Labelled: How Inequality Affects Basic Skills Learners

For many basic skills learners the idea of living in a free society where they can determine their own path in life is not matched by the reality of structural and historical inequalities, and other markers of identity, that shape their educational journeys.  In my studies I have investigated  ‘why’ and ‘how’ structures of inequality and domination give rise to this situation. 

One key way in which this happens is that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are not considered to have the right attributes to progress.  For example, fourteen out of the sixteen basic skills learners I worked with described how they were labelled by both peers and teachers. Rachel was very aware she was being judged on her appearance:

I’d keep my eyes in front and yer know keep me head up. I didn’t want the snobs to think they had one up on me because they wore new clothes. Course when I got home I’d fling me clothes on the floor and shout at them, really shout wishing like by magic when I stopped telling them off they’d be new and not the mess they were.  Even now I feel self-conscious like people are looking and pointing cos I’m a scruff. Course I’m not I keep all me clothes nice, look after ‘em I do.    

The labelling crossed cultural fields.  Shammy, a British Asian, described how:

My trousers were white and baggy and my tops long. You’d get some teachers eyeing yer up like yer were in fancy dress, made me feel really uncomfortable. I’d tell ‘em at home, ask if I could get clothes like the white kids, but me mum would tell me how mine were better, more expensive, more respectable. One teacher told me that there’s catalogues to buy proper clothes and I should tell me mum about them, yer don’t even ‘ave to pay it all at once she said.’

Put simply, being poor (or being perceived as poor) was equated with being deviant and led to them being outcast and marginalised in the dominant group. This had an impact in how the learners viewed themselves and affected their confidence and ability to learn. And indeed, rather than being a place that offers a meritocratic model where everyone is on an equal footing, school was often experienced as a place of social exclusion and labelling.

Critical education can open up spaces for a more equitable approach where a more level playing field is established for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but we also need to recognise and address historical and contemporary structural inequalities that exist between the learners and their lives.

Dr. Vicky Duckworth, Senior Lecturer/ MA Coordinator/ Schools’ University Lead (Edge Hill University)

This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.

Further reading:

* Becker, H. (1963), Outsiders: studies in sociology of deviance. New York: Free Press.
* Duckworth, V. (2013) Learning Trajectories, Violence and Empowerment amongst Adult Basic Skills Learners.  Routledge Research in Lifelong Learning and Adult Education. Routledge: London 
* Duckworth, V. (2014) Transformational Literacy in Duckworth, V  and Ade-Ojo, G (eds) Landscapes of Specific Literacies in Contemporary Society: Exploring a social model of literacy.  Routledge Research in Education. Routledge: London