and critique, rather than join leadership teams to learn by and live with those general principles of ‘cabinet responsibility’. At a time when our society is trying to understand why so very few leaders in business, education, law and the military arise from those with a BAME background this short conversation highlights for me that we need to do far less to encourage departure from communities and far more to encourage our involvement in communities, to validate experiences therein and build opportunuties for general advantage to arise therein. For sure moving the House(s) of Parliament to the North would be a great ‘next’ statement of intent, but the reality is that we have areas of deprivation much closer to home, and understanding what we need to do is very much influenced by the focus we can bring into those communities, not to accelerate the successful away,

I won’t come to any firm conclusions just yet, but I commend this broadcast to you. Listening to male and female voices who understand their context, provoking thought and reflection and above all highlight that whatever language we should be using, ‘trajectory up, up and away’ is absolutely not what we should be adopting.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to The language of power and inequality in education and leadership

  1. Charles Robinson says:

    Thank you James. Really interesting. Yes I too have struggled with this concept which links into equality of opportunity v’s equality of outcome. But what do we do today to start to help with this? The problem is that it is difficult to have this debate without it getting personal and then the politics of envy come in. I had a similar education path to you, but I didnt choose my parents, nor my education path, it was chosen for me by my parents. So dont attack us for it, use it to help. I look forward to your developing thoughts on this and the inevitable debate, which I hope will be done in the spirit of trying to solve a problem, not in trying to make the point that we are privileged and therefore our views are invalid!

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