Creatin a Safe Space for Ither Fowks' Bairns in Colleges 

The following article was written for the Research Further initiative; a collaboration between the Association of Colleges and NCFE to support, drive and encourage college-centred research that can help influence policy and practice. You can find more about the initiative here.

A fundamental element needit for positive systemic chynge in oor further education sector is the need tae tak influence an inspiration fae the theory o cognitive justice – an this is particularly the case whan we tak tent tae the impact o poverty on oor classrooms. The term “cognitive justice” wis first coontit by the Indian scholar Shiv Visvanathan in 1997 tae thraw doon the forceful impressin o Western scientific knowledge an processes oan developin an non-Western countries. Professor Visvanathan argied that the hegemonic enforcin o greater value on Western knowledge wis causin the destruction o traditional knawledge that were closely tied tae communities an the wirk lives o fowk (Visvanathan, 1997). It wis suggestit instead that decision-makers embrace a common practice o cognitive justice; valuin equally a plurality o knowledge, experiences, an values within the spaces they occupied. 

The theory o cognitive justice wis brocht intae education by Professor Catherine Odora-Hoppers, an reflectin oan my ain positionality within my teachin practice in further education, there is a deep discomfort as I connect the behaviours an knowledge that we strive tae establish in oor spaces o learnin. Not, hopefully, throu historical practices o colonial brutality, but throu muckle quieter an less tangible pressures in oor classrooms. The normalisation o a carefully-considered, white, middle-class culture extends intae oor spaces o edducation; a presumed an promotit “normality” that values an unspoken, socially contracted system o knowledge an experience. 

It is a state that “others” bairns an young fowk fae marginalised backgrounds an erodes learner wellbein, belongin, an, inevitably, ootcomes. Disparities atween the attainment prospects o students can be seen athwart a range o underservit communities fae initial schuil readiness assessments intae post-compulsory eddication prospects an ootcomes. Young fowk fae oor black an minority ethnic communities, those wi additional learnin needs, those usin English as an additional language an those fae low-income hoosehauds are aften labelt as “deficient” an aften bide there throughout their experience in education (Allen, 2011).

These trends are prevalent athwart education agencies, but exist tangibly in oor colleges. A variety o factors hae influenced the further education sector’s consistently reactive alteration o oor structural provision throughout its development (ETF, 2020). The resultin instability an complex infrastructure has contributit tae public mistrust an a lingern, harmful view by some o low-quality vocational or remedial learnin pathways (Hyland, 2002). Inevitably, public disregard for the value o the sector leads tae mair reactive reform, which in turn compounds confusion an distrust fae employers (DfE, 2020). The perpetual cycle an resultin attitudes can pose further education as a secondary option an a pathway for ither fowks' bairns (Richardson, 2007). Perhaps understandably then, mony underservit fowk o all ages, who hae fund themselves othered an marginalised at varying stages o their education journeys, find their wey through the doors o their local further education colleges seekin a safe community within which they can belong. 

We face distinct challenges in creatin these spaces. Further education is increasingly impacted by the marketisation o education an the result is fierce competition, rather than collaboration, atween regional college groups tae ensure adequate fundin tae offer competitive provision. As weel as these relational chasms, the sector battles chronic wage disparities against oor schuil counterparts, yet we are held tae account an subjected tae judgement by the same inspectorate body; Ofsted. When the effectiveness o a provider is measured throu quantifiable data selectit by a hegemonic body wi a middle-class agenda, the risk o oppressin alternative knowledges is high, an the room for experimental pedagogical approaches aften depletes tae conform. 

These rigid creations o preferred behaviours an knowledges serve tae ‘other’ bairns an young fowk. When an institution, perceived in a position o power throu the expected social contracts formed atween the learner an the settin (The Free Library, 2014), offer little acknowledgement o a young person’s authentic identity ootwith the college waas, or worse; claim ownership o expected behaviours throu an enforced identity an an expectation tae conform. 

Nowhere is this cognitive imperialism mair blatant than in the compulsory embeddin o British Values in schools an colleges as pairt o the government’s wider anti-terrorism campaign; Prevent. Multiple strands o marginalisation are fiercely intertwined (Santos, 2014), an the United Kingdom continues tae see deeply rooted economic inequalities tied strongly tae race (Gov, 21020). My ain workplace has seen a steady annual increase in the percentage o minority ethnic representation in oor student body, an in the academic year 2020-21 these learners made up mair than hauf o enrolments (2021). In 2017 the United Kingdom’s then prime minister Theresa May telt an audience that the mandatory content wid “assert the superiority o British Values” (François, 2017). The imperialist language an the hegemonic mindset that it promotes are strikin tae educators strivin tae develop classrooms as spaces o cognitive justice, an conflict wi the framework’s requirement for intercultural translation. 

Ozga (2018) describes an analyses the prescribed British Values content as a Conservative Pairty policy document; actin as a medium for carryin an transmitin a policy message. The use o compulsory action tae convey a political agenda in oor classrooms is seemingly in direct conflict wi the media-fuelled fervour against “woke teachers” playin politics (Hazell, 2022). Consequently, those o us in the further education sector seekin tae dismantle colonial power imbalances by valuin a plurality o knowledge, experiences, an values find oorselves walkin on eggshells around the fractious political divides. 

We are seein the seedlings o overdue movement towards progressive reform o oor curricula, but many o these attempts still only appeal an speak tae the cosmopolitan side o a dividin line (Santos, 2014), an we are offerin too little in the way o progressive practices. This is an essential step in lessening the attainment gap an better servin the rich diversity o the learners within oor further education provisions. 

There remain, however, wider barriers tae the implementation o practices o cognitive justice. Whilst the individual educator can equip themselves tae enrich an value the knowledge an aspirations o a diverse student body, they need tae be supported by their institutions an a wider deconstruction o calculated homogenisation tae trial positive pedagogical chynge. For in oor active quest towards cognitive equity, tae paraphrase Biesta (1994); oor capacity for positive action relies on the participation o others.


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The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.