Storying Sheffield

Telling Untold Stories

Many thanks to Vicky Duckworth for this guest post. To read about Vicky see the end of the post.


The learners in my longitudinal, ethnographic study Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners (2013) re-entered education through an adult literacy course, based at a Further Education College in the North West of England. Their working class practices, which were often gendered, had not been valued. Wrapped in notions of their literacies were domination and symbolic violence. Oral and written linguistic capabilities were not equally valued in schools (or the workplace), and even within the oral tradition, the codes of the upper classes were prioritised over the codes of working class and ethnically diverse learners (Bernstein 1971; Labov 1972). This inevitably meant that learners who were not proficient in the dominant linguistic skills required in schools and colleges were defined as failures or lacking in intelligence simply by virtue of the way they relate to and know the world (Duckworth, 2013). The study allowed insights into what the individuals were born into, their legacies, and the socio/economic and political landscapes that frame the spaces, both in private domain (e.g. home life) and public (e.g. education and work) they enter; personal narratives, weaved to my own, offering a deep awareness of the impact of past experiences of symbolic violence and trauma on the learners’ changing positions across the domains they travelled.

Health issues were prevalent in the learners’ lives and impacted on their well-being, self-esteem and agency. Bynner and Parsons (2005) drawing on the preliminary results from their longitudinal research using the 1958 and 1970 British Birth Cohort studies identified:

“Substantial differences in life chances, quality of life and social inclusion were evident between individual adults at or below entry 2 compared with others at higher levels of literacy and numeracy competence. Entry 2 skills were associated with lack of qualifications, poor labour market experiences and prospects, poor material and financial circumstances, poor health prospects and little social and political participation.”
(Bynner and Parsons 2005: 33)

Improvement in men’s skills was linked to increased home ownership and better employment prospects. As well as reducing their level of income, unemployment also shifts people from an important social network, and may impact negatively on their sense of self-esteem (Field 2008). The results also demonstrated a rise in community engagement and political interest. The women experienced similar socio-economic benefits with their skills improvement; these were most noticeable for literacy improvement. In relation to mental health and well-being the members of the cohort who had improved were also less likely to show symptoms of depression, report long-term health related problems, articulate feelings of disillusionment such as having no agency over their lives (Bynner and Parsons 2006).

Deprivation, low literacy levels and poverty are strongly linked to the prevalence of mental ill health in communities. For Tracy, a learner in my study, this had a huge effect on the stability of her household. With a family to care for and without a partner to offer any support she found it ‘worse than ever to cope’. Being a ‘good mother’ and providing for her children, describing it as ‘a day-on-day grind’. To challenge feelings of low confidence and depression, Tracy came to College and took part in my literacy class as a night school learner. She had no formal qualifications and was very nervous about starting a course which she described as, ‘It was a huge step to come through the front doors and back into the classroom, a place I hadn’t been since I left school.’ A single mother with three children and a full-time job, learning wasn’t without its hiccups and getting to college on cold harsh winter nights required some grit and determination. Joining a literacy made her realise that she wasn’t on her own. There were other likeminded people keen to top up their skills and this gave her the hope, enthusiasm and commitment for her future. Below is an extract, from an initial interview, based on how the course has had an impact upon Tracy’s view of ‘self’. Below she describes this in our conversation:

Tracy: I’m more confident, I’d say, yeh, more positive. If I can do this, I know I can do whatever I want really, if I set my mind to it. But it is, it’s just like freeing the wheels, init, and turning them on.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Tracy: I’m a lot more confident now, definite.

Tracy went on to paint pictures of animals and nature. When I visited her home for an interview they were displayed on her living room walls. Tracy described how:

Tracy: It’s something that I have just for me. When the kids are playin’ up which is like twenty four seven, I paint.
Interviewer: Have you painted all these on your wall?
Tracy: Yep. My favourite is the dolphin. I’d never have believed I’d be painting, let alone doing all these. Coming back to college changes you somehow, makes you believe you can do things. It has for me, anyway.
Interviewer: How?
Tracy: I don’t know. It just gives me the confidence not to bother what anyone thinks and do it. I was always one of these that’d say ‘tomorrow’. Well, yer know what, Vicky? Tomorrow doesn’t come – you’ve got to go and get it.

The learners’ narratives exposed the contradiction, complexities and ambivalences they experience in their daily lives and how they try to make sense of them from their structural positioning as basic skills learners in a society based on inequality of opportunity and choice. Participator Action Research led to the negotiation of the structure and content of the curriculum and a model of teaching that embraced caring between the teacher and learner. This facilitated the learners to share power with myself, where they felt confident enough to express themselves. The sharing of ideas and the dialogue between myself and the learners, led to a sharing of experiences which was framed within a social praxis that included reflection and action (Macedo 1994). This ‘commitment to giving back allowed them to reconcile difficult contradictions between wanting to escape, whilst seeking to preserve, their working class identities’ (Reay 2003: 306).

The study highlighted the impact of Literacy courses can have on young and older adults in offering them a second chance of re-engaging with education; it can contribute to personal development, including developing soft skills such as confidence (a valued outcome in Barton et al. 2007 study) economic, social and health related benefits. Juxtaposed to this, it offers them a better chance of acquiring the tools needed to run their own lives.

It is by working together within and across disciplines as practitioners, policy makers, researchers and learners we can build a better society for all, and not just the privileged few, based on justice, equality and hope for the future.


About Vicky Duckworth.

Vicky is a senior lecturer and research fellow in Education at Edge Hill University. Vicky is passionate about the transformative power of education to challenge inequality, empower people and their communities and work towards social justice.

As such Vicky’s research has a strong social justice and theoretical focus, most recently she drew on a critical perspective, applying Bourdieu’s work as the theoretical framework, as well as using a range of feminist, sociologists of education, literature on the ethics of care and critical literacy pedagogy, including the New Literacy Studies to explore and add to the debate on the impact of violence and trauma on learning and its link to class, gender and basic skills. The study is published in the book: Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners (2013). It challenges neo-liberalism claims of an apparently egalitarian social field, offering deep insight into the lives of marginalised communities and the link between learning, literacy and violence; not previously carried out in depth in a small scale study. The learners’ narratives expose the contradiction, complexities and ambivalences they experience in their daily lives, and how they try to make sense of them from their structural positioning as basic skills learners in a society based on inequality of opportunity and choice.

Twitter: @vicky_duckworth

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